It didn’t take long for Donald Trump to discover that U.S. foreign policy is about as easy to turn around as a warship in dry dock. Despite any number of promises to shake things up — during the election and even in his first days as president — Trump is falling back on some very conventional approaches to the world.
In the last week, for instance, Trump suddenly discovered that firing a few missiles at a much-hated target — in this case, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces — can gain him plaudits from across the political spectrum. Earlier, he said he’d focus American firepower on the Islamic State, not Assad. He was cautious about intervening in the Syrian civil war.
Now the greenhorn president is heading down a well-worn path: see a problem, fire a missile at it.
In so doing, Trump has scotched whatever remaining hopes his administration might have had about negotiating some quick deals with Moscow. The relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin had already been heading south — as I detailed a couple weeks back in Shortest Reset Ever — but now Trump has bloodied one of Russia’s most important allies. Bye bye, bromance.
Also this week, after bashing China left and right during his campaign, Trump met with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and discovered that, hey, maybe the two countries can get along after all. Virtually every president in recent memory has gone through a similar transformation. There are no political costs in criticizing Beijing during an election campaign. But presidents soon discover the considerable costs of not doing business with China once they occupy the Oval Office.
So much for Trump’s promise to proclaim China a currency manipulator extraordinaire.
Meanwhile, some of the more ideological voices in the administration appear to be heading to the sidelines. Strategic adviser Steve Bannon, reportedly as a result of his clashes with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, has lost his seat at the National Security Council and, it seems, even the trust of the president. K.T. McFarland, once the number two under the disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, is also out, and probably on her way to Singapore. The generals and the Wall Street execs seem now to have the upper hand.
But Bannon hasn’t given up, and the war at the top is far from over. Bannon loves a good fight, and he’s the master of fighting dirty.
The remaking of Donald Trump into a more conventional — and thus, predictable — president is good news in some quarters. No doubt the foreign policy establishment in Washington, which former president Barack Obama and his advisers called The Blob, is rejoicing that the new president can be weaned off his more fanatical delusions (and pumped full of The Blob’s own fanatical delusions).
But the New Donald Trump, just like the much-hyped New Coke so many years ago, is just as bad for our collective health as the old version. Don’t be fooled by the ongoing Trump rebrand. The president is just finding new ways to be toxic.
Bombardiers have a tradition of writing slogans on the bombs they drop on their enemies. Donald Trump might as well have scrawled “I’m Not Obama” on the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles U.S. forces directed at a Syrian airbase on Friday. The bombardment came in response to a chemical attack the Assad government allegedly launched a few days earlier against a town in rebel-held Idlib province that left 69 people dead.
Trump’s desire for big wins has previously kept him out of the Syrian conflict and focused instead on the Islamic State, which has been losing its grip over territory in recent months.
But Trump also wants to demonstrate that he’s bigger and better than Barack Obama: He’s more popular, attracted more people to his inauguration, proposed a better health-care plan, has bigger hands, and so on. Obama failed to attack Syria after a high-profile chemical attack in 2013. Here was an opportunity for Trump to show his resolve. After sustaining non-stop attacks against his character, his policies, and his advisers over the last several months, Trump has finally hit back with the tools that, unfortunately, are now at his disposal.
Yet it was not much of a show of force. The airbase was not damaged enough to prevent the Syrian government from restoring it to full operational status within a couple days. And Syrian forces subsequently re-bombed the very same town that had suffered the chemical attack. The Trump administration has not followed up with any other demonstrations of power, nor does it seem likely to do so.
The problem isn’t so much geopolitical, though the United States risks an outright confrontation with Russia if it escalates. Rather, the problem for Trump is domestic.
The neocons, who have rarely met a slippery military slope they weren’t tempted to roll down, embraced wholeheartedly both the strike and its justification. They view it as a first — but absolutely necessary — step toward a new phase of U.S. interventionism of precisely the kind that Bannon and his “nationalist” and Islamophobic allies abhor.
The nationalists and the libertarians have indeed reacted in horror. Richard Spencer, the darling of the far-right, not only condemned the attack but even suggested that he would support Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) in 2020 (presumably because she’s sat down with both Assad and Trump, a tyrannical twofer). Ron Paul wrote that Trump’s assertion that the missile attack was vital to U.S. national interests was “nonsense.”
Good luck trying to preserve such a fickle coalition. To do so, Trump will probably refocus his military attention, as Rex Tillerson has suggested, on the Islamic State. The limited missile strike accomplished its goal, which wasn’t to cripple Syrian forces in any serious way. Rather, the attack put distance between Trump and Obama, reminded both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un that Trump is trigger-happy when necessary, regained some credit with European allies (France, Germany, and the president of the European Council all pledged their support), and did the minimum of damage to warn the Russians not to take Trump for granted.
In this way, Trump is proving just as reluctant to engage in large-scale military adventures as his predecessor. Before you rejoice that the wolf has revealed his inner fleece, however, remember that the Trump administration has been in some ways more willing to use military force than the Obama administration. As Micah Zenko wrote at the CFR blog earlier this month:
During President Obama’s two terms in office, he approved 542 such targeted strikes in 2,920 days — one every 5.4 days. From his inauguration through today, President Trump had approved at least 75 drone strikes or raids in 74 days — about one every day.
Moreover, as Michael Klare points out at The Nation, Trump has “stepped up the delegation of decision-making authority to senior military officers, making it easier for them to initiate combat operations in a half-dozen countries.”
It’s all a question of targets. Until he attacked Syria, Trump was “bombing the shit” out of non-state actors, as he promised he would. Syria aside, he’s not so interested in challenging actual states. So far, at least.
Trump: What’s Next?
As the 100-day mark approaches for the administration, Trump’s staff is reportedly desperate for a rebrand. The first months have been disastrous in so many different ways. RussiaGate remains a dark cloud over the administration. The travel ban and the health-care substitute were both high-profile disasters. The mainstream media has savaged Trump on a nearly daily basis.
“One hundred days is the marker, and we’ve got essentially 2 1/2 weeks to turn everything around,” one White House official told Politico. “This is going to be a monumental task.”
According to the same article, the administration is divided between those who believe that the Trump doctrine is “America First” and those who, like Communications Director Mike Dubke, argue that there is no Trump doctrine.
When it comes to foreign policy, they’re both right. The ostensible Trump doctrine is “America First,” but it’s not a doctrine. It’s an empty slogan. At one level, every administration has adhered to some version of American exceptionalism and some effort at focusing on the U.S. economy. So, Trump’s special sauce is nothing new.
At another level, Trump has demonstrated that he will make the same concessions to international realities as his predecessors. He’ll negotiate with the Chinese. He’ll poke the Russian bear. He’ll engage in showy military attacks. Maximum flexibility equals no doctrine.
The new Trump, then, is the worst of both worlds: blustery nationalism plus the conventional pieties of the foreign policy establishment. It’s certainly a relief that the United States won’t go to war with China any time soon and the U.S. president cares about the deaths of (some) children.
But as tensions escalate with North Korea and Trump’s crude counter-terrorism campaign continues, Mr. America First seems conceptually ill equipped and all-too-committed to business as usual to push US foreign policy in a peaceful direction and make anyone sleep easy at night.