That noise you can hear is Donald Trump flip-flopping in the sand. Last week, American troops and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles moved to occupy oil fields in Syria. The escalation came just half an hour after Trump had tweeted that all US soldiers had left the country and would be coming home. As so often, the president says one thing, then orders the military to do the other. On Twitter, Trump is ending the endless wars. In the real world, he is perpetuating them.
Trump’s focus is not really Syria, of course. It is the presidential election next year, and his precious voter base. But he can’t seem to decide if his supporters are peaceniks or bloodthirsty chauvinists. His problem is that they are both and neither. He’s beginning to learn that the relationship between foreign policy and domestic politics is more complicated than perhaps he realized.
The most important group in Trump’s base are white evangelical Christians. In 2016, evangelicals rallied behind Trump in greater numbers — he took a staggering 82 percent of their votes — than they had for any candidate since Nixon. Securing their loyalty had hardly been a slam dunk. In Trump, the powerful preachers had to overlook pretty much every sin they rail against day in, day out: divorces, cursing, lying, tricking, debt, gambling, porn stars. The alternative, though, was Hillary Clinton. Unlike Clinton, Trump is anti-abortion, and he is pro-family and skeptical of sexual identity politics. He also shares the evangelicals’ love of Israel. The majority of them see Trump as the most pro-Israel president ever, and they were especially elated by the decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Many believe this will to help bring about the so-called rapture, when all Christians will join with God.
Terrorism is a higher concern for his supporters than for Americans generally. That’s why Trump made such a song and dance about the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader, last weekend. He hopes that will shore up key supporters. His trouble, however, is that he needs even higher levels of the evangelicals’ support to have any chance of being re-elected. In three crucial mid-western states where there are large evangelical populations, he won by just 70,000 votes. And his poll numbers there are down, so if there is even a 1 percent drop in the evangelical support he is toast.
This helps explain his dramatic volte-face in Syria. Evangelical leaders condemned his pulling the troops out, so he sent them back in. Pat Robertson, for instance, warned that Trump could be ‘losing the mandate of heaven’ by withdrawing the US military and drew a comparison with the appeasement of Hitler in Europe in the 1930s. More subtly, Franklin Graham asked Trump to ‘reconsider’. Russell Moore, another influential pastor, did not try to mask his fury. ‘Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity against Isis terrorism and the bloodthirsty Assad regime,’ he wrote. ‘What they are now facing from Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words.’
Trump took dozens of phone calls from other evangelical activists, while Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, evangelical Christians themselves, met with numerous church congregations to try to pacify them. Hours later, Trump made the shock decision to send troops back to Syria.
Trump’s other great miscalculation in Syria was to underestimate how the neocons — also strong supporters of Israel and therefore fearful of Iranian expansionism — would outflank him on the domestic front. With the threat of impeachment hanging over his head, Trump cannot afford to alienate hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham. Graham was instrumental in getting the president to reverse course during the evangelical backlash. He visited Trump in the White House to show him a map of where the oil fields are in Syria. (For all his boasting about American energy independence, Trump is preoccupied with the idea of seizing Middle Eastern oil.) Within hours of Trump agreeing to seize them, Graham gave his first major public appearance unequivocally denouncing impeachment proceedings. Talk about quid pro quo.
After the al-Baghdadi raid, Graham said the event ‘changes everything’ for the war on terror in the region. The official reason given for the occupation of the oil fields was to ensure Isis fighters in the region would not take them. Al-Baghdadi’s death plays into that narrative, and Trump can now argue that he has not taken his eye off the Isis ball. But this, let’s not forget, is coming from a president who spent the past three years telling us that Isis and al-Qaeda were largely defeated, and that getting rid of what remained of them was the responsibility of Russia, Turkey and Syria.
The US generals will be over the moon that Graham forced the U-turn in Syria. From the moment he entered the White House, Trump’s inexperience in international affairs meant he had to rely on men in uniform to guide him, even as his instinct told him to end the endless wars. He was hopelessly out of his depth, as became obvious during the election campaign when he nonchalantly admitted to not knowing the difference between (Shia, Lebanon-based) Hezbollah and (Sunni, Gaza-based) Hamas. There were echoes of George W. Bush, another ignoramus, who launched the disastrous invasion of Iraq.
If being a birdbrain proved no impediment to Bush launching wars, why should Trump’s foolishness prove such a handicap in his lackluster efforts to end them? The most obvious reason is that the US annual defense budget is at least $1 trillion (and growing), and there is no group more determined to keep the wars alive (and the money flowing) than the military top brass. The build-up announcements in Syria and in Saudi Arabia in September — which also undermined Trump’s initial promises of de-escalation — following an attack on the kingdom’s oil facilities blamed on Iran came not from the White House but the Pentagon. Last year, the same was true when thousands more troops were sent to Afghanistan, again just days after Trump announced that he was going to withdraw all of those already there. Thus Trump defers to generals and men in uniform. Whenever they tell him they need something, he obliges. That he has not completely caved in to the top brass — Trump is the first US president in two decades, we should remember, not to have started a new war — is at least something to his credit.
At the same time, it is now clear that Trump is not the president that anti-war types hoped he might be. And the reason is that perpetuating wars (while pretending to end them) is the least risky path for him to take electorally. He is not going to lose much support by failing to act on his end-the-wars instincts. Large sections of the American public are fed up with these military conflicts, but unfortunately this doesn’t mean they have all become Ron Paul libertarian types. They are not even angry enough to take to the streets. The reason Trump was put off war with Iran was less to do with a public backlash and more because he was persuaded that it might well mean losing votes. Trump, like most Americans, likes winning and kicking ass. The warmongers now have him exactly where they want him.