What Now, My Trump?
In a magnificently detailed article reported and written by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in August of 2016, President Barack Obama did his best to explain what Goldberg described as the “Obama Doctrine” of American foreign policy. The president’s cooperation with Goldberg was meant to help define Obama’s legacy and influence future U.S. policy. The article also offered unusual insight into the multi-dimensional nature of decision making in the White House.
Obama has been criticized by members of his own political party for his refusal in 2013 to unilaterally launch military strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after Assad’s first major use of chemical weapons against his own population. Obama does not regret the decision despite the criticism. “I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama told Goldberg. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made — and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
We have learned Obama was correct on at least one point. Since the Thursday night U.S. missile attack on a Syrian airfield, meant to punish Assad for his latest use of chemical weapons, President Trump has won praise from Democrats, Republicans, the news media and U.S. policy analysts who are all part of the machinery of our national-security apparatus. Trump gave them what they were looking for and they are providing a favorable battle damage assessment in return.
The news media, and the American people, generally stand behind their president when it comes to military action. Only after sustained failure, as in Vietnam or the second Iraq war, does public opinion begin to turn. There is nothing we like more than using our overwhelming force to punch a bad guy in the nose, but in the case of President Trump’s latest use of force, the question is: Now what?
Machismo aside, the only point made by last week’s raid is that the United States is being led by an undisciplined commander in chief with the world’s most powerful military at his disposal. This is no cause to celebrate, it is more reason to worry.
Even if on moral grounds punishing Assad was the right thing to do, the early evidence suggests the decision was made for mostly the wrong reasons. There is no sign Thursday’s strike is part of a larger strategy. Once again, President Trump has latched on to the first course of action that satisfies his need for immediate, personal gratification, and the admiration of those he thinks he needs to impress.
Republicans. For the last eight years the Republican playbook in Washington, D.C. has been to criticize everything and anything attached to Obama. At the top of the list was Obama’s decision to back away from the red-line he drew on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. With that as background, the most obvious course of action Trump could take to draw a distinction between himself and Obama would be to declare that Assad had once again “crossed a line” and that Trump was going to do something about it. The elapsed time between the chemical weapons attack and the U.S. strike was less than 72 hours. Consideration of long term consequences was therefore time limited.
The only Republicans who have a problem with the president’s decision are his most ardent supporters who believe in the America first policy Trump promised during his campaign. Sorry voters, the audience that matters most to Trump now is not his faithful supporters, but the Washington elite who have declared his first 100 days a failure before he has reached 100 days in office. He needs to change conventional wisdom. At least one pundit declared on Thursday evening that the missile strike marked the moment Trump “became President of the United States.” All it took was a decision to toss 59 Tomahawk missiles at a generic airfield in the middle of Syria without due consideration of what might happen the day after.
Disconnect. There continues to be an uneasy disconnect between the ruling Trump family, the president’s other inexperienced advisors, and the expectations most Americans have for someone who is serving as president of our country.
President Trump’s televised remarks on the Syrian missile strike were awkward. He read a statement off a teleprompter that sounded as if it had been written by someone mimicking what they thought a president should say in a moment like this without knowing what a president should say at a moment like this. When he finished is remarks he left the room with his daughter Ivanka following behind.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer has said that the Trump team resents the news media and the way the administration is portrayed. He has called the tone of coverage “demoralizing.” There are reasons for that tone. There is a sense the Trump team is in over its head and it doesn’t help that very few people surrounding the president have any relevant experience for the positions they hold (lying is also a problem).
This stands in sharp contrast to most previous administrations and certainly to the Obama administration which, from the start, but certainly by the end of the second term, was filled with seasoned hands. As a result, the Trump communications team is always seeking to show the president and his staff standing in for well known figures from previous administrations. The morning after the attack, the White House released a photograph that showed Trump and his advisors huddled in a small room, looking as if they were watching the airstrikes unfold in real time. The setting, the angle of view, and the looks on the faces of some of the people sitting around the table, were remarkably similar to the famous photo of Obama and his aides watching the unfolding raid on Osama bin Laden in 2011.
In the Trump version of this made for the big screen moment, the president and his team were actually taking part in a video conference call and the advisors sitting around the table were the wrong characters; the treasury secretary, Trump’s son in law, the commerce secretary, Steve Bannon, Stephen “The President Will Not Be Questioned” Miller and the demoralized Spicer. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster were in the room, but they were out numbered by staffers who, in a conventional administration, would have no business being there.
What Now? It is clear President Trump is influenced heavily by what he sees while watching cable television news. After seeing the images of dying men, women and children in Syria on Tuesday morning, he quickly abandoned his campaign promises and chose to engage in a conflict he had previously pledged to avoid. Trump feels obligated to take action when a storyline is playing out on TV that he feels he can have a role in. This is something potential foreign adversaries should keep in mind. As we have all learned as Americans, Trump is unpredictable. Previous policy statements are meaningless.
Once the shock of Thursday’s military action wears off, what does it mean for our policy in Syria and the world? Are we the new umpire of world conflict, projecting U.S. force whenever we feel warring parties aren’t playing by acceptable rules? Or does Thursday’s attack apply only to Syria? Has the Trump administration decided it must finish the job and remove Assad from power? If that’s the case, how does it happen? Are we about to repeat the mistake George W. Bush made in Iraq? Isn’t this exactly the path President Obama was seeking to avoid?
Less than 24 hours after Trump’s display of U.S. outrage, planes were seen taking off from the airbase he chose to strike. The civil war continued. Assad remained in power, unimpressed by the loss of a few hangars at one of many airports he can continue to use to carry out raids on his opposition. We succeeded only in taking our own swing of a sledge hammer at a country that has been almost completely destroyed in the name of keeping one man in power. Nothing has changed and nothing will change until President Trump defines our policy goals and comes up with a strategy to achieve those goals.
Having a plan seems like a simple approach except for the fact that ever since Donald Trump declared himself to be a politician at the start of the 2016 campaign, he has demonstrated no inclination to think more than one step ahead. There is no reason for Americans to have any confidence Trump’s decision to hit Syria is about anything more than his own need to prove — to those whose opinions are presently important to him - that he is not Barack Obama.
For the rest of us, the last point is obvious.