Part X: Trump Finally Plays a Card

Trump finally played a card with the Syria strike and it was a doozy – whether the messages were intended or not.

The past week saw the rhetoric of President Trump’s campaign messages meet the reality of the office he now holds. Stepping back a little further, April has been a very revealing month — if not somewhat cruel to President Trump’s more isolationist-leaning backers — in terms of what an emerging “Trump Doctrine” looks like.

Attaching the term “doctrine” to various past presidents’ policies is always somewhat of a misnomer as their actions are constrained by a variety of factors, including the unfeeling realm of geopolitics, and are informed by a bevy of inputs most of us could never even imagine.

Voters across the political spectrum were either terrified of, or enraged by, or ecstatic over the idea of a President Trump who would sharply reduce the United States’ global footprint and upend decades of long-standing formal and de facto relationships that have come to define the post-WWII era.

But any ideas of what a Trump foreign policy would or wouldn’t look like blew up earlier this month when nearly five dozen Tomahawk missiles struck the Syrian regime’s Shayrat airbase. So much for all the times candidate Trump decried foolish U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, amirite?Well, not so fast. The missile strike against regime forces in Syria was the very least President Trump could do and still reasonably claim he had done something. And there are zero signals that Washington is preparing to send U.S. ground troops en masse into Syria to fight against both the regime and various jihadi forces.

The reality is that the strike is important because it was the first tangible international action by the new President who has yet to clearly define his strategy and the world is taking notice. Here’s where we stand now:

  • The Syrian regime in Damascus has been warned that any use of nerve agents or chemical warfare in the future risks triggering a U.S. strike. The actual impact the last strike had within Syria is still being debated as details from both the Syrian and US government are fuzzy, but the immediate diplomatic kerfuffle it caused with the Assad regime’s Russian backers was relatively short lived. The U.S.-Russian “deconfliction” line – meant to prevent conflicts from escalating – that the Russians suspended was restored a few days later, with none of the tension so lovingly built up during the previous administration any worse for the wear.
  • On the last point, the Russians suddenly see a cost to their direct actions in Syria that has been palpably absent in recent years. But before you start bursting into renditions of “America, F#%$ yeah!” try and see this from the Russian perspective: your aging, limited military resources are now stretched incredibly thin from Ukraine to the heart of the Levant, and you have a tendency to see enemies across all borders. With the Americans again willing to fling ordinance about, things could get ugly fast.
RIMPAC Exercises
  • Trump’s ordering of the strike in Syria has implications outside of the Middle East as well. For China, the timing could not have been more awkward. As 59 Tomahawk missiles were being launched from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean, Trump was entertaining Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Following intimate conversations over a “big, beautiful” piece of chocolate cake, President Trump has decided that he will not label the Chinese as currency manipulators after all, but the Chinese delegation is said to have left Mar-a-Lago agreeing to help eliminate the U.S. trade deficit and the North Korean nuclear threat.
  • With all the explosions as of late (including the crater the Americans blew into Afghanistan’s Spin Ghar mountains last week via MOAB), the North Koreans are nervous that they’re next. Pyongyang’s decision to not test a suspected planned nuclear device over the weekend to coincide with the 105th anniversary of founder Kim Il-Sung’s birth could be seen in response to the U.S. Navy moving the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group to the region. But back a desperate, anxious neurotic into a corner and you might not like what happens next…
  • With all this ordinance on display, the U.S. has outlined, highlighted, and made bold what sort of capabilities will not be on the side of its NATO allies should they continue to fail to meet their funding obligations to the alliance. Trump has changed his tune recently regarding how NATO is no longer “obsolete,” but the new administration has made it crystal clear to both NATO and EU leadership that members can no longer expect US protection essentially for “free.”
Whether or not President Trump or members of his administration intended for all of these things to fall into place following the strike in Syria is of course another topic, but the adults in the room (especially Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster) certainly understand how many opportunities the April 6 strike against Syrian forces have opened up. And given the deference Trump has for “his” generals and an increasing tendency to delegate decision-making during these first 100 days, it’s safe to say that the emerging Trump foreign policy is going to be anything but boring.

Part IX: The First International Challenge

Trump has big foreign policy choices to make this week and they both have world changing consequences.

