“The Middle East is one big, fat quagmire,” Donald Trump said in a November 2015 GOP primary debate.
Flash forward to April 2017. President Trump has just ordered the US military to bomb Bashar al-Assad’s forces for the first time. His deputies have suggested that the administration would consider more bombings if Assad uses chemical weapons again.
The Trump administration has also ramped up US military activity in Yemen, dropping more bombs in one week in March than Obama did in all of 2016. Civilian deaths in US airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria have skyrocketed since Trump took office. The president has sent conventional ground troops to fight in Syria, and is weighing the deployment of 1,000 additional ground troops there to fight ISIS, which would triple the total number of American boots on the ground in the country.
Welcome to the “big, fat quagmire,” Mr. President.
This is a direct result of the way Trump’s administration has been set up. The chaos among the Trump White House’s national security staff, together with the president’s own lack of interest in policy detail, has made any kind of radical revision of US foreign policy impossible. Instead, foreign policy under Trump has been the ideas of top deputies, like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, as filtered through Trump’s gut instincts.
So far, this has led to a ratcheting up of US intervention in the Middle East — and a sidelining of the Trump campaign’s “America First” approach in favor of a more conventionally interventionist policy.
“He has these really strong views, but he’s remarkably unprepared to implement them,” says Thomas Wright, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy. “That means, on any given crisis, the path of least resistance sometimes is to give to the mainstreamers.”
But it’s not clear where this haphazard interventionism leads. In Syria, Trump’s increasingly aggressive posture risks blundering into a war he’s clearly not interested in fighting. And who knows how Trump’s relatively unpredictable instincts will meld with the conventional wisdom on tough issues outside the Middle East, like North Korea.
In the nightmare scenario, the well-meaning advice of his conventional advisers like Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster could, when combined with Trump’s own personal instincts for aggressive counterpunching, lead to wild military escalation, well beyond what the Mattis types in the administration want. Conventional Washington hawkishness, when filtered through Trump’s instincts, could be extremely dangerous.
“We might not see any overarching strategies, just reactions,” Hilde Restad, a professor who studies US foreign policy at Bjørknes College in Norway, tells me. “If you’re going to have a ginormous, extremely powerful country just react — react to Syria, react to North Korea, react to what Russia’s doing — you ... can overreact.”
The Syria strike suggests the problem with Trump’s foreign policy may not be that he’s too afraid to get the US involved in foreign conflicts, as it seemed for part of the campaign. It’s that he’s too willing.
Syria shows that “America First” is a slogan, not a doctrine
Inasmuch as there was a Trump doctrine prior to Trump taking office, bombing Assad to punish him for gassing civilians wasn’t part of it.
Throughout the campaign, Trump came back to the same two-word description for his foreign policy view: America First. “America first will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” he said in a foreign policy address last April.
He repeated this phrase, almost ritualistically, during his January inaugural address. It’s a handy mantra for the way he sees the world.
The phrase has its origins in a 1930s-era pressure group of the same name that opposed America’s entry into World War II. The America Firsters were isolationists, whose overarching belief was that America needed to disconnect from involvement in European affairs in order to preserve its independence and prosperity. Some prominent members, like aviator Charles Lindbergh, actively sympathized with Nazism — a stance that eventually discredited the group entirely.
Trump has told reporters that he knows this history and that his use of the phrase isn’t intended to signify any connection to the discredited slogan and movement. Still, his campaign’s basic, overarching vision for US foreign policy was strikingly similar to that of many of the America Firsters of yore: Trump argued that America’s deep involvement in conflicts that don’t directly involve the United States, like the fight between Assad and Syrian rebels, is at best a distraction from, and at worst a threat to, the interests of the American public — which center on economic growth and fighting terrorism.
“One thing I have to say: I don’t like Assad at all,” Trump said during an October presidential debate. “But Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS.”
The problem, though, is that Trump’s national security staff doesn’t agree with this notion. Mattis takes an essentially conventional view of American foreign policy, believing in the need for strong alliances and US management of conflicts in key regions. While the America First position was to cozy up to Russia, seeing shared interests in fighting terrorism, Mattis describes Russia as one of America’s most significant strategic adversaries.
