interesting times

The Trump Doctrine: Unpredictability and Incoherence

President Trump delivers a statement on Syria from Mar-a-Lago on April 6, 2017. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

We learned last night a little more about how President Trump views the use of force. He is willing to use it with no notice, and narrowly. He chose to retaliate against Assad’s obscene recent use of chemical weapons against civilians, including children, to crush the remaining resistance to his sectarian dictatorship. Trump did so very swiftly — but he chose not to decimate Assad’s entire air force, as Clinton, McCain, and Graham wanted, and as the Pentagon proposed, according to the Intercept.

So what to make of it? On the surface, it seems to follow NSC flak Michael Anton’s view that the best foreign policy is neither interventionism nor isolationism but something he once described as “enhanced whack a mole.”

He elaborated this idea in a blog-post in the now defunct Journal of American Greatness (but replicated here):

Stop flattering hostile regimes. Aggressively attack our enemies in ISIS and al-Qaida. Do not try to control territory for the long term. Try to win “hearts and minds,” but with minimal effort and low expectations. Seek alliances from which we can gain basing arrangements to project power. … The idea is to keep al-Qaida, ISIS — and whoever else may crop up — forever on their back heel and forever being forced to “rebuild the mound.” …

The U.S. military has decisively — decisively — won every battle it’s fought since 9/11, with only three exceptions: Fallujah in 2004 and Kunar in 2007 and 2011. It can defeat ISIS and al-Qaida easily and endlessly now, so long as “defeat” is defined rationally. It means: beat them. Win decisive, “kinetic” — and very public — military victories.

“Decisive, kinetic, very public.” You can see how that appeals to Trump. The paleo-con John Derbyshire once called the strategy “Rubble Doesn’t Cause Trouble.” He defined it thus:

(1) Go there in force. (2) Break their stuff and kill their leaders. (3) Tell them loud and clear: If you host our enemies again, we’ll be back. (4) Go home. (5) Lather, rinse, repeat.

Except, of course, the strike on one air-force base in Syria last night is nowhere near as coherent as that. It followed exactly what Anton warned against — “flattering hostile regimes.” Only a little over a week ago, Secretary of State Tillerson used a Russian formulation — “that the future of Syria will be decided by the Syrian people” — to place the U.S. for the first time in favor of Assad’s remaining in power. If that’s not flattering a hostile regime, I don’t know what would be. More to the point, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Assad felt emboldened after that American rhetorical retreat to use serious chemical weapons for the first time in years.

The missile launch is also not about attacking ISIS. It actually attacks one of ISIS’s direst foes. It represents a complete U-turn from Trump’s previous position that Obama should never have intervened in Syria at all — a position he believed in so strongly, he tweeted endlessly about it at the time. The attack risks our becoming more involved in a Middle Eastern civil war — another position Trump constantly derided for years and in the campaign. It will disrupt Trump’s hope for a rapprochement with Russia (although he pointedly avoided a wider attack that would almost certainly have killed Russians as well as Syrians) — another turn on an emotional dime. It follows his decision to increase the U.S. involvement in Yemen’s Shiite-Sunni civil war, involvement that was never even presented to the Congress, and that killed, among many other civilians, ten children. The candidate who promised to avoid military conflict in the Middle East has reversed himself and become an interventionist — if only from a safe distance.

But coherence was never Trump’s strong point, as we have discovered with his support for a health-care bill that would have thrown 24 million people off health insurance after he had explicitly promised to cover everyone. And he believes in surprise. Unpredictability and incoherence seem to be the mark of America’s foreign policy now, it appears.

Look: I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that his revulsion at the gassing of children was the prompt for this dramatic and sudden use of military power. But there will doubtless be a rally in popularity at the precise moment he is sinking in the polls, appears increasingly stalled in Washington, and is desperate for a distraction. But quite what follows from this sudden impetuous drama in the Middle East remains, of course, to be seen. The one thing we know about Trump is that he hasn’t carefully thought it through.

While we’re on the subject of Trump’s “foreign policy,” I can’t get out of my head two recent White House pressers with two foreign leaders. The first showed a petulant, scowling child seated next to the leader of the free world, Angela Merkel. He pouted; he pursed his lips; and he refused pointedly to shake her hand, even after she suggested it. By many accounts, his private conversation revolved around Germany’s financial contribution to NATO, insisting, as if the alliance were a shakedown racket, that the Germans repay the U.S. countless billions for defense over the years. It was as if the Second World War had never happened.

Now watch the public meeting with the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Trump was almost as fawning, excited, and thrilled as the Egyptian leader himself. “We agree on so many things,” the president said. He praised the tyrant for his “fantastic” record; he nodded and beamed when Sisi noted that he hadn’t been allowed in the White House under Obama. And then the handshake — except this time, it was markedly un-Trumpy. There was no sudden pull, no endless glad-handing, merely a brief, affectionate normal handshake. And a giant beam on both faces.

The contrast sickens. I completely understand the realist belief that the U.S. needs Egypt for strategic purposes. For all the foulness of its current regime, which overthrew a democratically elected government, there’s a reasonable case that developing a good relationship with the leadership there is important. I’m not a purist in these matters. But what I cannot fathom are the supine paeans of praise for a dictatorship, and the obvious thrill Trump got from sitting down with another thug in a suit. After Sisi’s military coup, the Egyptian leader was “elected” by a Soviet-style 96.1 percent of the vote. Tens of thousands of people are currently political prisoners. Torture is commonplace. Coptic Christians are persecuted. The press has been completely cowed by threats, violence, and imprisonment. Freedom House argues that civil society in Egypt has been “crushed.” Sisi’s brutal repression of Islamism has, moreover, led to a surge of terror attacks in the last few years.

As a giant cherry on the shit sundae, the U.S. gives Egypt aid of, on average, $1.3 billion a year — well over $35 billion since 1978. Why, one wonders, would Trump harangue democratic Germany, which receives no direct aid, while fawning over a dictator of a country that is one of the top recipients of American tax-payers dollars? Yes, I know he has a soft spot for tyrants. But squeezing a democracy for hundreds of billions while rhetorically fellating a dictator who actually does suck the Treasury dry seems, well, as coherent as his “policy” on Syria.

I’m inclined to dismiss the current red herring in the Trump administration’s claim of an unprecedented “unmasking” of various American citizens by Susan Rice. This process happens all the time we’re told. If there are Americans incidentally caught talking with Russian spies, a senior security official can ask, if it’s a serious national security matter, who the American citizens are. So far, so understood. And no big deal. What troubles me, however, is the leaking of those names to the press. Rice categorically denies she did such a thing. So who did? Who exactly was the “senior U.S. government official” who gave David Ignatius his scoop about Mike Flynn back in January? Whoever it was in the Obama administration committed a crime.

And not just an ordinary crime. A government official leaked the names of Americans incidentally caught up in surveillance. No charges have been brought; investigations have yet to be completed; the U.S. government is barred from spying on American citizens — and yet some Americans have already been tainted by an accusation of treason. I find myself worrying that Eli Lake is right. Effectively leaking the names of alleged traitors is a tactic right out of a police state. I understand why the Obama peeps tried to make sure the information about possible collaboration between Trump’s campaign and a foreign government was embedded throughout the government, for fear that Trump would erase it. But using surveillance to publicly accuse Americans of treason is a tactic J. Edgar Hoover would have enjoyed. It’s a form of McCarthyism. Strike that. It’s a definition of McCarthyism. I want the worries about Russian interference in our election to be thoroughly looked into. But someone in the Obama administration did something that will inevitably provide a distraction — and rightly so.

In the nature-versus-nurture debate about sexuality, nature seems to be gaining. This will come as a bit of a shock to the blank slaters who view everything human as a product of “social construction” to be remolded by politics. Even gender, we are now absurdly instructed, is a choice. Much of the transgender movement, for example, insists that gender is a completely fluid idea, while paradoxically using testosterone and estrogen to change their bodies from male to female and vice-versa. Now comes a new Danish study on bisexuality. It finds evidence that bisexual orientation is affected by progesterone during pregnancy:

Men and women whose mothers were treated with progesterone were significantly less likely to describe themselves as heterosexual. Compared to an untreated group, the chances were significantly greater that by their mid-20s the progesterone-affected had already engaged in some form of same-sex sexual behavior, and that they were attracted to the same or to both sexes. Both exposed males and females also had higher scores related to attraction to men.

I’ve long been an agnostic about the causes of sexual orientation. But the idea that hormones in the womb can affect a developing baby now deserves to be taken more seriously. And the fact that we now often treat pregnancies with progesterone to avoid miscarriage suggests we may even be creating more gay or bisexual people than before. (Don’t tell the Christianists please.) Sure, everything in human society is in part socially constructed. But almost everything is also rooted in genetics and biology. Quite why we resist this obvious fact is a mystery to me. I guess we don’t want to limit our own sense of self-mastery. We want to believe that human nature is entirely under our control. But it isn’t. Increasingly, the mysteries of the human condition will be dispelled by science. It will not only be those on the religious right who reject the mounting evidence; there are so many orthodoxies on the left that will become more rigidly held the less evidence there is behind them.

The Trump Doctrine: Unpredictability and Incoherence