What does the Syrian strike say about the current state of President Trump’s foreign policy? Are there any suggestions from this action about how he might respond if the current lull in tensions around the peninsula were to break down? Does the strike reveal a greater willingness to take military action? Here are five takeaways.
DOMINANCE OR RESTRAINT?
The contradictions in Trump’s foreign policy views run deep. On the one hand, the Make America Great Again trope reflects a felt need to reverse international decline.
Hawks in the Republican party saw Obama’s foreign policy as deeply flawed. The failure to respond to Assad’s earlier chemical attacks, after declaring such attacks a redline, is viewed on the right as a signature failure of the entire Obama approach. The appointments of Mike Pompeo to State and John Bolton to the NSC are also seen as a shift back toward a more forward foreign and defense posture after over a year of drift.
On the other hand, Make America Great Again also suggested an inward-looking and domestic focus, and it is far from clear that Trump really believes in his own right turn. Trump was critical of the Bush intervention in Iraq, seethed openly about maintaining the American commitment to Afghanistan, and saw the Syrian problem through an ISIS-only lens.
A week before the strike, he had promised that the 2000 or so troops that the United States maintains in Syria would be withdrawn “soon.” No less than John McCain suggested publicly that the use of chemical weapons by Assad could be traced to the fact that the United States commitment was circumscribed.
The takeaway: it is too early to conclude that the Syrian action reflects a new willingness to use force, and Trump remains deeply conflicted about foreign military intervention.
LISTENING TO THE MILITARY
A curious feature of the Trump administration is that military personnel have played an outsized role but have simultaneously been a voice for restraint. The trio of Kelly, McMaster and particularly Mattis did not share the same views; for example, McMaster was more willing to talk about pre-emption in North Korea. But along with Tillerson, this important trio was dubious about the use of the military for signaling purposes.
Expect that similar brakes would be applied with respect to North Korea
This caution was on ample display with respect to the Syrian strikes. In testimony prior to the strike prior to the strike, Mattis openly worried about a strike escalating out of control. Despite particularly tough rhetoric from Nicki Halley at the UN, the strike was clearly designed to minimize civilian and even military casualties, launched at four in the morning Damascus time. If there was not direct communication with Russia, those planning the strike clearly took on board Russian concerns and intelligence about where Russian forces were positioned.
The takeaway: despite the standard language that “all options are on the table,” the Pentagon clearly acted as a voice for restraint with respect to the Syrian strikes. After the Twitter threat that strikes were coming, there was a quite visible pause as Trump was briefed on what military options might entail. Expect that similar brakes would be applied with respect to North Korea.
Prime Minister May and President Macron had their own reasons for joining the Syrian strikes. For May, the possible use of a Russian chemical agent on home soil was probably motivation enough. Macron has also been quite forward with respect to both Assad and the chemical weapons issue.
Trump clearly has a closer connection to Prime Minister Abe than he does to President Moon. Nonetheless, it was essentially Moon’s Olympic gambit that opened the door to the possible summit and Abe is in the United States this week. It was a pleasant surprise to see the administration coordinate with allies and to get support that went beyond Paris and London.
THE IMPULSE PROBLEM
The signs of restraint notwithstanding, the Syrian strike also put Trump’s impulsiveness on full display. His decision to launch the first strike in 2017 was no doubt motivated by the Obama red line failure. But decision-making around that action was also clearly driven by televised media coverage and an instinctual response to the news cycle.
Syrians have been dying by the thousands as a result of conventional attacks and even more gruesome strategies, such as starving civilians living in areas with a rebel presence. Why did a chemical attack warrant an effort to deter when Assad has been acting with impunity against his population for the entire duration of the civil war?
The Syrian strike also put Trump’s impulsiveness on full display
Trump’s use of the “mission accomplished” motto is also exemplary of his relentless quest for self-aggrandizement. What mission, precisely, was accomplished? Even if Assad might be temporarily dissuaded from using chemical weapons in the future, there is little to suggest that the strikes would have any material effect on the course of the civil war.
The takeaway: unless North Korea were to do something particularly egregious, Kim Jong Un could well float just below any red line forcing U.S. military action. But we cannot rule out emotional responses, particularly as the domestic investigations into Trump and his legal team get closer and closer to the President’s finances.
Which brings me to the final point: in virtually all of its endeavors, the Trump administration has generally lacked any coherent strategy. Examples of policy-on-the-fly are legion, but include the Muslim travel ban, how to repeal and replace Obamacare, the wall, and DACA. In the foreign policy realm, this seat-of-the-pants approach is driven in part by the deep ambivalence toward foreign intervention noted above, but the problems run deeper.
The administration lacks a stable, deliberative foreign policy process. The intelligence community appears to be playing an outsize role in thinking about the summit and NSC and State Department staff are no doubt working the issue. But staff turnover at the top, the hollowing out of expertise at State, and the lack of sustained attention make it extremely hard to know where policy will go.
Kim Jong Un could well float just below any red line forcing U.S. military action
The Syrian strikes demonstrate all of these disabilities. The stated reason for the attack was to deter further chemical weapons attacks; it was not focused on regime change or on intervention into the Syrian civil war. But while carrying out the attack, high-level officials were forced to make at least some reference to larger political objectives.
Those references hardly brought any clarity about U.S. objectives. Mention was made of revitalizing the UN-led Geneva Process to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, to which President Putin agreed at Da Nang. But few think that the administration has put any muscle behind such initiatives, and “Mission Accomplished!” could well be read as a sign that the President will now claim victory and go home.
The takeaway: the Kim-Trump summit provides a slim opportunity. Prospects are dimmed not only by North Korea, however, but by the absence of any clear strategy beyond the mantra of “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of Pyongyang’s weapons program.
Denuclearization is certainly a laudable goal and Mike Pompeo has signaled he understands this will be a prolonged process. But if Syria is any indication, we are a long way from a coherent approach to North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Department of Defense
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