“Real” is not the same as “good.” “Real” means he is finally coming to understand America as a geopolitical entity.
America is not a sports team; it is not a business. It is not a hero or a villain in some movie. It is a nation-state. Its state is vast, made up of millions of individuals who gather to accomplish titanic, slow moving goals. Its nation is even bigger: hundreds of millions who only see the narrow incentives of their daily lives, piling up into the interests of a superpower. For the first few months of Trump’s presidency, it has seemed like he did not know that.
Trump came to power pretending a moral purity driven by self-interest: he would drain the swamp of insider elites, prevent conflict with Russia, fight only smart wars. He would manage the United States with the same ruthless edge as he managed his business empire and produce great prosperity.
In that view, there was no profit in bombing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Not until Wednesday’s chemical attack.
Now, President Trump has begun to accept his role in the American geopolitical entity. Just as so many presidents before him, he struggled against its tide, only to be swept away by events.
The United States seeks to resolve the global security dilemma. When people talk of world peace, they are talking about the security dilemma. America must do this because only by resolving the global security dilemma can it ever be truly safe. The U.S. prefers to use laws and institutions when it can, as it has through the UN, WTO, NATO, IMF, and others. But it resorts to hard power when those options fail.
Since the Cold War largely secured Europe (absent Russia), the U.S. has focused on trying to reorder the Middle East. Repeated presidents have tried to leave the region; repeated presidents are sucked back in after a short time. The geopolitical reality is that America must try to secure the Arab world: it is too close to Europe, and too resource rich, to ignore. Even a personality as big as Trump cannot overcome facts.
Trump ignored Syria’s Bashar al-Assad until he used a weapons system that threatened that slow reordering. (There is, thus far, no convincing evidence it was anyone but the Assad regime, only conspiratorial conjecture). To normalize the use of chemical weapons in the region would be a direct threat to the United States: it would open a door that could not be readily shut.
Moreover, it was also an opportunity for elites within the state to push Trump to do what they’d wanted for a long time: to attack Assad and to undermine Russia. To roll back Russian power remains in America’s interest until the European security dilemma is completely resolved.
Trump’s supporters shouted much about how Hillary would drag the U.S. to war in Syria; turns out, the president’s personality matters a lot less than people thought. If there is criticism to be had, it should aim directly at the nation-state system that has produced the security dilemma. If China were the superpower, or Brazil, or India, or Russia, or Germany, or anywhere really, would they act so differently? Very likely not.