By David K. Shipler
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
Watching the United States on the world stage today is like suffering from double vision. President Donald Trump strides, postures, and dramatically decrees. Then his subordinates stay approximately where they were before.
Trump credits Vladimir Putin’s denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and then the Justice Department indicts a bunch of Russians for doing precisely that. Trump announces a sudden withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria, and then his national security adviser, John Bolton, says they’re staying there to fight ISIS and defend our Kurdish allies.
It’s not that Trump has no influence over his own foreign policy. It’s that he has no policy. He has only impulses and whims—not all of which are necessarily bad. But since he detests veteran professionals who have been working on these problems for decades, and since he has let Bolton strip the National Security Council bare, Trump’s tweets are unsupported by any process of deliberation or execution that might actually translate into action on the ground.
Although the president is excoriated for this incompetence, it could someday save us from an impetuous war that he thinks up after watching Sean Hannity. Inertia, the tendency of a body to continue traveling at the same speed in the same direction, is fundamental in government. Whether you’re a right-wing conspiracy theorist who calls it the “deep state,” or a center-to-left citizen who laments the paucity of “adults in the room,” your nation’s well-being these days is protected by the difficulty of turning the ship of state on a dime, as Trump repeatedly tries to do.
It would be interesting to know—and in some future year we might find out—whether the generals and admirals have developed a secret method of resistance to this demented commander-in-chief’s rash orders. There have been reports of their slow-walking certain commands that can be bogged down in logistics and bureaucracy. But what if Trump wakes up early one morning, gets incensed by something on Fox and Friends, and calls in the officer with the nuclear football to obliterate a country that has ticked him off? Is there any subversive understanding in the military about how to defy such an order? If so, would it be treason? Probably, but it might also save the country.
It’s hard to develop policy when you create phony crises and wish away real ones, when you act on mirages and ignore hard obstacles. Trump has declared conflicts with Mexico, NATO, Australia, and Canada where none exist. He has tried to frighten Americans by fabricating an emergency that does not exist on the Mexican border. At the same time, he declares victories where there are none: over North Korea’s nuclear development and over ISIS in Syria. But as long as there is a free press and an open society, reality remains an inconvenience for Trump. Any interested citizen can know that the nuclear talks with North Korea have bogged down, and ISIS remains a threat, even without the Syrian territory it once held.
Some of Trump’s instincts are sound, but he doesn’t know how to implement them. Despite the bipartisan gnashing of teeth that greeted his decision to leave Syria precipitously, an orderly departure makes sense. It's too late to reverse the half-baked American position Trump inherited from his predecessor—namely, to provide some support to opposition forces, but not enough to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As a result, a gruesome civil war was prolonged and exacerbated, and enclaves of power vacuums developed where ISIS took root. In the bargain, Iran expanded its influence, and then—after President Obama failed to act decisively—Russia sent its military to shore up Assad.
That was not Trump’s fault, but now the opening it gave to Iran and Russia cannot be closed by leaving just 2,000 American troops in place.
A proper Syria approach by a mature superpower would include laying out the options, drawing up a cost-benefit analysis, forecasting the results of this move or that, and determining realistically the degree of blood and treasure that Americans would be willing to invest in the conflict. The last question should be asked first, something that rarely happens when the US dips its toe into these forever wars. If Obama agonized over this question on Syria, his answer was irresolute: neither stay out entirely nor get in with sufficient force to succeed. It’s irresponsibly cruel when young lives are snuffed out or maimed by no-win strategies, or when innocents are killed as we adopt no-risk strategies: by remote drones flown like videogames, by proxies on the ground who mistakenly believe in our loyalty, by the illusion that it’s all cost-free since we pay no war tax.
Unfortunately, Trump’s move to leave Syria can’t prompt a sober discussion—simply because it’s Trump. He can do no right. His simplistic black-and-white thinking, his lack of nuance, his fact-free decision-making cast such deep shadows that nothing healthy can grow underneath. That is producing a barren landscape where the United States’ reputation for steady global leadership is withering. Russia and China, meanwhile, are trying to fill the void of Trump’s non-policy.
Alternative power centers might be beneficial if they were beneficent. But Russia and China are not—and not only because they’re adversarial to many American interests. They are also damaging to global welfare. Anti-democratic at home and imperious abroad, each has demonstrated, in its own style, expansionist impulses—economic, military, political—that subordinate smaller and weaker countries. And both are playing chess while Trump plays a kid’s game of checkers, and then throws over the board when he doesn’t get his way.
It’s astonishing how rapidly the United States can lose its foothold in a complex world, thanks to a president who was elected by a large minority of Americans so alienated from government that they were also willing to throw over the board and scatter the pieces. Picking them up is going to take a very long time.A version of this piece was originally published in The Washington Monthly.