The Battle for Trump’s Brain

The president has no Syria plan. Here’s how his advisers are competing to set the administration’s agenda.

President Donald Trump holds a meeting with members of his cabinet including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 13.

Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

What is President Trump’s policy in Syria? How far would he go to rein in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Nobody knows, and Trump won’t say. Even after authorizing a missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to Assad’s poison-gas attack on civilians, Trump won’t spell out the limits of his intervention or what might provoke him further. “We’re not going into Syria,” Trump assured Americans in a recent Fox News interview. “But when I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons … and see these beautiful kids that are dead in their fathers’ arms, or you see kids gasping for life … when you see that, I immediately called Gen. Mattis.”

If Trump won’t explain his policy, others will do it for him. In the days since the strike, administration officials and Republican senators have asserted their own versions of the Trump Doctrine. Here are the five main variants, from the least to the most aggressive, and what they would entail for military involvement in Syria and other conflicts.

1. The Tillerson Doctrine. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson interprets Trump’s attack on the air base as a narrow, one-time decision. “This strike was related solely to the most recent horrific use of chemical weapons,” he says. “We’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons. Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.” Based on this minimally interventionist approach, if Assad uses barrel bombs or other nonchemical means to murder his people, Trump won’t hit him again.

Is Assad a threat to U.S. national security? Tillerson says no. Our job is “to contain ISIS and the threat that ISIS really does present to the homeland,” the secretary argues. Only after ISIS “has been reduced or eliminated,” he says, should we turn to the problem of stabilizing Syria.

Tillerson opposes toppling Assad by force. We tried “violent regime change” in Libya, he says, and it turned out badly. Tillerson also gives a philosophical reason to avoid conflict in Syria: “The United States’ own founding principles are self-determination.” Therefore, we should “enable the Syrian people to make that determination” as to “how Bashar al-Assad’s leadership is sustained or how he departs.” The implication here is that if Syrians decide Assad is better than the alternatives, the U.S. will accept their decision.

2. The McMaster Doctrine. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster prefers a more flexible policy. Unlike Tillerson, he suggests that Trump might attack the Assad regime if it uses conventional weapons to commit war crimes. The main purpose of last week’s strike, according to McMaster, was to deter the Syrian dictator from using chemical weapons. But it was also a warning that Trump won’t “stand idly by” if Assad commits any kind of “mass murder against his own civilians.”

McMaster doubts the conflict could be resolved peacefully while Assad is in power. But he deflects queries about “deposing” the dictator, arguing instead that there “has to be a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior.” That language suggests that Assad could stay if he changes his tactics. And while McMaster is less emphatic than Tillerson about the folly of regime change by force, he’d rather avoid it. “What’s required is some kind of a political solution,” he says, adding: “We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to effect that change.”

In general, McMaster seems to favor improvisation. He wants to keep his options open and his plans fluid. “We are prepared to do more,” he says. “The president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people. And it will be our job to provide him with options based on how we see this conflict evolve.” If you’re looking for firm commitments or restraints, McMaster isn’t your guy.

3. The Spicer Doctrine. White House press secretary Sean Spicer portrays Trump’s Syria policy as impulsive and gut-driven. He explains the missile strike this way: “When you watch babies and children being gassed and suffer under barrel bombs, you are instantaneously moved to action.” This doctrine would justify a military response even if Assad didn’t use chemical weapons. To villains everywhere, Spicer warns: “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people … you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable.”

Unlike Tillerson, Spicer sees Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction as “a grave threat to our national security.” In addition, says Spicer, “there’s very important national security interests in the region.” While these are the same arguments that led us into Iraq, Spicer doesn’t advocate war. Instead, he argues, “We can apply political, economic, and diplomatic pressure for a regime change.”

Spicer’s doctrine isn’t just about righteous anger. It’s about unpredictability. “One of the things that I don’t want to start doing,” he cautions, is to “say, ‘If you do this, this is the reaction that you’re going to get.’ The president has made very clear … that he’s not going to telegraph a response to every corresponding action, because that just tells the opposition or the enemy what you’re going to do and whether or not that response is worth taking.”

