President Trump seems to be straying from his “America first” position with a series of unexpected military moves in Syria, Afghanistan and the Asia Pacific this month.
His administration is becoming increasingly involved in conflicts he previously said the U.S. should avoid and is placing more power in the hands of military leaders.
The military action – including launching a strike on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack and stationing a naval strike force near North Korea – comes as the White House begins to tentatively shape its national security and military strategy.
Eyes are now on whether Trump will continue to wade further into international conflicts.
Trump repeatedly struck an isolationist tone during the presidential campaign, touting his opposition to the Iraq War and warning against the U.S. military getting involved in conflicts abroad.
During the first presidential debate with Hilary Clinton, Trump said the United States “cannot be the world’s policeman.”
Shortly after the election at an event in North Carolina he said that the United States “will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.”
And during his inauguration speech in January, Trump hinted the U.S. would withdraw from the world stage when he said, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.”
“We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay,” Trump said.
But Trump seemed to take a step back from that position when confronted with a chemical attack that killed civilians in Syria, believed to have been carried out by Bashar Assad’s forces.
The president admitted that his surprising decision to launch the first direct strike against the Assad regime was prompted by the chemical attack and the horrific images of suffering children that circulated in its aftermath.
“I now have responsibility. And I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly, I will tell you that. It is now my responsibility,” Trump said during a White House news conference a day before he authorized a 59-missile strike on the Syrian airfield.
As the news of the strike broke, Trump’s past comments about the Syrian conflict quickly surfaced. In 2013, he repeatedly urged President Obama not to get further involved, saying such a move would “bring nothing but trouble.”
“What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict?” he wrote in August 2013.
The move against Syria appears to show a new take on U.S. involvement, as does recent saber rattling against North Korea.
The Pentagon announced last week that an aircraft carrier strike group was being diverted to North Korean waters amid heightened tensions and continued threats from Pyongyang.
Trump wrote on Twitter Tuesday that the United States would be willing to engage with North Korea if it’s “looking for trouble.”
Up until recently, the White House has said it would pressure Chinese leadership to rein in Pyongyang.
Trump tweeted Thursday he was confident “that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will! U.S.A.”
An NBC story Thursday added to escalating tensions with a report that the U.S. was prepared to preemptively strike North Korea if it moves to conduct another nuclear weapons test. Other media outlets reported that top officials disputed the report.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. marked another military first, dropping a massive non-nuclear bomb never before used in combat on terrorist targets in Afghanistan.
Trump has previously decried U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but has been steadfast in his calls for decisive action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He memorably remarked on the campaign trail that he would “bomb the s—“ out of the terrorist organization.
But the use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan indicates that Trump is leaning more on military leaders despite a lack of a clear plan to destroy ISIS.
Army Gen. John Nicholson on Thursday gave the order for the attack on a series of tunnels used by ISIS fighters.
Trump said the same day that he had given U.S. forces a general authorization to conduct such strikes.
“We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done a job as usual so we have given them total authorization. And that’s what they’re doing. And, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately,” Trump told reporters.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Pentagon is methodically shaping an ISIS war plan, which is only “in skeleton form.”
“This has got to be done in a methodical way where we look at each element of it,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “[It’s a] very, very complex security situation and it’s one that we’re going to have to address in a very methodical manner. It’s not something you can simply add water to a dehydrated plan, and it’s suddenly a full-fledged plan… it’s going to take time.”
Lawmakers have taken notice of Trump’s quickly shifting policy. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Thursday that Trump is breaking with his campaign rhetoric as he takes a harder line on North Korea and Assad.
Grassley called the Syrian airstrike “a dramatic departure from what he campaigned on,” but praised it as “a strong signal that there’s a new sheriff in town.”
Some of Trump’s backers on the right have been less supportive.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), meanwhile, questioned whether Trump has a strategy in the region.
“As is the case with every part of Trump’s foreign policy, we are all trying to understand: What is the strategy?” Warren told reporters Thursday night after a town hall event with constituents in Massachusetts.
“If we can’t figure out what it means, it’s sort of hard to make that a message.”