It’s already been a big week for Trump. He just got his first pair of foreign policy crises.

First, the one that he picked.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will arrive tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago for direct talks with President Trump. We will know within a few days just how hostile the Trump administration will be toward all things Chinese. In these talks, The United States — and by extension, Trump — holds most of the cards: a functional anti-Chinse military alliance, absolute naval mastery of the Pacific, a Japan chomping at the bit for a more aggressive anti-Chinese stance, full command over the security of the global trading system upon which China depends, etc.

It isn’t that China cannot cause the Americans pain, just that any method of doing so obviously invites the Americans to counter in-kind at a higher order of magnitude. Xi is flatly coming seeking a “deal” and the talks are in Florida — rather than Washington or Beijing — so that Xi need not worry about American journalists or Chinese politicos hearing the discussions and potentially casting Xi as being as weak in the talks as he fully realizes he is. So either we’ll get a deal or this is the beginning of the end of the Chinese system in its current form. Personally, I’m popping some corn.

Then there’s the crisis that Trump most certainly did not pick.

Earlier this week the Syrians broke out some of their chemical weapons stocks again and used them on one of the more stubborn rebel positions in the country’s northern Idlib province. Russia quickly provided a modicum of diplomatic cover for its Syrian ally, asserting that a Syrian airstrike merely struck a rebel chemical weapons factory, and so scattered someone else’s chemical weapons.

For those of you who like to obsess about technicalities, chemical weapons depend upon being aerosolized for dispersion. It isn’t that the liquid material isn’t toxic — it’s totally toxic! — but a pint of liquid chemical weapon will kill everyone in a room while the same aerosolized amount can kill everyone in several city blocks. Hit a chemical weapons depot with a conventional bomb and you’ll incinerate far more of the material than you’ll disperse, much less aerosolize. The Russians of course know this and fully realize that the statement isn’t just a lie, but a particularly asinine one.

There’s a method to the madness.

The Russian challenge is the same one they used when invading eastern Ukraine: say something so beyond the pale that you are daring the international community to do something. It leaves everyone — Trump included — with needing to follow one of three paths. First, suck it up and do nothing. Second, deploy tens of thousands of troops to engage in a broad scale war against a country backed by a nuclear power that already has combat troops in-theater and risk thermonuclear escalation. Third, start a drone/airstrike campaign with the express purpose of decapitating the Syrian government, up to and including the assassination of Assad himself.

Option 1 makes you look like a wuss, emboldening Russia (not to mention Syria) to use similar tactics in other theaters. Option 2 bogs you down in a winless, bottomless war that makes the Iraq conflict look simple (and that’s assuming that nothing goes horribly wrong). Option 3 gives up on a stable future for Syria and the surrounding region. It would also be public acceptance of assassination, opening up a Pandora’s box of strikes and counter-strikes all over the world by a panoply of powers.

Say what you will about the Russians, they are very good about presenting their rivals with unwinnable choices.

I never expected the alleged Trump-Putin love-fest to amount to anything. Russia’s geopolitical and demographic position is precarious, but Russia’s tool-box is fairly full. Trump has yet to fully familiarize himself with the awesome raft of tools the U.S. president has in foreign affairs, and his demeanor is somewhat… inconsistent. It’s a combustible mix, not to mention that I personally find the idea that the world is big enough for the Trump and Putin egos to co-exist (darkly) amusing.

What really gets my attention is that these two developments happened in the same week. Xi’s trip has been on the docket for awhile now, and timing the use of a chemical munition wouldn’t be all that hard. While I have zero proof, the timing does appear to be trademark Russian: force the White House to pick a crisis — a buffet of unpalatable choices in the Middle East, or a major politico-economic conflict with another power. Either way, it potentially keeps the Trump administration obsessed with conflicts far from Russia’s borders.

Just don’t forget that no matter what Trump picks, the outcomes are going to be far worse for others. An America engaged in a Syrian conflict is one that generates building disasters for Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Europe. An America engaged in a head-of-state assassination campaign destabilizes entire continents. An America pursuing a Chinese competition wrecks the entire global supply chain system from raw crude to iPhones.

The only way this doesn’t lead to Disorder is if Trump chooses to look like a whimp.