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Globe editorial: With Syria attack, Donald Trump comes into focus

When Donald Trump was elected the most powerful man in the world, that very same world took a deep breath and asked itself a two-part question: A) Would Mr. Trump, once in the conventional confines of the Oval Office, continue to be a vain, unpredictable huckster-turned-political candidate of middling intellect who lied with glee and played to the worst fears of Americans, or B) well, there never really was a part B, was there.

With Mr. Trump, you get what you get. And now the world has got what it's got. Never was that more clear than last week, when the President saw a picture of dead Syrian children and was so moved by the horror of it that he ordered the U.S. Navy to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at an airbase controlled by the butcher of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

In choosing military retaliation for a nerve-gas attack that killed more than 70 people in the town of Khan Sheikoun, Mr. Trump reversed his long-standing position of non-intervention in Syria, ran counter to his stated aim of improving relations with Russia, and hampered the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State – a policy priority for him.

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His decision was, by all accounts – his included – improvised and based on emotion. And that should be extremely concerning to America's allies.

Mr. Trump discovered early in his presidency that being President is not the same as a being a television celebrity businessman whose orders are robotically obeyed.

His efforts at temporarily halting immigration from some Muslim-majority countries, a central campaign promise, have been dashed on the shoals of the U.S. judicial system. His promise to repeal and replace Obamacare has been repealed and needs replacing. His first months in office have been a lesson in the hard facts that White House staff are not as obedient as his children and their spouses, that civil-rights activists fight back, and that members of Congress are as capable of naked self-interest as he is, and more adept at negotiating the Washington, D.C., arena.

But now he has figured out there is something he can do, on a limited basis, without having to ask anyone for permission – fire cruise missiles at bad guys.

Not only can he do this unilaterally, he can win modest acclaim for it, and deliver useful political messages to his home audience.

Other governments, including Canada and the United Kingdom, have endorsed the missile strike as a much-needed and properly measured act of retribution for Mr. al-Assad's atrocity. The Syrian despot has been served notice that he should limit himself to massacring civilians with conventional weapons and summary executions, lest a few airfield buildings be pummelled.

The missile strike also conveniently undercuts the suspicion that Mr. Trump's unexplained fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin, combined with Russia's established effort to influence the U.S. election outcome in his favour, means that the U.S. is now beholden to Russian interests. Russia is furious about the reprisal against its Syrian ally; the scheduled visit to Moscow this week by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is destined to be dubbed "icy."

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But while it would be nice to be able to accept those outcomes at face value, that isn't possible with Mr. Trump. Whatever they are now, or will prove to be in the future, the beneficial and/or negative consequences of the U.S. missile strike on Syria were not something that the President gave serious thought to.

Instead, he saw an image, on Twitter or a cable news show, and reacted. "Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror," Mr. Trump said in his statement after the missiles were fired.

Define horror. Mr. Trump's saccharine argument for deciding to fire missiles at an Assad airbase doesn't bear scrutiny. The President, unlike most of the rest of the world, clearly wasn't moved by the sight of Alan Kurdi's tiny drowned body on a Turkish beach in 2015, or maybe he wouldn't be so determined to stop other potential Alan Kurdi's from finding sanctuary in the U.S.

In reacting to the Syrian regime's use of gas, the President acted genuinely surprised by what is going on in Syria. The world's bloodiest current conflict, in which IS is just a sideshow, seemed to be news to him. And so Mr. Trump responded by doing what he always does: make an unpredictable power move that contradicts his previous positions, and then thumb his nose at the consequences. As a rich businessman, he could buy or sue himself out of any tight spot caused by his shenanigans. But now that same thought process has consequences beyond Trump Tower.

A lot of people who don't much like Mr. Trump are suddenly cheering him on. In the long run, they are going to be sorely disappointed. In a world craving stability, it is sadly self-evident that the White House can't be counted on for that precious commodity. Not when Donald Trump has cruise missiles at his disposal.

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