There is a disconnect between what Donald Trump says and what foreign policy hawks think
The twists and turns in the US policy in Syria are the most dramatic example of the president's unpredictability
Donald Trump likes being unpredictable. He said as much many times during the presidential campaign in 2016 and three years on, he still touts the virtues of throwing others off balance.
But two recent developments in the US’s Middle Eastern policy again demonstrate that the unpredictability of his administration often arises more from incoherence and capriciousness than calculation or a strategic attempt at surprise.
Recent twists and turns in the US policy in Syria are the most dramatic examples of this. In mid-December, Mr Trump announced, via Twitter, that all US forces would be withdrawn from Syria, adding that it would happen soon.
It was something he had long signalled he wanted to do but his principal officials had spent the fortnight prior to this sudden announcement reassuring everyone – not least US allies, especially the Syrian rebel forces who had been the main ground troops in the battle against ISIS – that Washington was definitely not going to withdraw.
Some had said the US wouldn't leave until ISIS was thoroughly defeated. Others added Washington would demand protections for its Syrian allies. And national security adviser John Bolton insisted the US wouldn't leave Syria until Iran and its proxies had also gone.
Hence, the president's announcement was astonishing and, as I noted at the time, it was possible and imperative that he change his mind.
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Since then, he has apparently been persuaded that the withdrawal should at least be slowed and that the US must try to make sure that ISIS is further crippled and that Turkey does not massacre Washington’s Kurdish and Arab allies in Syria.
However, no one – including Mr Trump’s inner circle – really knows what the American policy in Syria really is, other than that the president is determined to go and is willing to insist that the US will eventually do that, somehow.
So anyone who wants something different from US goals in Syria simply has to wait it out, and probably not for long. Washington will most likely make a complete withdrawal and the US military says that process has already begun. Over the weekend, the US military began moving materiel out of Syria – but crucially, no troops – yet.
Had Mr Trump told his subordinates to lay the groundwork for such a shift quietly, they could have taken steps to ensure that crucial US goals regarding ISIS, Turkey and Iran were somewhat protected. They could have extracted concessions, made deals and secured strategic arrangements. But with the sudden announcement surprising even them, that opportunity was utterly squandered.
Defence secretary Jim Mattis and ISIS coalition chief Brett McGurk were shocked and aghast by the decision. Both resigned in protest.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a policy speech on Thursday at the American University of Cairo, apparently rebutting an earlier address by then-president Barack Obama at Cairo University in June 2009.
Mr Pompeo criticised the “misjudgments” of the previous administration. “America hesitated”, he claimed, and as a result, terrorism flourished, Tehran’s regime sought to spread its influence to Yemen, Iraq and Syria, and Hezbollah grew in size and power in Lebanon. The US, he said, had learned from its mistakes and was once again ready to assert its power as a “force for good in the Middle East”.
Unfortunately, that is far from reality, as the unfolding fiasco in Syria plainly demonstrates. The most truthful part of his lengthy speech was noting that US choices will have significant consequences for other nations.
And notwithstanding their many differences, Mr Obama and Mr Trump have more in common than either would admit. In office, they both had the goal of reducing the overall US footprint in the Middle East. Both took significant steps to advance that aim.
Certainly, Mr Trump has imposed stinging new economic sanctions against Iran and repudiated the nuclear deal that his predecessor had negotiated. But if he completes a US withdrawal from Syria, as seems likely, Iran might be left impoverished but in a strengthened strategic position, despite the sanctions. Its regime would then surely dominate key strategic areas, including both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
This thoroughgoing incoherence in policy stems from a fundamental philosophical disconnect within the Trump administration and Republican Party.
Most administration officials and Republican foreign policy practitioners are interventionist hawks. They speak Mr Bolton’s and Mr Pompeo’s language of unapologetic and aggressive American leadership around the world, in the American interest and for the greater good.
Mr Trump and many of his supporters in the Republican populist base view realities very differently. They regard the global order the US has led since the Second World War as a nuisance and an indefensible burden and waste of resources. They perceive alliances as irrationally limiting American options. They only care about trade and the narrowest forms of military self-defence.
Foreign policy hawks and neo-isolationists like Mr Trump see the world in starkly different and often incompatible ways.
This dichotomy was evident in the National Security Strategy issued in December 2017. The document begins by insisting it is "guided by outcomes, not ideology" but then declares that "American principles are a lasting force for good in the world". The contradictions embedded in the document continue throughout its text.
Trump administration officials can often only feel confident about advancing their foreign policies when the president isn't paying close attention. But when, as with Syria, he unexpectedly takes notice for some reason, he can unexpectedly overturn the applecart.
Such incoherence cannot serve a global power seeking to secure and promote the international status quo. That is still the goal of both liberal and conservative US foreign policy experts. But Mr Trump and his nativist supporters want no part of it.
US foreign policy has not just become unpredictable. It has developed a split personality that might be useful to a rogue regime like North Korea or Iran. But for Washington and its allies, that is a disaster.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: January 12, 2019 07:01 PM