A piece in Tuesday’s New York Times — “Many Voices on Syria Policy, but One Is Silent” — hit the same theme. (The one “voice” of the headline is, of course, Trump’s own.)
As various officials have described it, the United States will intervene only when chemical weapons are used — or any time innocents are killed. It will push for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — or pursue that only after defeating the Islamic State. America’s national interest in Syria is to fight terrorism. Or to ease the humanitarian crisis there. Or to restore stability.
None of this is factually wrong. It has been evident for a long time that Trump doesn’t try to solve problems by applying broad principles; he doesn’t care about policy in that sense. He solves problems, or attempts to solve them, by listening to people he trusts, or by making a snap decision based on instinct, or by some combination of the two.
I find this nerve-racking, and I would prefer that the case were otherwise. But Trump happens to be president, and so maybe it’s worth using this strange opportunity to ask ourselves what we mean by that term “policy.” Is having a “policy” on a problem the same as having the capacity or the wisdom necessary to address the problem effectively?
In American politics, we use the word “policy” in one of two ways. Sometimes it works as a general term for knowledge of government and political decision-making. The accusation that so-and-so “has no policy” on such-and-such, made against Trump or against some other politician, is meant to suggest that so-and-so is too stupid or too lazy or too ill-prepared to understand the issue and formulate a sensible response. “Policy” or “policies,” in this sense, stands in for intelligence or grasp of the issues.
The second and more important use signifies a general attitude. Having a “policy” on corporate income tax, say, or Russian aggression in Ukraine, means you can be expected to act in a certain way to achieve certain ends when one of these subjects requires action. The Oxford dictionary definition sounds to my ear like the best one of this modern sense: “a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by a government, party, business, or individual.”
The point of a policy is that it tells people what you’re going to do. But surely the essence of Trump’s disposition is that he loathes telling anyone what he’s going to do. Trump, in other words, rejects the whole concept of policy as an unnecessary giveaway. To announce a policy, for him, is to relinquish one’s most important advantage. Why, he reasons, would he do that?
That’s not, in fact, a dumb question.
The problem with that attitude — the attitude that enunciating policies only makes your job harder than it needs to be — is that it frees you from any obligation to act on principle. You can act on whim or political expedience instead. And if you don’t have a policy, you don’t have to think hard about the underlying reasons for your position. You can do what you want.
On the other hand, policy can cripple. Policy can keep you from acting when acting is the right thing to do. Action is almost always riskier than inaction, and policies frequently serve as convenient excuses to sit by while gross injustice goes unchecked. And policy — or at least an over-reliance on policy — can tempt you into a foolish decision merely because the decision seemed consistent with past policy.
Further, there’s little to stop a politician from simply defenestrating policies when they’re tiresome. President George W. Bush, remember, asserted a very bold policy in his second inaugural address — “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” — but his administration did little to advance it over the next four years, so preoccupied was it with other things. That the furtherance of democracy was “policy” mattered little.
It’s true that the Trump administration has little in the way of policy. But let’s not make the mistake of equating policy with intelligence or competence or righteousness. If Trump has no policies, he at least doesn’t have any bad ones — and so nothing’s stopping him from taking requisite action when the situation warrants, as for instance when a despot uses allegedly nonexistent chemical weapons on a civilian population.
Given a choice between a stupid policy and no policy, I prefer the latter.