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has taken a similar position, excoriating Russia in angry UN speeches about the country’s role in Syria. McMaster shares a similar worldview, taking a nuanced position on Islam and terrorism that’s quite different from what was expressed by the Trump campaign. (It’s still not quite clear how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson fits into all of this.)
This set up a conflict between Trump’s stated doctrine, one embraced by chief strategist Steve Bannon, and the key people actually involved in making foreign policy decisions. What would prevail in the event of a crisis — America First, or something more traditional?
Assad’s use of a nerve agent in Syria on April 4 — the first time he had done so since agreeing to give up such weapons in 2013 — was the first big test of how this would play out in practice. If a kind of neo–America First doctrine really did dominate the way the president saw the world, then there’s no way he would intervene to punish Assad for chemical weapons use on non-Americans.
Yet Trump had a different reaction.
According to his own public statements and multiple reports from inside the White House, his reaction was abject horror — a profound sense of shock at the images coming out of Syria of young children gasping for air and parents cradling their dead children. It opened him up to the idea that the United States should do something to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
"Yesterday's chemical attack, a chemical attack so horrific in Syria against innocent people including women, small children, and even beautiful little babies, their deaths was an affront to humanity,” Trump said in a press conference on April 5. “These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”
This point, that Trump’s openness to intervention came from a gut reaction, is critical. It speaks to the fact that his approach to foreign policy was never quite as consistent as his campaign rhetoric seemed to suggest.
Instead of a unified worldview, Trump has more of a set of impulses — for instance, that any international agreement should benefit the United States financially — but he tends to apply them in haphazard and often contradictory ways.
America First was a slogan that his political team latched onto, one that did indeed capture some of these instincts. It placed Trump’s hostility to immigration, opposition to free trade deals, and skepticism about foreign wars into an ideologically convenient package.
But America First never fully captured the way Trump actually approached foreign affairs. Among other things, he has a tendency to react emotionally to news reports and gruesome images from crises. After the iconic photo of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi dead on Turkey’s shores went public, Trump changed his mind on refugees very briefly, saying that the United States needed to take refugees for “humanitarian” reasons. This didn’t last, as hostility to immigration was one of his core commitments and distinguishing features as a primary candidate. But it shows that even on issues where Trump’s opinion seems most fixed, he can be budged in reaction to new events.
“When he’s confronted with a humanitarian disaster, sometimes he will say, ‘We should do something,’” Wright says. “A picture of a lot of children gassed is pretty horrific for anyone to see.”
This instinct, very much at odds with the cold disinterest in foreign lives at the heart of America First is what opened the door to intervention in Syria. The fact that Trump had mainstream advisers is what caused him to walk through it.
If he had a staff full of people who agreed with the America First doctrine laid out during the campaign, it’s possible he could have been dissuaded from bombing Assad. Bannon took up this role in internal White House deliberations, according to New York magazine’s Gabe Sherman, arguing that it’s not America’s job to protect Syrians from Assad.
But Bannon is clearly on the outs inside White House; it’s not even clear that he’ll be in the White House this time next month. The advisers who form Trump’s core team on foreign policy — people like Mattis and McMaster — approached the issue differently. They quickly drew up plans for intervention in Syria that would appeal to Trump’s “do something” instinct in the wake of the chemical attack. Trump accepted one of those plans, reportedly the least aggressive on offer — launching 59 cruise missiles at al-Shayrat airbase. And here we are.
In the young Trump administration’s first major crisis, then, he went with plans presented by the establishment rather than what the insurgent bomb throwers like Steven Bannon wanted.
“They [top advisers] have essentially denied the America First group access and control of the interagency process, which is highly important,” Wright says. “What they’ve done is pretty extraordinary — and they’ve done it without openly defying Trump but by getting him on board for some of it.”
Every engagement like this risks escalation — and pulling Trump away from his past ideas
But it’s not clear how stable this approach to policymaking is.
Trump may have agreed to one missile barrage to punish Syria for chemical weapons use. But the goal of this policy, at least in theory, is to deter Assad: to send him a clear signal that if he does something like this again, he will face American punishment.
