Syria and the Importance of Stable US Action
The limited actions taken by the Trump administration in response to Syrian gas attacks on their own people were typical in the realm of US foreign policy. In fact, these actions are ones that could have easily been implemented by any more establishment presidential administration. They are much in line with the presumed policies of a president Clinton, Romney, or Bush. However there is one distinct difference between the actions of the Trump government and a more establishment administration, one which sends a dangerous signal to US allies. The Syria attack shows a dangerous reactionary tendency within the Trump government. It reveals Donald Trump’s unpredictability and propensity to quickly shift policies in response to stimulus which he finds objectionable.
The horrifying photos of the Syrian attack were plastered all over mass media for days, and we must assume that Trump was briefed on the attack long before the reports began showing up on CNN. These reports seemed to set off a chain reaction of changing feelings within the executive branch—which, while admirable for standing up for the civilians trapped in the hell of the Syrian civil war, are dangerous in the wide realm of broader United States signaling about what they will do concerning overseas action. United States allies must have some idea of where an administration stands on world affairs, and to understand just why the Syrian conflict encapsulates the need for US stability it’s worth examining Trump’s opinions of it in the past.
In 2013, while the Obama administration was dealing with what to do in response to the first published use of sarin gas by the Assad government, Donald Trump began tweeting. “We should stay the hell out of Syria, the "rebels" are just as bad as the current regime.” he said, encapsulating a rant which would define his stance on the conflict well into 2016. In a long series of public statements stretching for months, Trump’s views of the war became increasingly clear: stay out. “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.” Trump blasted the Obama administration for months over any kind of proposed intervention, citing the president’s apprehension to become involved in what his administration feared could become another Iraq.
This opposition to any kind of US intervention into the conflict continued well into his presidential campaign, and early into President Trump’s administration. One of the main planks of his campaign platform was to end the refugee resettlement from Syria, a promise he followed through. Once his administration took power, the problem of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seemed to be on the bottom of their to-do list. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said late last month, “I think the… longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” This attitude was backed up by U.N. Secretary Nikki Haley, saying: "We can't necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did.” However, days later these positions have been reversed by almost everyone in the executive branch. The Trump administration is now suggesting that Assad must be removed from power for there to be peace in Syria.
Hypocrisy, and ideological reversal, is a minor sin in politics, as Vox’s Ezra Klein likes to say. However these ideas come up against heavy scrutiny when placed in the realm of United States foreign policy. Because while Trump’s administration should have the right to change its mind, sudden reversal on major policy—which effects how other nations decide their paths forward—will inevitably leave the Western World with ideological whiplash.
It is incredibly important for the our allies to have a sense of what the United States will do on the world stage, since many other countries construct their strategies on an expectation of American policy. The United States, in order to be an effective world leader, must be predictable. International organizations like the U.N. and NATO are only possible when the United States maintains a stable, consistent policy—a policy which has come to be described in the political fringes as “establishment.” Of course, deviation from traditional US foreign policy has happened. There have been presidents who were more or less fond of military interventions for instance; but all presidents have been pushing their agendas within the framework of a predictable consensus about how the US responds to world events. This is why sudden changes in policy signaling—lead by a president who doesn’t seem to have very much set ideology—can be very dangerous.
Donald Trump’s ardent opposition to intervention by the American government into Syria that sent a signal to both US allies and adversaries. It gave Assad a signal that they may be able to take actions under the Trump administration which they wouldn’t have under previous administrations. That is not to blame the gassing of Syrian civilians on Donald Trump’s views, but instead to illustrate how a stable US foreign policy can keep actors in their normal orbit around American world leadership.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is currently a battle between establishment foreign policy leaders, and populists in the Trump administration. There is a well-documented tug-of-war within the White House between people in the camp of right-wing populist Steve Bannon, and less ideological members of the administration like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Trump’s son-in-law Jarred Kushner. This feud is dragging the president in two very different ideological directions, and this fight threatens to incite the president to make many more drop-of-the-hat policy reversals which could further confuse US allies.
Take this hypothetical situation as another example of how US unpredictability could be very damaging on the world stage:
President Trump has been very forgiving of Russian intervention in the world, far more than any other American administration. During the campaign he made a series of very inflammatory statements about Russian action in the Ukrainian province of Crimea. For instance, in August he said, “Russia will not be going in to Ukraine” despite the fact that they had already invaded and annexed the territory. A few days before that, then-candidate Trump even went as far as to suggest that his administration would be looking to permanently cede the territory to the Russians. Couple all of this with Trump’s unprecedented stance on NATO—where he citied that he may not come to the aid of a fellow NATO member if they came under attack. These statements are signals that the Trump administration has sent to the Russian state; the implication being that the United States may not intervene if the Russians began to attempt to extend their territorial holdings into Western Europe.
Imagine one day, in our hypothetical situation, Russia with theoretical assurances from the Trump administration that they may not take any action, becomes emboldened and decides to launch an invasion across the Estonian border. This launches Western Europe into crisis mode as the Article 5 provision of the NATO treaty is activated, and the European NATO members mobilize for war. Across the Atlantic President Donald Trump does not want to intervene, however H.R. McMaster, and Trump’s Joint Chiefs of Staff implore the president that, because of treaty obligations, the danger to American’s western allies, and the United States’ credibility, America must intervene to protect the liberal democracies of Europe. As they have continually done, the establishmentarians win over the populists, and President Trump mobilizes troops stationed in Germany, and sends them north to the Estonian border.
In this scenario, the United States is now at war with Russia. Although the Russian state does not have the military capacity to defeat the United States, war would have been avoided if Trump had simply not suggested US inaction towards Russian aggression in the first place. United States signaling to the world is taken very seriously, and consistent predictability is the key to decades of American diplomatic victories.
Apply the implications of this hypothetical situation to the reality of the Trump administration’s policy reversal in Syria. Our European allies are now stuck in limbo with how to respond to the president’s plan as they are trying to reformulate their middle eastern stance on the fly. Most European leaders are praising the retaliation against the Assad government—British Prime Minister Theresa May saying for instance, “We believe [it] was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks.” However, they are also left wondering what Trump’s next move will be. Will he continue down this path of traditional US response, or will he reverse his policy and go back to ignoring the problem, only to act only if there is another immediate crisis? This would not be a problem that the Europeans would have under a Bush, or Clinton, or Romney foreign policy because all of those leaders have signaled predictable adherence to United States foreign policy.
The United States’s retaliation against the Assad regime was the correct and just course of action. However, the Untied States has never been so lost in the woods over foreign policy as it is under the Trump administration. So far in Trump’s first few months in office, the establishment has won out over the populists and the president has supposedly subscribed to a traditional American foreign policy framework, but this stance is not a certainty. You cannot predict how the Trump administration will respond to a crisis from day to day, because they have no central ideology when it comes to world affairs, and further, the members of the administration who do are locked in a constant battle to have their ideas heard by the president. The fact that there is even this fight in what is the most important role the executive branch has within the American government, is deeply worrying. The Trump administration can either be isolationist, or interventionist, but above all else they must be predictable. They must pick a stance, stay with it, and evangelize this stance to our allies around the world so that they know what steps they must take to ensure they are best protecting their own nations. Further flip-flopping on American foreign policy will only continue to confuse our allies, and embolden our adversaries as they plan how to use this impulsivity against us.
Zachary Sizemore is the Managing Editor at Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.