When U.S. President Donald Trump ordered cruise-missile strikes on a Syrian air base shortly after this month’s chemical weapons attack, some Obama administration veterans were openly impressed. “[We] never would have gotten this done in 48 hours,” one of them told Politico.
The strikes were the starkest demonstration so far of one of the paradoxes of the Trump White House, particularly on foreign policy. The administration has often projected a chaotic image and put out wildly mixed messages on topics such as U.S. support for NATO. Some of the president’s preoccupations – such as the U.S.-Mexico wall – and his sometimes confused speaking style continue to unsettle enemies and allies alike.
But at the same time, particularly on national security, the administration appears to be building a system that has proved much more effective than many expected.
Central to this has been Trump’s national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, viewed within the Beltway as one of the U.S. military’s leading strategists. He is also seen by many as the most successful individual to emerge from the Trump presidency: the administration’s key figure on foreign policy, even more influential than Defense Secretary James Mattis or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
When it came to formulating a military response to Syria’s chemical weapons attack, McMaster and U.S. military planners reportedly gave Trump three options. The first was a “decapitation” strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which would have obliterated his palace. The second was similarly drastic, an attack on Syrian air bases that would have almost certainly killed Russian advisers and aircrew.
The severity of those options seems to have pushed Trump towards the third – a strike against the single air base responsible for the chemical attack. The United States gave Russia enough warning to get its own personnel out of the way.
Compared to some of the messier approaches from the Obama administration – such as increasing weapons and supplies to Syrian rebels without providing them with enough combat power to seriously alter the war – the one-off strike was limited and well-defined. The White House and McMaster were quick to signal that it was a response to the chemical attack, and the United States would probably not respond to the ongoing conventional onslaught on rebel areas.
With Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting Mar-a-Lago at the time of the strike, it was also an opportunity for Trump to send a message about his willingness to take military action against North Korea. Beijing responded by further reducing its orders of North Korean coal and preventing its diplomats from participating in a massive parade in Pyongyang.
This was a victory for U.S. strategic signaling, even though North Korea will likely continue with its missile launches, apparently believing it can do so without incurring U.S. military action.
But Trump stumbled soon after. In an interview following the Syria strike, he appeared to forget which country the United States had bombed, saying that the missiles had been “heading to Iraq.”
Then came the media briefings and statements about the U.S. “armada” supposedly heading to the Korean Peninsula. When it emerged that the USS Carl Vinson had not, in fact, sailed from Singapore to Korea and was still on pre-planned exercises with the Australian Navy at the other end of Asia, the White House looked as though it had lost touch with reality.
The administration can avoid these blunders in the future, but the bigger problem is that none of the geopolitical conflicts have improved.
Assad remains in power in Syria, and suggestions from McMaster and others that Russia might be prepared to abandon him have so far come to nothing. The North Korean weapons program continues to move forward, and while its recent missile launch failed, Pyongyang’s rhetoric – and military capabilities – continues to intensify.
The same is true for the ongoing conflicts in which the United States remains involved, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya and Yemen. Under the Trump administration, there have been increased U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen. Civilian casualties are, in many cases, mounting.
The White House didn’t directly order all recent action – the much-publicized dropping of the U.S. military’s largest conventional bomb on Afghanistan appears to have been the decision of regional commanders. The Trump White House seems to place fewer restrictions on what the military can do in conflict zones than the more micromanaging Obama administration – but that approach also brings risks.
There’s also the issue of how much attention the administration can devote to other, second-tier issues – it still has a shortage of deputy and assistant secretaries of state and defense who normally do much of the heavy lifting.
In its first 100 days, the Trump White House has done better than many expected in handling some crises, and proved surprisingly adept at the strategic signals it projects to the world. But it has also developed the alarming habit of turning to military force, particularly bombing or the threat of it, as a first – not last – resort. It’s an approach that may work sometimes for individual crises in the Middle East, perhaps even North Korea. But it can also go wrong – and in an era of rising tensions with Russia and China, it could prove catastrophic.