Halfway into Donald Trump’s term as president, it is less clear than ever who speaks for American foreign policy or, on even the most basic level, what that policy is.
The latest mishmash over Syria is but the most colorful case in point. Over the weekend, National Security Adviser John Bolton assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that U.S. troops will remain in Syria until ISIS is vanquished, Turkey guarantees it won’t attack the Syrian Kurds, and Iran removes its own military forces from the country. In other words, according to Bolton, we’re going to stay in Syria for quite a while.
This, of course, completely contradicted Trump’s tweet from just over two weeks ago, boasting, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria” and pegging that mission as “my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.” The implication, which he soon made explicit, was that he would be bringing home the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria as soon as possible—a declaration that triggered resignations in protest by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk. Trump also said, just last week, that the Iranians in Syria “can frankly do whatever they want there.”
If you were the Turks, the Kurds, the Syrians, the Iranians, ISIS, or anyone else in the world, friend or foe, whose words would you take seriously—the president’s or his national security adviser’s? Would you believe anything that either of them ever said again, about anything?
Trump has since backpedaled a bit on his declaration of victory over ISIS, tweeting Monday morning that “we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” (Italics added.) But he also claimed that these remarks are “no different from my original statements” and that a New York Times’ story stating otherwise is “very inaccurate.”
Policymakers here and abroad, looking for reassurances or simply clarity, no doubt came away from this tweet more confused than before. First, “a proper pace” and “continuing to fight ISIS” indicate an approach very different from Trump’s original statements. Second, it is not at all clear what Trump means by “all else that is prudent and necessary.” (Is he endorsing Bolton’s conditions for withdrawing?) Finally, his reference to the New York Times suggests that he may not have known about Bolton’s statement until he read about it in the morning paper. (Trump posted the tweet at 9:55 a.m., still an hour before he generally heads downstairs from his “executive time” in the residence, watching Fox News and tapping his iPhone.)
So are we leaving Syria or are we staying? Is our sole interest there the defeat of ISIS (and what does “defeat” mean, in this context?), or do we also have a stake in the protection of the Kurds and the containment of Iran? These are the sorts of questions that presidents work out with Cabinet secretaries and expert advisers in National Security Council meetings. Trump appears to have no such meetings and listens to no such advisers.
His initial tweet, in December, came as the result of a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wondered why U.S. troops were still in Syria, given that ISIS was defeated—to which Trump reportedly replied, “You know what? It’s yours. I’m leaving.”
Many, including Mattis, read that exchange as Trump greenlighting a massacre of the Syrian Kurdish fighters that Turkey considers a terrorist group. Sen. Lindsey Graham soon after said he’d advised Trump over lunch to go slow on withdrawing. Murmurs soon spread from the Pentagon and the State Department that the pullout could take months and would be linked to conditions on the ground. But Trump himself has issued no outright reversal and—who knows—may take back even his partial concessions after his next chat with Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Rand Paul, or Ann Coulter.
Internal disputes over foreign policy have racked nearly every presidency, to one degree or another. There have also been times when a president steps so far outside the consensus that almost all of his aides push back against him. This is what happened when President Jimmy Carter announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from South Korea—only to reverse himself after fierce resistance within his administration and among liberal Democrats in Congress.
But that is not what’s happening here. These are not policy debates. These are the random eruptions of Trump’s id and instinct, shaped by some confidant’s comment during moments of mounting frustration, or blithe self-confidence, when he is ripe for influence.
The Syria tweet is far from the only time when Trump has left his advisers slack-jawed. There was the time he demanded North Korea’s prompt “denuclearization,” then succumbed to Kim Jong-un’s sweet nothings. There was the time when (for reasons that Robert Mueller may uncover) he brushed aside his intelligence agencies’ unanimous verdict on Russian hacking, to accept Putin’s strong denials. He has run lukewarm to cool on his allegiance to Article 5 of the NATO treaty or to any accord that commits the United States to defend an ally under attack.
Back in March, after firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replacing him with Mike Pompeo, Trump said, “We’re getting very close to having the Cabinet—and other things—I want.” In the months since, with his dismissal of H.R. McMaster (replaced by Bolton) and the departure of Mattis (whom he’d derided as “sort of a Democrat”), Trump has put together what he would probably describe as the Cabinet of his dreams.
Yet the discord, disunity, and discomfort continue—mainly because Trump doesn’t know enough to know just what he wants.