This might just be the permanent clip for Trump-era foreign policy
So, let’s sum up the last few days. Steve Bannon is out at the NSC, a victory for McMasters, but maybe a meaningless one, since he still hasn’t been able to put in his own people, for the most part. Still, it’s a start, because as the NYTimes put it, it’s the removal of a “political advisor”.
in Syria, the administration first said that it was “silly” to talk about removing Asad, only to sort of reverse course. “Only days after the White House declared it would be ‘silly’ to persist in trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Trump said, ‘My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.'” Nikki Haley is threatening unilateral action, and seems genuinely emotional following the chemical attack on civilians in Idlib (understandably and genuinely, I think).
And, of course, this is against the backdrop of SecDef Mattis being given far more leeway to fight ISIS and AQAP, loosening restrictions on field commanders and broadening what is considered an “area of active hostilities“. While this will increase civilian casualties, it will also almost certainly hurt ISIS more on the battlefield.
So, overall…are these good things? I think, in a vacuum, you could make a case for each one. Certainly, the demotion of the vile Steve Bannon is a good thing, because it might signal that he has displeased the Fake King. Certainly, Trump’s string of failures is eating at him, and when he lashes out, who knows who will take the fall? But it’s also true that Bannon isn’t merely a “political adviser.” He’s Trump’s worldview shaper, and probably the best person at helping trump find enemies to take the blame for his own personal failures. So we’ll see if Bannon is actually on the outs (which is possible) or if this is just a temporary ego-assuaging for Trump.
Syria is interesting, except that it is clear that Trump has no real plans. He goes entirely on however he feels at the moment. Deciding to get more involved against the Asad government means taking certain responsibility for Syria, not to mention tangling with Russia. Does Trump actually mean this? Or was it just a tough-sounding gesture. It’s possible to see a world where the US bombs Syrian airstrips and planes, and maybe munitions dumps, but that would entail a broader national/regional strategy, as well as a coherent Russian one.
And that’s the main problem here: there is no strategy. Even the devolution of power to Mattis and field commanders, something that sounds sensible, is a product of not having any real foreign policy other than “beating our enemies” (and, in the case of Bannon, creating them in order to forge some civilizational conflict). It is all well and good to be, as Mattis is, a warrior. It might be true that the Obama administration micromanaged too much. But that (arguably) overabundance of caution came from the constant asking of “what’s next? What happens after we ‘win’? How does the world look then?”
It’s clear these aren’t questions Trump is asking, and certainly ones he doesn’t have the patience to see. While McMasters and Mattis are strategists, they are so in a narrow sense, as we discussed earlier. And all of the Trump team’s plans (including creating “safe zones” for refugees to return) all seem geared toward short-term solutions that have zero interest in the long term, and zero interest in how they balance against other strategies. (Like, for instance, if you have “safe zones”, how do you protect them? What happens if they are attacked by Russia? What happens when they want to return to ruined villages?)
This starts from the top. Trump has no real vision, no real foreign policy. He’s the guy who reads the paper and says “we can do better, I know how!” This is literally true: it’s all he says.
So maybe you can have competent people. Maybe you can get some grownups on board. And maybe certain tactics, like letting loose the military on ISIS, can produce results. It almost certainly will. But when you are a flailing, know-nothing impatient ignoramus, the whole of your administration and policy will reflect that. It’s wrong to ask what Trump’s strategy is. It’s clear there is no method at all.