Syria and North Korea crises show Donald Trump at his bumbling worst
Hugh White says any hope that the ignorant and reckless candidate of his campaign would change once in the White House has been dashed after 100 days
Donald Trump’s first 100 days were always going to be interesting. Never before have Americans elected a person to the Oval Office who knew so little about foreign policy, and who appeared to care so little about it. But it seemed simply unimaginable that he could conduct himself as president in the reckless, ill-informed way that he presented himself as a candidate.
Nevertheless, it seemed equally hard to imagine that he could undergo the kind of changes that would be needed if he was to fulfil the responsibilities of the presidency in directing international relations and commanding the armed forces of the United States. That would require him to devote deep study to the issues, accept the need for continual discipline and focus in his statements and actions, and comprehend the scale of his responsibilities.
It would, in other words, require a complete change from the personality that Trump has so relentlessly displayed not just in his presidential election campaign but for decades before. Could he do it?
Many people were optimistic that he would. After the election, it became something of an article of faith in Washington’s foreign and defence policy establishment – even among those who before the election had declared Trump unfit to be president – that, once he was sworn in, the weight of the office and the force of the foreign and defence policy establishment would work a magical transformation.
It was never clear how far their optimism simply reflected an inability to accept the implications for America and the world if this transformation didn’t happen, and Trump as president really did conduct US foreign policy the way he had campaigned. One way or the other, the first 100 days would tell.
They have had reason to be both heartened and dismayed by some of the early signs. They have been dismayed by the appointments of General Michael Flynn as national security adviser and Stephen Bannon to the National Security Council, but heartened by their swift departure or demotion, and by the appointments of more impressive figures like generals James Mattis and H. R. McMaster.
Likewise, they have been dismayed by Trump’s early reckless questioning of the “one China” policy and threats of a trade war with China, but reassured by his later soothing phone calls and apparently friction-free meeting with Xi Jinping (習近平). Dismayed by his gratuitously offensive conduct towards the leaders of some long-standing allies, including Germany and Australia, but heartened by more positive contacts with Prime Minster Shinzo Abe of Japan and with Nato allies.
But the best evidence of a leader’s style and mettle comes from the way they handle a crisis. As Trump approached his 100th day in office, he has faced two crises, over Syria and North Korea, which have been very revealing. Let’s see what they show.
To many people, Trump’s decision to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons with a cruise-missile strike on a Syrian air base was by far the most positive sign that he would prove to be, after all, a normal and effective foreign-policy president. They believed it showed that he had come to understand something of the scope of America’s international responsibilities, and that he had the courage and resolve to act decisively with armed force to fulfil those responsibilities. For the first time, to these people, Trump was acting like a president.
Watch: Trump orders military strikes against airbase in Syria
But that judgment looks far too generous. The missile strike may have gratified an understandable sense of outrage at Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but gratifying outrage is not the basis of a successful strategic policy. There was, as many people observed at the time, no connection between the strike and any coherent policy objectives in the Syrian conflict more broadly, and none has emerged since. Indeed, far from showing any kind of serious engagement with the strategic and humanitarian challenges of the crisis in Syria and the wider Middle East, the strike confirmed there is no sign that the administration has any idea whether America has any aims in the region beyond destroying Islamic State, what those aims should be, and how they might be achieved.
Moreover, the suggestion that the Syrian strike was a welcome sign of Trump’s resolve, and a potent warning to other countries who might defy America, is undercut by the reality that Syria has no capacity to hit back. It takes very little resolve to use armed force against an adversary that cannot retaliate.
So, far from offering evidence of Trump’s maturing engagement and resolve, the decision to strike Syria more plainly showed his commitment to projecting an image of himself as a tough, decisive leader without any engagement in the substance of the issues. It showed the old Trump as a master of political theatre, not a new Trump as a master of strategic statecraft.
And now the success of the Syrian strikes as political theatre has tempted Trump to seek another opportunity to burnish his presidential image, by taking on North Korea. Over the past few weeks, he and his administration have plainly threatened to conduct a military attack if the North tests a nuclear weapon or a long-range ballistic missile.
That is a very big mistake, for two reasons. First, America has no credible military options that offer a reasonable chance of significantly degrading North Korea’s nuclear or missile programmes. The key sites are too hard to find, and too well protected to be easy targets for a simple missile strike or even a sustained air campaign. That means any attack would have no practical effect.
Second, unlike Syria, North Korea could and would hit back hard, not by invading the South but with major strikes causing real damage. America would then have to decide whether to retaliate in turn. To do nothing would look very weak, but counter-retaliation would risk an escalating conflict that could go nuclear. Heading that way would show not resolve but folly.
Unfortunately for Trump, North Korea probably understands all this. They won’t be deterred if they think he has no credible military options. On the contrary, they will be tempted to call his bluff and test a weapon just to show they can.
Then Trump would face a truly disastrous choice between starting a war that could turn catastrophic, or stepping back and accepting a humiliation that would undermine US leadership around the globe. This is just the kind of predicament that good statecraft avoids. Trump, as he marks his 100th day, has walked straight into it. And that suggests, sadly, that there has been no magic transformation. We are all stuck with the feckless and incompetent Trump that Americans voted for.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra