NEW YORK — As international crises and foreign policy challenges mount, the world looks to the United States for a broad, consistent strategy that can be relied upon over time. But Donald Trump’s foreign policy seems to change with every meeting, event and crisis. The president does not deny these constant shifts. In fact, he embraces them as a virtue, describing himself as — flexible. “I’m proud of that flexibility,” Trump said this week, explaining what seems to be a complete reversal of his view on American intervention in Syria.
In 2013, the week American intelligence agencies first concluded that Bashar al-Assad had deployed chemical weapons against his own people, Trump tweeted: “We should stay the hell out of Syria, the ‘rebels’ are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS?ZERO.”
Throughout 2013, as evidence of Syrian war crimes grew, and heartbreaking images of the regime’s brutality toward women and children proliferated, Trump tweeted at least two dozen times with the same message: “Do NOT attack Syria.” But this week, after one more attack, one more Syrian atrocity, Trump surprised the world, saying, “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
The president is, of course, entitled to change his mind on Syria — though we don’t have any real idea what this change amounts to or how policy will shift. And the episode does leave one with the impression that foreign policy in the Trump administration is not being made by carefully evaluating a situation, assessing various options, weighing costs and benefits, and choosing a path. Instead, it is a collection of reflexes, mostly rhetorical, responding instinctively to the crisis at hand.
Trump thinks of himself as a tough guy and certainly likes to talk that way. On a number of issues, American officials are making aggressive declarations. Two weeks into the new administration, then-national security adviser Michael Flynn announced that Washington was “putting Iran on notice” after a missile test. A senior official briefed the press, saying, “We are going to take appropriate action.” The president himself promised that he would squeeze China diplomatically, indicating that he would use Taiwan as leverage to extract concessions from Beijing. On Monday, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announced that if the Security Council did not take action against the Assad regime, the United States might act on its own. And also this week, the president asserted that he would deal with the North Korea threat unilaterally if China refused to help.
Tough talk from the world’s sole superpower sounds great except when, after a while, it becomes apparent that it is meaningless. The warning to Iran was not followed by any forceful action. Trump’s Taiwan gambit failed badly, forcing him essentially to apologize to President Xi Jinping. Washington would find it extremely perilous to use military force against North Korea. And a bombing strike against Assad is highly unlikely to change anything in Syria’s messy civil war. The net result is that the United States has issued a series of empty threats, none of which is likely to work, and all of which make the country look weak.
The Trump administration’s tough reflexes have shown themselves in another form in the Middle East. While largely continuing the Obama administration’s campaign against radical Islamic terror groups, the Trump administration has ratcheted up the use of force in almost every arena. It has doubled the number of American troops in northern Syria, sent more soldiers into Iraq, and broadened U.S. involvement in Yemen and Somalia.
This has already resulted in more civilian casualties. Of greater concern in the long run is that Washington is becoming more enmeshed in these local conflicts. The United States’ problems in the Middle East have never come from military weakness, but rather from the fact that after tactical victories, the U.S. has been unable to achieve any kind of political settlement or stability. The problem in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, for example, is who will rule those areas once they are liberated. What happens after the bombs stop falling? Without a plan to address these kinds of issues, simply ratcheting up military force is a reflex, not a strategy.
The president has come from a world of reality television and real estate deals in which talk is cheap. But he now holds the credibility of the world’s greatest power in his hands. Countries around the world look to the president of the United States for signals and strategy. People look to him for hope and help. In these circumstances, it’s one thing to be unpredictable; it’s another altogether to be incoherent.
Fareed Zakaria is a columnist with The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.