President Donald Trump now faces multiple foreign policy situations which could easily become full-blown crises in a very short time. So far, his response has been rather underwhelming, and even that's being charitable. Some might describe it as downright incoherent, in fact. While this isn't too surprising for those who have been paying attention, this time the result could be a lot more significant than a piece of legislation dying in the House because Republicans can't agree among themselves.
Trump, of course, has never been a slave to consistency when it comes to foreign policy (or domestic policy, for that matter). When Barack Obama was president, it was easy enough to be against whatever Obama was for in true knee-jerk fashion. Hey, it worked for most Republicans, so it wasn't like Trump came up with the idea himself or anything. Trump flourished among his base by denouncing anything Obama did and making sweeping promises of what he'd do, with precisely nothing to back them up. He supposedly had a secret plan for dealing with the Islamic State. He was going to bomb them into submission, no matter the collateral damage. He might just go in and take all the Iraqi oil, as spoils of war. He was going to keep the Russians out of the Crimea (!). He was going to scrap the "worst deal ever" with Iran. Russians wouldn't dare provoke American warships, and neither would Iranian naval boats. North Korea wouldn't dare move their nuclear program forward. China would change their trade policy towards the United States, and would furthermore keep North Korea in check, just because Trump told them to do so. By sheer force of personality, Trump was going to stare down the world's leaders and make them blink, because he would threaten to unleash the awesomeness of American military upon any country who dared defy him.
One promise Trump has been able to keep is that he wasn't going to telegraph any of his moves. He has been able to keep this promise because he never had any secret plans to begin with, therefore he is now dealing with foreign policy on a totally ad hoc and reactive basis. Sooner or later, this is going to become evident even to his supporters. He has no plan, he's just making it up as he goes along and hoping for the best.
America's adversaries are currently testing this in many ways, some subtle and some not-so-subtle. What they wonder is whether Trump is truly a paper tiger when it comes to his boasts of making America great again on the world stage. Was it all campaign bluster? Or will Trump actually counter their moves either militarily or diplomatically? We may all be about to find this out.
Since Trump took office, he hasn't had much in the way of any military or foreign policy successes. A raid in Yemen turned sour, with a lot of collateral deaths. A recent U.S. bombing in Mosul, Iraq caused dozens of civilian deaths as well. Trump still hasn't unveiled any sort of master plan to take on the Islamic State, instead he is doing almost exactly what President Obama had been doing for a while (although Trump has reportedly "taken the gloves off" somewhat, when it comes to the rules of engagement). So it'll be Obama's war plan that liberates Mosul, not Trump's, because Trump never had one. From promising to unveil his Islamic State war plan on his first day in office, Trump backed down to "asking the generals for a plan" in his first 30 days. This plan has never been revealed (if it even exists), more than 75 days into his term.
In Syria, Trump hasn't changed much of anything either. He's been rather deferential to Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, in fact. Just last week the White House announced that "the Syrian people will decide whether Assad stays or not," which John McCain pointed out is exactly the same policy that Assad himself has backed. This week, a chemical weapons attack seems to have woken Trump up to the fact that this may not be the best policy for America to follow.
The chemical attack was Russia testing Trump's resolve, plain and simple. Trump reacted by refusing (once again) to say anything bad about Russia or Vladimir Putin, and instead Trump tried to blame Barack Obama's Syria policy. This is somewhat of a head-scratcher when you read what Trump tweeted about Obama at the time of the "red line" crisis -- when Trump strongly urged Obama to stay out of Syria altogether. Now, Trump is essentially complaining that Obama followed his advice too closely. But whatever he's said about Syria in the past, Trump is now the one calling the shots. So far, he doesn't seem to have any idea what to do next.
Trump is meeting this week with the head of the Chinese government. During a previous meeting between Trump and the prime minister of Japan, North Korea conducted a missile launch test. This led to the infamous scene of Trump's team trying to deal with a crisis (in a meeting that really should have been in a secure location) in the dining room of his Florida golf resort. So it's not too surprising that just before the Chinese leader's meeting with Trump (at the same resort), North Korea just conducted another missile test. North Korea may, in fact, be about to conduct another nuclear weapons test -- which they might just schedule for maximum embarrassment value (say, during a joint U.S./Chinese press conference, or during the actual meeting between the leaders).
How will Trump react? At this point, it is almost impossible to say. He has no real stated foreign policy beyond what he tweets out, which mostly consist of empty threats. With both the North Korean and the Syrian situation, there simply are no easy answers. On the Syrian battlefield, the textbook military answer would be to bomb the airfields which launched the chemical attack. Unfortunately, those airfields currently are hosting Russian warplanes and are protected by Russian antiaircraft missile defenses. Any attack on Assad's air capabilities would also be a direct attack on the Russian military, in other words. That could escalate the conflict to unimaginable proportions, in the blink of an eye.
Things are, if anything, worse with the North Korean situation. The United States could quite likely conduct a successful attack on the North Korean missile launch facility, and it could even attempt an attack on the main nuclear development site as well (although how much of it has already been moved underground is an open question). Either one would be considered an international act of war, and would probably immediately rekindle the Korean War between North and South. This could easily lead to the bombardment of Seoul, which lies perilously close (within artillery range, in fact) of the border with the North. Millions of people would immediately be at risk, and North Korea already has tens of thousands of artillery pieces aimed and ready to fire. Is that an acceptable price to pay to take out (or merely set back) North Korea's nuclear capability? The only other military option would be to attempt to shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile test with the never-tested anti-missile system in Alaska. If this was successful, it could also be seen as an act of war. But if it failed, that would send an even worse message to the world about American military capabilities.
Short of a military response, there isn't a whole lot Trump has to work with. He could attempt to ramp up sanctions on North Korea, but they've ignored such measures before. The Trump administration is also hamstrung by its disdain for its own State Department, as well. The dysfunction there is already rampant, with vacancies still unfilled for many top positions. Trump's budget request would slash the State Department's budget by roughly one-third, which wouldn't help matters either. Rex Tillerson is trying his best to present a rational face to the world for the Trump administration's foreign policy, but no matter what he says foreign leaders must already be wondering if he really speaks for the president or not.
Trump is about to find out the difference between belligerent tweets and reality. He can berate Kim Jong Un on Twitter all he wants, but the North Korean leader is just as unpredictable as Trump, when it comes down to it. Trump subscribes to the political and military theory of keeping his cards close to his vest, in order not to let his opponent know what he's planning to do. He also seems to be following what Richard Nixon called the "Madman Theory" -- if your opponents think they're dealing with a crazy person, they'll be more hesitant to provoke such a leader. Trump's biggest problem is that he's about to test this against real madmen. And even Nixon never gamed out what a "madman versus madman" situation could bring. When neither side can be reasoned with, nobody knows what will happen next. Which is exactly where we find ourselves on both Syria and North Korea, in fact.
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