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Who speaks for American foreign policy?

No one knows who to listen to when the Trump administration talks about US aims around the world.

President Donald Trump makes a statement on the administration’s strategy for dealing with Iran on October 13, 2017.
President Donald Trump makes a statement on the administration’s strategy for dealing with Iran on October 13, 2017.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In November 2017, President Donald Trump told reporters that he is “the only one who matters” when setting US foreign policy — not the secretary of state, and not anyone else in the administration. “Because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”

But the chaos and confusion around Trump’s Syria troop withdrawal decision exposes just how hollow that boast really was: It turns out that when it comes to major foreign policy decisions, it’s unclear who in the Trump administration is actually in charge.

Trump announced on December 19 that he would be pulling US troops from Syria immediately because ISIS had been defeated. “[O]ur boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back. And they’re coming back now,” Trump said in a video posted on Twitter. “We won.”

At the time, Pentagon officials told the New York Times that Trump had ordered the withdrawal to be completed within 30 days — a stunningly short amount of time, especially when you consider the kind of logistics involved in moving 2,000 troops and all of their vehicles and equipment.

But when Trump loyalists at home and key cheerleaders abroad balked at that deadline, the timeline for the withdrawal began to stretch, with Trump reportedly agreeing to allow the Defense Department as long as four months to finish withdrawing troops.

And then on Sunday, Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton seemed to stretch the timeline for withdrawal even longer, telling reporters during a trip to Israel that US troops wouldn’t leave Syria until two main conditions were met: 1) The remnants of ISIS still active in Syria are completely defeated; and 2) the Turkish government agrees to guarantee the safety of the Kurdish fighters allied with the US in Syria.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with White House National Security Adviser John Bolton as they meet on January 6, 2019 in Jerusalem, Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with White House National Security Adviser John Bolton as they meet on January 6, 2019, in Jerusalem, Israel.
Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

While it may be possible to meet the latter condition in the coming weeks (Bolton is currently in Turkey to work out just such an agreement), there is absolutely zero chance that the last vestiges of ISIS still fighting in Syria will be wiped out anytime soon. The Pentagon estimates that around 17,000 ISIS fighters remain in the country, and on Monday the group launched a deadly attack in Raqqa, a major Syrian city that was once the terrorist organization’s capital.

Which means that, according to the conditions Bolton laid out, it could be months or even years before US troops actually leave Syria — the exact opposite of everything Trump has been saying for weeks.

Yet on Monday, Trump tweeted that nothing had changed since his “original statements” about the Syria withdrawal and that, despite reports to the contrary, “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!”

And in an interview with CNBC Monday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed that “We’re going to withdraw our 2,000 soldiers from Syria,” but he added that “the mission, the purpose for which we have been involved for the 24 months of the administration remains in full.”

So ... what? Who are we supposed to be listening to here? The president? Officials at the Pentagon? Trump’s national security adviser? The secretary of state? Who actually speaks for US foreign policy, if not the president?

The answer, it seems, is everybody does — which means nobody does. That is incredibly dangerous.

This is how catastrophes happen

America’s friends and foes alike make calculations based upon what administration officials say. In a normal presidential administration, statements from the national security adviser, the secretary of state, or the president would all be viewed as articulations of the official position of the United States government.

Syrian Kurdish fighters on June 20, 2015.
Syrian Kurdish fighters on June 20, 2015.
Ahmet Sik/Getty Images

But this isn’t a normal presidential administration. In the Trump administration, it’s anyone’s guess whom to believe. And if different players make different guesses, it could potentially result in serious unintended consequences.

For instance, imagine you’re the Kurds in Syria right now: Do you choose to believe Trump’s statements that the US is leaving you to fend for yourself against Turkey, and thus make plans to ally with Assad or Iran for protection instead?

Or do you choose to believe Bolton, and rest assured that the US won’t abandon you and that you’re safe? What if you choose incorrectly? And what if Turkey makes the opposite choice? Or Iran?

This kind of misperception is how major catastrophes — like mass slaughters and even war — happen.

Other US administrations had this problem, but they figured it out

The Trump administration isn’t the first one in US history to send mixed messages about its foreign policy intentions, of course.

As Slate’s Fred Kaplan pointed out on Monday, former President Jimmy Carter once announced the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea only to find little to no support from many within his own administration and even allies in Congress. He then, embarrassingly, reversed course and had his national security adviser tell reporters the president changed his mind.

Former President Jimmy Carter delivers a lecture in London on February 3, 2016.
Former President Jimmy Carter delivers a lecture in London on February 3, 2016.
Eddie Mullholland-WPA Pool/Getty Images

But the Carter administration — like most Republican and Democratic administrations before and since — for good and for bad typically spoke with one voice on foreign policy. That is an important aspect of governance the Trump administration has yet to figure out.

It’s said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once made fun of Europe by asking if it had a phone number. What he meant was that Europe’s many and overlapping bureaucracies made it unclear who speaks for the continent regarding its foreign policy.

The same, sadly, can now be said of the United States. That, of course, may simply be due to Trump’s leadership. After all, he’s the only one who matters.

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