In the course of less than fourteen days, President Trump launched a missile strike against Syria to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, sent the USS Carl Vinson carrier battle group steaming into Korean waters to exert pressure on North Korea to rethink its nuclear program, and dropped a MOAB bomb on an underground tunnel network used by terrorists in Eastern Afghanistan.
As a student of policy and diplomacy, I understand the importance of coherence in foreign policy. For those struggling to understand what President Trump’s foreign policy might look like, it’s a bit like Trump himself; all over the map. Not only are the actions in Syria, the Korean Peninsula, and Afghanistan a complete departure from the “America First” platform President Trump campaigned on, but they are also misguided, impulsive, and dangerous. Here’s why.
The airstrike in Syria was largely ceremonial, serving mostly to satisfy our (Trump included) collective desire to do something — anything — to retaliate against an unspeakable atrocity. But as with most things Trumpian, the strike was more spectacle than substance. The airport was up and running the very next day. The administration is quick to point out that the purpose of the airstrike was not to “take out” the airport. But what the airstrike actually intended to do differs depending on who you ask, and on what day you ask them. A personal favorite is the answer given by the president’s son, Eric Trump, who claimed that the president’s decision to launch an airstrike was a reaction to seeing his daughter Ivanka cry as she beheld the images of the Syrian children killed in the attack. Of course no father likes to see his little girl cry, but only one has the ability to launch a literal boatload of tomahawk missiles to make it better.
While the strike did not destroy the airport, it did deliver a fatal blow to Trump’s only claim of policy coherence: the potential to successfully negotiate with Putin and come to a diplomatic solution in Syria. In press conferences following the airstrike, both President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described relations with Russia as “at an all time low.” Trump made a characteristically knee-jerk reaction and in doing so forfeited the one card he had to play.
With the crisis in Syria potentially on the verge of escalation, what better time to escalate the situation in North Korea than now? Many leading security analysts agree that the North Korea threat is real and must be death with, but it is difficult to believe that the Trump administration successfully formulated a winning strategy to combat the threat in its first 100 days. It seem the case is more likely that the decision to send “an armada” into Korean waters at this precise moment is more a reaction to positive media coverage of Trumps “decisiveness” responding to the chemical attack in Syria than the emergence of any grand North Korean strategy. Using foreign policy as a tool of domestic politics is a very dangerous game.
It’s no coincidence that as reports came in of an uptick in Trump’s approval ratings following the Syrian airstrike, the “Mother of All Bombs” was dropped in the Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. The 21,600 pound behemoth reportedly killed 94 ISIS fighters, roughly the same number of victims ISIS killed with a cargo truck in the streets of Nice on Bastille Day. If anything, this display of military might only highlighted the inadequacy of our far superior military to deal with many of todays threats. And it isn’t hard to imagine the ISIS recruitment machine coming to the same conclusion, and churning out propaganda accordingly.
All this, in less than 100 days in office. All this, from a man who ran an entire campaign on an “America First,” borderline isolationist platform. Our bombs and missiles may be strategically guided, but our President clearly is not. The Trump foreign policy agenda will be driven by the exact same factors the drive Trump himself; approval ratings, gut-reactions, and positive coverage on the nightly news.