Donald Trump rode to the presidency on grand, sweeping, unrealistic and vague promises that he never had policies to actually fulfill. He was going to make America great again, we were going to win so much, we’d get tired of winning, we’d best our international competition on the world stage, get newer, better trade deals, build up the military (for some unknown purpose, given his non-interventionist inclinations) and restore the country to 1950s black and white TV grandeur, invisible minorities and all.
Well, that’s not been going so great. The administration has been off to the rockiest start one can imagine, with two attempts at a Muslim ban both suffering setbacks in court, a failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare with an enormously unpopular and frankly draconian bill, and allegations of improper collusion during the campaign continuing to dog Trump’s presidency.
But this week, his first real tests on the international stage came, and both were stunning failures of American leadership. On the eve of China President Xi Jinping’s first visit to the U.S. during the Trump presidency, North Korea (already on the agenda for the summit) launched a medium-range ballistic missile early Wednesday morning (local time) in the Sea of Japan. The Hermit Kingdom is clearly attempting to upgrade its missile capabilities, and this has been its fourth attempted launch this year. Ahead of the summit, Trump was talking his usual tough guy talk, saying China needed to do more to rein in Pyongyang.
Then North Korea launched its missile, and Rex Tillerson issued only this cryptic statement: “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
Huh? At first blush, this comes off as a placeholder statement, something official-sounding to say while the administration’s foreign policy team tries to figure out what to do or how to respond. Reading into the statement deeper, however, it seems either a departure from the Obama administration’s attempts to encourage North Korea to stand down, or, more worryingly, a veiled threat of more substantial and perhaps unilateral action. That could be anything from a naval blockade to a nuclear first strike, given the erratic and unpredictable hands on the oars of state at the moment. And it would, indeed, make a breathtaking statement if such an action to occur during Jinping’s visit this weekend. It would also represent a staggering break from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, where he vowed to step back from being the world’s policeman. Any unilateral military action against North Korea, whose only real ally is China, could have significant unintended blowback for the United States. And unfortunately, there’s really nobody at the helm with enough depth of experience to think that far ahead in this game of chess. Certainly not at the top of the chain of command, where the Commander in Chief is ruled by little more than impulse and ego.
But even the barest possibility that the United States, of all countries, would offer nothing of any substance regarding America’s diplomatic view of the situation or the announcement of some initial measure to discourage continued escalation of North Korea’s belligerent conduct, is unacceptable. A leadership vacuum. And that vacuum is not surprising given the Trump administration’s dysfunctional approach to the State Department. Many career diplomatic employees at State have been fired or idled, and multiple deputy positions within the department are idle because Trump has been unable to nominate people who pass his strict ideological and loyalty tests. So, against that backdrop, Tillerson’s statement sounded an awful lot like a man with nothing to offer to the public or the larger world.
Although North Korea may represent the larger and more immediate threat, however, the situation in Syria this week is surely our biggest disgrace on the world stage since the election of Trump himself, who is to say the least viewed unfavorably beyond our borders.
From any realistic perspective, the conflict in Syria is not only complex and multifactorial, but it is and has been something of a proxy war between the United States on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other. On its face, the conflict developed as a consequence of a popular uprising against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, a brutal dictator who is allied with Russia and whose regime has been propped up by Russia since civil war erupted in Syria in 2011. The alliance between Syria and Iran is more puzzling. Syria is Arab, Alawite and secular, while Iran is Islamic, Shia and deeply religious. However, Iran has been a key ally of Assad throughout the conflict.
Confounding the issue has been the movement of ISIS forces into parts of Syria, encouraged by the power vacuum that conflict has caused in parts of the country. US forces have engaged in airstrikes to degrade ISIS capabilities in the region. Russia has also engaged in airstrikes, which they say are intended to hit as ISIS, but which in reality have targeted the anti-Assad resistance, consistent with Russian support of Assad. Ultimately Russia’s goals have been, overall, maintaining military access to the Mediterranean, preserving its influence over Syria, and re-establishing its influence in the wider region and international arena. This has required a degree of Russian and Iranian alliance to support common shared goals in the region. Both of these sets of interests have been viewed as essentially antithetical to US interests in the region.
Therefore, it was surprising, to say the least, when Rex Tillerson stated earlier this week that Assad’s long-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.” On the same day, in New York, Nikki Haley stated “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” While one might think this is merely reflective of a broader, non-interventionist policy (which frankly, sits fine with me), the implicit message of this was that the United States was just okay with Assad remaining in power. Also implicitly, this shift ceded the longer-term conflict of competing interests to Russia – in effect saying that we’re okay with letting Russia win this one. The fact that this policy statement comes from a president whose campaign has had many suspicious ties to Russia, including a potential policy shift on sanctions as a result of the Russian invasion of Crimea, is hard to ignore. It seems a glaring and sudden capitulation to Russian interests in the region.
This had to be confusing to a great number of our allies. There are only three true great global superpowers: The United States, Russia and China. Among those, we are commonly viewed as the moral leader, and the responsibility that comes with that is great. Moreover, we are a clear military superpower, and the implicit message that we are standing down and letting the Syrian conflict play out – in the only way it can play out given Russian and Iranian intervention against the anti-Assad uprising – created a window of opportunity for Assad to act with impunity to further his own domestic interests. Additionally, our rhetoric both before and after the attacks has shown an absence of moral leadership among world powers.
Assad took advantage of that opportunity in horrific fashion by deploying chemical weapons against his own people. Photos and videos of people, including many women and children, gasping for breath and dying in the streets at the hands of their own government have been shocking and sobering. And as Senator Marco Rubio said on Wednesday, it was no coincidence that this attack followed Tillerson’s comments on Assad, which were akin to an admission that as far as the United States was concerned, Assad could remain in power.
This is not to say there are great options for Trump in Syria. There weren’t great options there for Obama either. We have little leverage, but we do have an international responsibility to stand for human rights, and we have abdicated that responsibility in favor of letting our new sudden ally Russia run the table in the region. Additionally, for all of Trump’s tough talk in Iran during his campaign, he has effectively waved the white flag to Iran and Hezbollah, who have also been pro-Assad actors in the region.
It is clear that the Trump administration has no coherent foreign policy. It has drained the ranks of diplomacy and policy professionals in the State Department, and it is adrift in a sea of incoherent foreign policy. Indeed, as I sat down to write this post, the news broke that Steve Bannon had been removed from the National Security Council. At least this is a sign that Trump recognizes he is out of his league and needs actual professional guidance to navigate these treacherous waters, because they are simply beyond the ken of Trump and his caravan of amateurs and ideologues. For the time being, however, the Trump administration is demonstrating how easily bested it is on the world stage, and it has failed its first major tests.