Ask any conservative about what they objected to in former president Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, and the first words out of their mouth will be “RED LINE!” They’ll tell you that Obama was weak and feckless, and that his unwillingness to attack Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s government after it used chemical weapons on civilians in 2013 sent a message to the world that the United States wouldn’t stand up for its principles or follow through on its threats.
But now Donald Trump is president, and the whole world knows that they’d better watch themselves. Or maybe not. Maybe Trump’s “America first” foreign policy is a signal to the world that as long as you don’t directly threaten whatever Trump happens to care about on a given day, you can do whatever you want.
In Syria, the Assad government apparently just conducted a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. And what was the Trump administration’s response? It released a statement under the president’s name, which I reproduce here in its entirety:
Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.
In other words, Obama allowed Assad to conduct a chemical weapons attack “and then did nothing,” so in response to this chemical weapons attack, Trump will … do nothing (other than have his U.N. ambassador call on Russia to rein Syria in). The man who five months after the election is still trying to convince everyone how great his victory was reacts to a new foreign policy problem his administration confronts by saying, “Hey, does everyone know Obama sucks?”
Let’s take a step back for some context. In December 2012, the Obama administration announced that it had intelligence demonstrating that Assad’s government was preparing to deploy chemical weapons. Obama said that any use of such weapons would constitute a “red line,” and “there will be consequences.” The following August, Assad launched a chemical weapon attack on civilians, and the administration threatened to begin a bombing campaign. Obama then sought authorization from Congress for military action, but it quickly became clear he wouldn’t get it, including from Republicans. In the end, the administration partnered with Russia to negotiate a deal under which Syria would hand over chemical stockpiles for destruction.
It was widely believed that Obama never wanted to initiate a bombing campaign, for fear that it would suck the United States into a deep involvement in the Syrian civil war, and he actually hoped that Congress would rebuff his request for military authorization. Which may well be true. But if you ask those conservatives what exactly they would have done differently in the circumstances, you quickly discover that they didn’t have any better ideas. The Syrian civil war is a nightmare in which a monstrous dictator is facing off against, among other forces, a monstrous terrorist group. There are no good outcomes, and our ability to shape this conflict to our advantage is near zero.
When he ran for president, Trump offered a combination of chest-thumping belligerence and reticence about deep American involvement in foreign conflicts. He rejected George W. Bush’s belief in nation-building, but said that his answer to the problem of the Islamic State was to “bomb the s— out of ’em.” He also claimed that he had a secret plan to defeat the terrorist group that he could not reveal lest we tip off the enemy; precisely no one was surprised when that turned out to be a lie.
And last week, the Trump administration made explicit what had been implicit: that the United States will not be seeking to remove Assad from power. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday, “will be decided by the Syrian people.” On the same day, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
That may have been an unspoken assumption of Obama administration policy, but as people with experience in foreign affairs understand, saying something out loud, even if it what’s everyone knows to be the case, can have profound consequences. Did Assad take these remarks as a signal that he can do whatever he wants? Is that why he launched another chemical attack for the first time in nearly four years? We can’t say for sure, but it’s certainly possible, and it’s what even some in Trump’s own party are saying. He may well know now that there’s nothing constraining him.
So what can we conclude about the Trump foreign policy? Trump is stepping up military action in places where the United States is already engaged, advocating huge increases in military spending, and simultaneously trying to gut the State Department. His secretary of state seems to be sleepwalking through his job, and is operating with barely any staff; it’s obvious that the administration regards diplomacy as little more than a distraction. With regard to Syria, the administration’s position is literally that 1) it’s bad for Assad to kill civilians, but 2) we don’t want anyone fleeing that war to come to America, and 3) it’s all Obama’s fault anyway.
It’s obvious that under this president, America certainly won’t be standing up for human rights or democracy. When Trump embraces a brutal dictator like Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and says “He’s done a fantastic job,” that much is obvious. It isn’t even clear what goals the administration will be pursuing. What kind of world would Trump like to create? Your guess is as good as mine. That’s not exactly a recipe for global stability.