Prophetic and prescient? I wrote, in March, that Trump’s way out of his current morass and steady stream of bad news (failed roll out of the “Muslim ban”, failed legislative priority around repealing Obamacare, and of the course the large bear in the room, the “Russian Scandal”), was, to be ultimately cynical, just to “start a war”.
Given the behavior of the North Korean regime, I predicted that within 3 months the US would be in a full on conflict with North Korea. Nothing like a President at war to artificially harvest the support of a majority of Americans.
But history has a way of throwing curved balls, and the Administration’s own flippant comments about Syria, namely the Secretary of State saying that it was up to the Syrians to decide what they want to do with their leader, was perhaps too tempting an invitation for Assad. Immediately after these comments about a “laissez faire” attitude of the new US Administration, Assad launched a second chemical attack on his own people.
Now just for the sake of historical accuracy, this is not the first time. When Assad used bio-chemical agents against his “rebels”, the Obama administration failed to react militarily to his having crossed, famously, the Obama “red line”. Obama opted for a diplomatic solution in cahoots with Russia, to allegedly rid Syria of its chemical weapons arsenal. Obviously, even if they did remove much, they didn’t remove all, witness the atrocities of this past week. It is worth remembering that when the Obama Administration considered how to react to Assad’s use of such weapons, Trump was vociferous about how wrong headed this would be. Not a US national security priority, he barked.
But now, well, things are different. An international distraction is most welcome. The same actors, the same actions, have led to a dramatic 180 degree turn in the US administration’s policy. Never mind that just one week ago the Secretary of State said we would just stay out because it’s not our business. Now, Trump is a convert to military strikes. So the Trump Administration’s first salvo was a strike with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Limited damage because the US DoD had alerted their Russian counterparts (based on a pre-existing risk management agreement between the US and Russia, in Syria), and of course the Russians promptly warned the Syrians, and so… while there was all the required effect in terms of changing the conversation about Russia, nothing operationally meaningful actually took place with this Tomahawk strike.
But of course, we all know from recent history in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lybia, Egypt, that removing one’s leader and pushing for regime change is a lot easier to say than to implement. To paraphrase Trump’s comments about healthcare “who knew it was so difficult?!”, the Trump administration, the very same one that has just put an ineffectual and virtually absent Secretary of State, the very same that has failed to staff its national security apparatus below the very thin layer at the top, the very same people who just slashed the State Dept’s budget because they don’t believe in spending US money for national building, these very same guys, are about to get sucked into a new war, in Syria. Or perhaps two, including one with North Korea, if they need more “good coverage” from the media.
Note that no one is talking about Russia these days.
So absent the North Korean crisis, which has all the elements of a policy that can go terribly wrong with an unpredictable lunatic leader (not ours, theirs!), even if we just limit the scope of assessment to Syria, there are not many paths forward. I’d say that there are three:
1) War of words, no action: Perhaps it is sufficient, in terms of media coverage and popular support of a “War President”, for an on going war of words between the US and Syria, augmented by the very convenient angle of the US being on the opposite side of the Russians. How can he be accused, after all, of being so “in the hands of Russia” if he is picking a fight with them in Syria?
2) Regime Change, with Russia: The master piece of improvisational foreign policy would be if Putin decides that it is in his personal interest to make a grand bargain with the US. Back off on the Ukraine, torpedo NATO and in exchange we will work with you, or at least won’t actively derail, a US effort to remove Assad. Since the US is hopelessly incompetent at post war planning to “win the peace”, it is reasonable to expect that the result of such a grand bargain would be that Putin would be able to handpick the dictator of his choice, from the Assad Baath party, and the U.S. would declare victory in having a non-Assad new leader committed to defeating ISIS. This path looks increasingly unlikely as it would create a precedent for Russia “folding under US pressure”, which is contrary to Putin’s brand.
3) Regime Change and war with Russia: This is of course the worse of all possible scenarios – one where Putin has decided that the nascent US administration has done what it needed to do to topple the solid US democratic institutions and that he has outlived his usefulness. If Putin believes that the Trump administration will get sucked into ever growing problems having to do with his Russia ties, blatant nepotism, surprising incompetence, and massive conflicts of interest, he may find it is more useful to Russia’s interest to now cut the chord on this highly successful intelligence operation. In this case, he will buttress Assad and essentially say, or act such that, “any attack on Syria is an attack on Russia”. And so, with this nightmarish scenario, we descend into a hot conflict between the US and Russia. Not likely, but not impossible and if so, a catastrophic turn of events that will go a long way toward making Trump the last post WWII US President, as we careen toward a fully on WWIII. Think it’s impossible? Am afraid it is possible.
Regarding other international chess moves, it’s all pretty much a lot of wind and no action. For instance, after much noise about the urgency of building a wall with Mexico, there is no evidence of movement down that path.
With regard to China, the other major target for Trump attacks during the campaign as the country that has “raped” the U.S., and after a lot of chess beating, the summit with President Xi that took place at Mar a Lago (a historic case of conflict of interest since the US tax payers pay to the Trump organization enormous fees to host the President on his own properties!!), was carried out with a surprising lack of sparks. It seems that this President has a Modus Operanti that can be summarized as “escalate before folding”. Lots of strong words about Taiwan and the one country policy, about China as currency manipulator etc, but… once in person, it’s all smiles and no substance. But, to his credit, having launched the Tomahawk strike during his dinner with President Xi does have the benefit of reinforcing his brand that this President is both unpredictable and prone to fast action, whether thought through or not. This will surely impress the Chinese government as a new kind of threat that they have not had to deal with before. Perhaps it will translate into new momentum for the Chinese to put pressure on North Korea. A breakthrough in collaboration to remove President Kim in North Korea is of course possible, but very, very unlikely. Anyone with a smidgeon of Asian history will understand that removing the current leadership of North Korea is a non starter. China fears to outcomes: 1) a US military action that would send North Korean masses across the border into China and 2) a successful integration of Korea under the leadership of South Korea, which would translate into a more powerful enemy/competitor for China. More likely, China will work toward a middle path that keeps a buffer zone in the form of a North Korean independent state, while putting a stop to the rush toward nuclear capability.
In other “Green Global Wreck” news – after vilifying NATO as an obsolete organization (despite a formidable track record of avoiding war for 5 decades), Trump has done a 180 degree turn and now considers NATO to be an effective and important organization. What happened between this and that? precisely nothing. Just changed his mind. In this case, it goes in the right direction, but the more worrisome thing here is this: there is nothing stable or historically-warranted or consistent with either decades of US diplomacy or months of campaign pronouncements in Trump’s action. It’s as if every day is a brand new universe and nothing done or said before matters. It is all situational and tactical. A President-child with A.D.D. and nuclear weapons, a temperament that errs toward bluster and revenge, a never seen before level of ignorance about serious world issues and pre-existing US alliances forged over decades, and zero concerns about inconsistency, That’s the leadership of the United States right now.
And it’s not 100 days yet. The media is rewarding him for military bluster and he is getting praise for “acting Presidential” – so now… he’s got his formula. More wars, less heat on the Russian scandal. Fasten your seat belts as this is just the beginning…