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Syria strike aftermath: There's a new sheriff in town, but what does he want?

Last week on Fox News’ “Special Report,” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested that the message behind President Trump’s military retaliation for Syria’s use of chemical weapons is twofold. It’s not just that “there’s a new sheriff in town,” he explained, but that there is a sheriff at all.

Krauthammer’s point, echoed by numerous conservatives, is that President Obama’s obsessive pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, combined with his instinct to “lead from behind,” created a leadership vacuum around the world. North Korea, China, Russia and, of course, Syrian President Bashar Assad all pressed their advantages based on the assumption America wouldn’t really do anything. The Syrian strike sends the message that, in Krauthammer’s words, “America is back.”

I’m inclined to agree. But back to do what?

If I may extend Krauthammer’s metaphor a bit: A staple of nearly every Western with a new sheriff in town is the nefarious saloon full of scoundrels and women of easy virtue. The new lawman comes in and fires a warning shot in the air. The piano player pauses. The bartender freezes.

And the sheriff says…?

Well that’s just it, isn’t it? Trump got everyone’s attention with those 59 Tomahawk missiles. But he doesn’t seem interested in telling us how to interpret them. His pre-strike comments at the Rose Garden amounted to a kind of bleeding heart interventionism, bemoaning the death of “babies, beautiful babies.” His formal statement after the strike was a bit more disciplined, citing our national security interest to thwart the use of chemical weapons — but again he mentioned those babies.

And that’s about it. Trump hasn’t really talked about the strike. His weekly address on Saturday only offered this clue: “Our decisions will be guided by our values and our goals — and we will reject the path of inflexible ideology that too often leads to unintended consequences.”

(For what it’s worth, ad hoc decisions can have unintended consequences too.).

Needless to say — because everyone else has already said it — this is all in stark contrast to the kind of “America First” presidency we were promised. That’s why some of Trump’s harshest critics are almost giddy and some of his most loyal supporters are crestfallen.

His surrogates haven’t entirely cleared things up.

Over the weekend on CNN, our ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley (for whom my wife works), said that regime change in Syria was inevitable and that more strikes may be in the cards. On CBS, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted that our Syria policy hasn’t changed, and on ABC, he disclosed that we are actually “coordinating somewhat” with the regime we want to change in order to fight Islamic State. On Monday, Tillerson said at an event in Italy, “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.” Taken literally, that would make America the global sheriff.

I feel like I’m watching a Fellini movie without subtitles: I have no idea what’s going on.

I’m hardly alone. According to Politico, the White House communications director told his staff “there is no Trump doctrine” on foreign policy, which apparently came as a surprise to the campaign veterans who took that America First stuff literally and seriously.

Writing in Commentary, the prominent foreign policy hawk Max Boot writes that “it is incumbent on Trump now to explain why he has changed his mind and what this portends for future U.S. policy.”

I’m actually not so sure. The president often boasts that he’s “unpredictable.” Unpredictability can be dangerous, particularly for our allies. But in this case all the right parties — Russia, Syria, China, North Korea — got the right message: “watch it.” Why spoil the high note with a lot of explanation?

Moreover, what good would it do? Even if Trump gave a foreign policy address detailing some hastily manufactured “Trump Doctrine,” this strike alone proves what we’ve known all along: He will not be a slave to consistency.

Events will ultimately clarify the true meaning — intended or not— of the new sheriff’s warning shot. Until then, Trump is happy to chalk up a win and move on.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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