The Trump administration’s decision to launch a missile attack against Syria was, for the moment, a triumph of the President’s desire to appear tougher than his famously cautious predecessor over Trump’s wish to have the US less involved in the rest of the world and more sympathetic to Moscow. Since the early days of his campaign Trump’s foreign policy positions have reflected these two different, and seemingly contradictory ideas. The President’s belief that the US should focus on domestic concerns and no longer seek to be so deeply involved in politics, conflicts, crisis response and state building in virtually every corner of the world has long been in tension with his view that that the US should be stronger, less afraid to use force and should “win” more, whatever that means.
Even in an administration that was functional, relatively free of scandal and staffed by experienced foreign policy hands achieving both these goals would be a difficult needle to thread. However, it is almost impossible to craft a dialectical approach between these seemingly contradictory foreign policy approaches in an administration where the State Department appears to be leaderless, the initial National Security Advisor did not even last a month in office, his successor has struggled to staff an NSA with knowledgeable professionals rather than Bannonite ideologues, and in which increasingly substantial foreign (and domestic) policy responsibilities somehow are ending up as part of the portfolio of the President’s wildly inexperienced and unprepared son-in-law.
Over the last several months at least two factions have emerged in the President’s foreign policy team. One consists of those who have traditional hawkish Republican views on a range of foreign policy issues, most notably Russia. This group includes Vice President Mike Pence, UN Ambassador NIkkie Haley, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis. The second faction is made up of those who prefer a less internationalist approach to foreign policy. The most visible representative of this group is Steve Bannon, but other White House advisors, and perhaps the President himself are sympathetic to this view as well. At the moment, particularly given that Bannon will no longer be part of the National Security Council, it appears that the first group is in the ascendancy. However, this is not a numbers game. It is an influence game. While Bannon is clearly outnumbered, he still has a great deal of access to the President, at least for the moment.
There are two other people who are central to the foreign policy direction of our country. At first glance Jared Kushner and Rex Tillerson may seem to have little in common. One is a Christian who came from a modest childhood in Texas to achieve great business success; the other an Orthodox Jew, from New Jersey who was born into an extremely wealthy family and married into another very wealthy family. Tillerson formally has a very important job, but seems to not know what to do with it. Kushner has no formal job other than advisor but has proven adept at increasing his responsibilities and influence in the White House. Despite these surface differences, Kushner and Tillerson share some important foreign policy similarities. For example, neither of them have any experience in foreign policy. Nor had either of them evinced any real interest in the subject until at most a few months ago.
It appears that Kushner is now a powerful voice in foreign policy as further suggested by his recent trip to Iraq. Howver, because he has no record of saying, writing or doing anything about the subject, other than his hawkish support for Israel. Therefore, it is not at all clear what the views of this powerful presidential advisor are. Tillerson was also not appointed because he was some kind of profound foreign policy thinker, but his close relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin certainly suggested he was no Russia hawk. Because the Secretary of State has had such a light footprint in Washington, his core beliefs are still not apparent.
All this has led to a foreign policy environment that is unfocused, without leadership, incapable of consistent messaging and, in plain, English, a mess. When foolish ideas like the Muslim Ban and the Presidents bizarre conduct around world leaders, primarily German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are thrown into the mix, it gets even messier. The major problem with this lack of clarity is that when complicated foreign policy dilemmas arise, and in reality there are no other kind-the North Korea crisis is more complex and potentially dangerous than even Syria-it is near impossible to create a linear, rational or consistent policy. For example, the strike on Syria could well lead to a greater conflict with Russia, but it there is little reason to think the President wants that or is even aware of the possibility. Similarly, the strike could well lead to a broader US role in the region, something the President seems deeply against. If these policies are not properly thought through and unless a consensus is built within the foreign policy team, the US will end up with a series of half-measures, sharp reversals and a generally ineffective, even reckless, foreign policy.
Photo: cc/Karl-Ludwig Poggemann