Donald Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield last week, days after a chemical weapons attack by its government, earned him the first broad bipartisan applause of his divisive presidency. Many Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, praised the missile strikes. “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!!” exulted former Obama official Anne-Marie Slaughter, “After years of useless handwringing in the face of hideous atrocities.” The mainstream media was similarly enthusiastic. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria announced that Trump “became president” with the decision to strike Syria. “We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,” MSNBC host Brian Williams marveled. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”
But as a lesser number of politicians and pundits observed, bombing a single airfield does not a foreign policy make. If anything, Trump’s decision has only further confused observers, as it marks an abrupt shift from his oft-stated desire to avoid further entanglement in Syria and concentrate on fighting the Islamic State. That confusion apparently extends to key administration officials, who on Sunday presented differing positions on whether, and how, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad should be ousted.
“We know there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, said on CNN’s State of the Union. “If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.” More forcefully, she added, “We don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.”
But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a different message that day. “Our priority is first the defeat of ISIS,” Tillerson told ABC’s This Week. “Once we can eliminate the battle against ISIS, conclude that, and it is going quite well, then we hope to turn our attention to cease-fire agreements between the regime and opposition forces.... In that regard, we are hopeful that we can work with Russia and use their influence to achieve areas of stabilization throughout Syria and create the conditions for a political process through Geneva in which we can engage all of the parties on the way forward, and it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will lawfully be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster tried, implausibly, to argue that there was no inconsistency between Haley’s and Tillerson’s statements. “While people are really anxious to find inconsistencies in those statements, they are in fact very consistent in terms of what is the ultimate political objective in Syria,” McMaster argued on Fox News Sunday. He said Haley’s point was that “it’s very difficult to figure out how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime. We’re not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, citing Haley’s remark, had a different take: “So that means regime change is now the policy of the Trump administration. That’s at least what I’ve heard.”
These discordant statements are a natural outgrowth of Trump’s chaotic decision-making process. Trump has always preferred an extreme version of “team of rivals” management, with underlings in competition to please him. Moreover, his slowness at staffing the government meant that the normal procedures weren’t followed. “There can have been no proper interagency process before the strike,” David Frum wrote at The Atlantic, “because none of the relevant agencies of government other than the Department of Defense is properly staffed to join such a process. You can’t have a deputies’ meeting without deputies.”
Thus, Trump made his decision without sufficient input, and likely with little thought of the consequences. Hence the contradictory statements of Haley, Tillerson, and McMaster: They can’t agree on an endgame because Trump hasn’t thought that far ahead. “Where’s the plan for victory?” Frum asked. “What’s even the definition of victory?... Trump’s strike was symbolic and demonstrative, not decisive. It signaled, but did not compel. It leaves the Syrian and Russian leadership an array of options about how to respond—and it may well have committed the United States to potential next steps that the president did not imagine and does not intend.”
An erratic president like Trump can wreak much more havoc in foreign policy than domestic. On issues like health care, immigration, and taxes, he is already being tripped up by a confluence of factors: divisions within the Republican Party, an energized Democratic opposition, courts that have enjoined his unconstitutional orders, and his own incompetence. This has largely stalled his domestic agenda. His administration will be 100 days old on April 29, with little to show for it. “One hundred days is the marker, and we’ve got essentially two-and-a-half weeks to turn everything around,” a White House official told Politico. “This is going to be a monumental task.”
That report revealed that the White House convened a “tense planning session” last week about “how to package Trump’s tumultuous first 100 days by pitching the need for a ‘rebranding’ to get Trump back on track.” At the meeting, which took place before the airstrikes against Syria, Trump communications director Mike Dubke “told the assembled aides that international affairs would present a messaging challenge because the president lacks a coherent foreign policy.”
“There is no Trump doctrine,” Dubke declared.
Some in the room were stunned by the remark.
“It rubbed people the wrong way because on the campaign we were pretty clear about what he wanted to do,” said a third White House official in the room, “He was elected on a vision of America First. America First is the Trump doctrine.”
One of the administration officials lamented, “We’ve got a comms team supposedly articulating the president’s message [that] does not appear to understand the president’s message.”
But if Dubke doesn’t understand the president’s message, it’s almost certainly because Trump doesn’t have a consistent message. Dubke is right: Trump has no foreign policy doctrine. He’s a narcissist who craves praise, especially by the media, and surely he noticed the broad acclaim he got last week by bombing another country. There’s every reason to believe that Trump will take the wrong lesson from his Syrian adventure and decide that the political benefits of belligerence outweigh the risks to global stability.
He will have many such opportunities. Last week could be the only Syria bombing of his presidency, or it could also be the first of dozens; he could send ground troops, or not. Another country, such as North Korea or Iran, could easily attract his attention instead. Trump could start a conflict anywhere; truly anything is possible from the man who considers unpredictability the ultimate virtue. The world is his oyster, and with his sword he will open it.