This cagey ambiguity is consistent with Trump’s past statements about the folly of giving away our plans to the enemy. It’s also nuts. Refusing to draw lines or describe the consequences you’d impose is the opposite of deterrence. In fact, it’s the opposite of policy. That’s one reason why Spicer’s version of Trumpism is probably the most authentic: It reflects Trump’s aversion to organized thinking.

4. The Haley Doctrine. Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, stretches his words and deeds to support an aggressive diplomatic agenda. Like Spicer, she sees the strike as a visceral response, and she says Trump’s options remain open. “His focus was on the fact that innocent victims were hurt by a terrible regime,” she explains. “And he said he wasn’t going to put up with it.” That means Trump might go after Assad again if the dictator attacks his people with conventional weapons. “We’re going to keep all of our thoughts and plans close to the chest,” says Haley, adding: “I don’t think anything is off the table.”

Haley says Assad’s fate should be resolved politically and isn’t “for the United States to decide.” But unlike her administration colleagues, she sees the missile strike as part of a global, not just American, doctrine. “This was not only a national security issue. This was an international security issue,” she asserts. “And I think the president wanted to make that known.”

Haley is an idealist, but she’s playing her own angle. As U.N. ambassador, she wants Trump’s military pressure to give her leverage with foreign governments, particularly Russia and Iran. She suggests, implausibly, that Trump launched the strike to help her achieve that goal: “That’s the focus of why the airstrike happened this time, which is to try and move that political solution.” She also wants the threat of force to appear open-ended. Her message to “the Security Council and the international community” is that Trump “won’t stop here,” she says. “If he needs to do more, he will do more.”

5. The Graham-McCain-Rubio Doctrine. Haley’s leverage strategy isn’t enough for Senate hawks such as Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Marco Rubio. They want military victory. The idea of punishing Assad only for using chemical weapons makes little sense to them. “A very small percentage of the people who have been slaughtered in Syria have been slaughtered by chemical weapons,” McCain observes. Barrel bombs, deliberate starvation, and other methods have done most of the killing.

That’s a good point. So is Rubio’s critique of the Tillerson theory that Assad can be left in power while we fight ISIS. “As long as Assad is there, you’re going to have a radical jihadist Sunni element,” Rubio points out. “There’s an al-Qaida group growing in strength, this al-Nusra coalition, that are prepared to step into the vacuum left behind by a defeated ISIS.”

But the more these senators talk, the more dangerous and self-justifying their ideas sound. Graham calls Assad “a threat to the United States because he’s a proxy of Iran.” The senator wants 5,000 to 6,000 U.S. troops in Syria, for starters, to destroy ISIS and help “take Assad down.” McCain wants to knock out Assad’s air force so we can establish a “safe zone” for refugees. Rubio goes further. Now that American forces are in Syria, he argues, we must use force to protect them:

If [Assad’s] air strikes are … threatening the over 500 American servicemen and women who are on the ground in Syria, we have a national security interest in protecting them from air strikes. By the way, that was one of the factors I think should have been in play in this particular attack. The presence of sarin gas and its use, in a country where there are Americans embedded alongside forces working to defeat ISIS, is a clear and present danger to the men and women who serve us in uniform.

This is how hawks talk themselves into wars on the other side of the globe: First put in troops, then use the troops to justify military operations to protect them. Meanwhile, the hawks use Assad’s defiance to bait Trump into further escalation. By resuming flights from the air base Trump struck with cruise missiles, says Graham, Assad is telling Trump, “F you.”

Which of these five formulations is the real Trump Doctrine? None of them. Trump isn’t guided by doctrines. He’s doesn’t even think systematically. But diplomats, military planners, and foreign governments do. Given the vacuum in the Oval Office, Tillerson, McMaster, Spicer, Haley, and the Republican senators are competing to shape the world’s understanding of American policy.

If Tillerson prevails, last week’s strike in Syria will be an isolated gesture. Trump will do what he promised: Stay out of the conflict. If Haley wins, Iran and other Middle East players will worry about more American strikes, and that might help her twist arms at the U.N. to get a political settlement. If the senators are victorious, Trump’s doctrine and his presidency might look a lot like George W. Bush’s. But my bet is that Spicer’s formula, or maybe McMaster’s, will emerge as the administration’s approach. They’re the least doctrinaire versions of a Trump Doctrine, and therefore the Trumpiest.