But this kind of policy is hard to pull off. The show of force itself doesn’t make clear what will trigger US military intervention; cruise missiles don’t come with stamped letters laying out formal policies. To set up this kind of clear red line, the administration needs to show where the line actually is. For example, the Syrian air force already appears to be flying missions out of the airbase the US bombed — is that a violation of Trump’s terms?
The answer appears to be no. But it seems like the administration doesn’t actually have a sense of what really would cross the line.
On Monday, press secretary Sean Spicer was asked what the Trump administration’s “red line” is when it comes to intervening Syria. Would it have to be a chemical weapons attack, or would more conventional bombings targeting civilians also trigger US retaliation?
Spicer’s answer was surprising. He said that additional US intervention could be triggered if Assad were to use poison gas on civilians again — or if he were to use a kind of conventional explosive called a barrel bomb. “The answer is that if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” he said.
Barrel bombs are containers filled with explosives and sometimes metal, dropped from helicopters, often on civilian areas. Assad’s air force uses them extremely frequently — his forces dropped 13,000 of them in 2016 alone, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Intervening to stop barrel bomb use would essentially mean indefinite war on Assad.
The White House later walked this back, telling AFP’s Andrew Beatty that Spicer’s comments only referred to barrel bombs that contained industrial chlorine (a kind of improvised chemical weapon). But this would still lead to a lot of intervention against Assad. According to Aron Lund, a Syria expert at the Century Foundation, the opposition claimed that Assad used chlorine barrel bombs about 130 times between 2014 and 2016. That’s a rate of roughly one chlorine bomb every 12 days, which would translate to a whole lot of US airstrikes.
So the White House walked this back further, telling Beatty that "nothing has changed in our posture." But the problem is that nobody actually knows what the policy was in the first place: Reporters were asking Spicer what would trigger future intervention because the White House was never particularly clear on it.
It’s Thursday, and the White House still hasn’t clarified what the red line is. The American public — and, more importantly, Moscow and Damascus — are still completely in the dark.
This is a perfect illustration of the problem with Trump’s ad hoc foreign policy. It’s possible that in any given crisis, Trump does what his mainstream advisers tell him to do at least once. But taking one action — specifically, one military action — doesn’t guarantee how he will act in the future. For all we know, the next time Assad uses chemical weapons, Trump may ignore it — or he might decide to launch a full-scale war.
“Any subtle, complex argument about the very complex conflict in Syria is not gonna overlap with anything Trump is thinking about,” Hilde Restad says. “The worry is that you have different ... strategies inside the same administration.”
What Syria shows us is that while Trump’s advisers can corral his instincts in specific instances, that doesn’t mean they can solve the broader problem of his impulsive policymaking — the fact that one action is only the beginning, not the end, of an overall policy, and that Trump is in no way guaranteed to take the follow-up actions required for his original decision to make sense. The overall strategic logic that the advisers are pushing may be abandoned at a moment’s notice.
“I do think there’s a systemic risk there,” Wright says. “[Trump’s advisers] haven’t solved the problem; they’ve reduced it.”
Perhaps the scariest part of all this is the way military operations might intersect with the president’s more aggressive impulses — his willingness to hold a grudge, the value he places on having a reputation for strength. What happens if he goes beyond what his advisers think is prudent, demanding that they balloon their military escalations into something they couldn’t have anticipated?
The best-case scenario is that Trump’s advisers are really great at corralling him, and that he ends up tamping down on his worst instincts when it comes to life-or-death issues like the use of force. But there’s no guarantee that would happen. It’s just impossible to know with any certainty, given Trump’s own mercurial nature. There’s a real risk that any initially limited military operation could escalate out of control.
“What you seem to be lacking now,” Restad says, “is restraint, long-term thinking, and not being tempted to use your military just because you have it.”
The bombing in Syria is only the first major test of Trump’s foreign policy — it won’t be the last, and it probably won’t be the last one even in Syria. And while the conventional wisdom may have prevailed this time around, there’s no guarantee it will in the future.