In his campaign and the early days of his administration, Trump did not lay out a detailed vision of foreign policy. But he did have a slogan:
From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first — America first.
No longer would we spend “trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” We weren’t going to commit our blood and treasure for sentimental reasons, or to uphold abstract global principles, or perhaps not even to defend our allies. Our military would be used to promote our interests, and nobody else’s.
The administration’s early moves followed that course: His proposed budget sharply cuts foreign aid. By some accounts, he presented German’s Angela Merkel with a printed bill for Germany’s share of NATO’s defense expenses.
He particularly applied this view to Syria. Such troops and air strikes as we committed to Syria were to fight ISIS, and not to play any role in helping rebels oust the Assad regime. Not only did he want to reverse President Obama’s commitment to taking in Syrian refugees, he didn’t want anyone at all to come here from there, not even as tourists. Just 11 days ago, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were saying that we no longer were going to “focus on getting Assad out“.
Then Tuesday came Assad’s gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of civilians and producing horrifying video. Trump’s initial reaction was to blame Obama for not taking military action against Assad after a previous chemical attack in 2013 — inaction that Trump demanded at the time. Then he made a semi-coherent statement expressing personal horror at the videos, blaming Assad, and praising himself in advance for his “flexibility”, i.e. not being bound by anything he had said in the past.
Thursday, he shot 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airbase the gas attack came from. The attack was mostly symbolic, since the base reportedly was back in operation quickly, and further airstrikes were made against the same rebel-held area, though apparently no chemical attacks.
So what’s the United States’ foreign policy now? No one seems to know.
What should we do? Before I get too far along in criticizing Trump, let me state for the record that I don’t know what to do about Syria either. Neither do you and neither does anybody else.
Revolutions and civil wars can have happy endings when there is a popular will or national identity that the current ruler is thwarting. In such a case, if you just get that ruler out of the way, things can take their natural course. Being conquered did wonders for Japan and Germany (at least in the west) because the people in those countries had a strong notion of what it meant to be Japanese or German. Given a benevolent conqueror, democratic institutions could be established and a popular government elected.
But while democracy can empower a popular consensus, it can’t create one from nothing. That’s what we’ve seen in Iraq. An occupying power can hold elections, but if the winning and losing sides still want to kill each other, the elected government can’t represent them both. When there is no popular will for democracy to bring to power, no consensus notion of what the country is or how it should be run, then there is no obvious happy ending to aim for. Any outside power that intervenes is looking at a menu of dismal outcomes, all of which will leave its people asking: “We killed and died for this?”
That’s Syria. There isn’t a popular resistance, there are a dozen or so of them, none of which gets along with the others.
Talking past each other. If I can’t give a just-do-this answer, I can at least try to disentangle some of the public discussion. A lot of the commentary on Syria consists of people talking past each other, and the main reason seems to be that “caring about Syria” can mean you care about a lot of different things. Here’s an incomplete list of what your concerns might be:
- the Syrian people
- the political stability of the region
- the rivalries of great powers as they express themselves in the region
- international law, particular as it concerns chemical weapons
For example, many have pointed out that the Syrian people probably don’t much care whether Assad kills them with gas or with explosives. But to others, the limited use of chemical weapons since World War I is one of the great successes of international diplomacy, and it would be a shame for that to fall apart, even if preserving it doesn’t help any Syrians.
Conversely, accepting more Syrian refugees doesn’t address any of the concerns of the international-law folks.
The limited menu. Whoever was president this week would have had the same three immediate military options:
- Don’t respond. Let the civil war continue with its endless death. And let the world’s malefactors infer that (for practical purposes) chemical weapons are OK now.
- Launch an attack to bring Assad down. Either we’d take over Syria with our own troops, or we’d cripple Assad’s military so badly from the air that some group of rebels could win. The risks are endless quagmire for our troops, a larger war with Russia and/or Iran, the possibility that the winning anti-Assad faction will be even worse, or that even after Assad is gone, the war between the other factions will continue and be just as bad.
- Launch a symbolic attack that won’t affect the outcome of the war. Such an attack won’t help the Syrian people, but Russia and Iran will probably accept it, and it will preserve (to some extent) the international stigma on chemical weapons.
Trump made the third choice, which probably is pretty close to what Hillary Clinton would have done.
The question is whether there is any follow-up — Clinton probably would have had something in mind — and so far it appears that the answer is no. On the Sunday talk shows, Nikki Haley said regime change in Syria is “something that we think is going to happen”, but National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster strongly implied the ball was in Russia’s court, not ours.
We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change [in the Assad regime]. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here?
So we’re waiting to see what Russia does, and so far they’re not backing away from Assad.
A few more points worth making:
Obama is getting a bad rap. Numerous commentators are giving Trump credit for “doing something”, compared to Obama who “did nothing” after Assad’s chemical attacks in 2013.
That’s only true if “something” has to be a military attack. What Obama did was get Russia to oversee the removal of large stockpiles of chemical weapons from Syria, which resulted in no chemical attacks for the rest of his administration. Given the either bad or negligible consequences of the military choices (which Trump is facing now), finding something off the menu was a pretty good move.
Don’t forget the climate change angle. The “Climate Wars” episode of Years of Living Dangerously features Thomas Friedman in Syria, exploring the role an exceptional drought played in starting the civil war.
What if Trump’s reaction really was spontaneous? One explanation of Trump’s missile attack is that he was so affected by images of the victims of the chemical attack that he felt a spontaneous desire to strike back, even if it contradicted all his previous positions.
Here’s the analogous story that popped into my mind: In 1952, bank robber Willie Sutton was caught because amateur detective Arnold Schuster spotted him on a New York subway. Schuster was then murdered, which was a mysterious development, since Sutton had never been that kind of criminal.
One explanation that eventually came out was that mob boss Albert Anastasia, who had no connection to Sutton and who was getting increasingly unstable as his power grew, saw Schuster tell his story on TV and spontaneously told his men “I can’t stand squealers! Hit that guy!”
An unstable guy with too much power has a violent-but-fleeting reaction to something he sees on TV, and people wind up dead. I think I’d rather believe a conspiracy theory.