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Trump and Syria: 'America first' policy squanders what makes America strong

President Trump's 'America first' attitude toward the brutal regime of Bashar Assad squanders what makes America strong.

This week's chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces against his own people — killing as many as 100 people, including children — exposed the dangerous fecklessness of President Donald Trump's foreign policy. Even as the president joined our allies in condemning the attack and blaming Mr. Assad, he pointed a finger of blame at former President Barack Obama for tough talk and no action while making clear that he intended to take no action — even symbolic action — himself. If this is what an "America first" foreign policy looks like, then Mr. Trump is poised to throw away the moral authority that has long been our greatest ally and protector.

It is true that Mr. Obama's failure to follow through on his threat that Mr. Assad would face consequences for crossing a "red line" on the use of chemical weapons was a low point of his foreign policy with lasting consequences. (In fairness, the failure was not entirely his own but was abetted by Congress, an American people wary of a military intervention in the Middle East after the Iraq War and, incidentally, a series of tweets, one in all caps, from Donald Trump.) The bargain Mr. Obama struck with Russian President Vladimir Putin to remove the Assad regime's chemical weapons turns out not to have been effective in protecting the Syrian people but has instead strengthened Mr. Putin's influence in the region, influence he has used to protect his own interests regardless of the cost to Syrian civilians.

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However, Mr. Trump is singularly ill positioned to correct the course. His unrestrained praise for Mr. Putin in general and specifically for supposedly fighting ISIS in Syria (which, of course, he is doing no more than Mr. Assad is) gives the president no leverage to back up his administration's call that Russia restrain the Syrian government. Similarly, his hollow tough talk against Iran and his inclusion of that country's citizens in his attempted bans on travel from certain Muslim nations gives him no influence over the Assad regime's other chief patron.

But there's not really even a pretense that the president intends to do something about this latest attack. Mr. Trump's spokesman sloughed off the idea that the president would demand Mr. Assad's resignation as foolish and naive, just as Mr. Trump has previously shrugged at the Syrian leader's brutality while praising him for "killing ISIS." Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley reiterated this week that regime change in Syria was not a Trump administration priority and that Mr. Assad's fate would be "decided by the Syrian people." Which is, of course, not true; it is being decided by heavy military involvement on Mr. Assad's behalf by Russia.

Coming at the same time that Mr. Trump reversed an Obama administration ban and met in the White House with Egypt's strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and gushed that he was "doing a fantastic job in a very difficult situation" — for example, we suppose, by killing protesters, jailing political prisoners (including American citizens) and shutting down the free press — the president has now made clear that his America stands for nothing but an incredibly short-sighted notion of its own self interests.

It's a long way from Ronald Reagan's conception of America as a shining "city on a hill," a vision of leadership by example he expounded on in his farewell address as "a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here." Rather than a beacon to the world, Mr. Trump envisions an American island, insular and calculating.

Famous though Reagan's use of the phrase was, it actually represents a common misreading of "A Model of Christian Charity," the sermon future Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop wrote aboard a ship bound for the New World in 1630. It was not a promise of American greatness but a warning that "the eyes of all people are upon us so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world." It is a prophecy Mr. Trump seems determined to fulfill.

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