Last week President Trump declared we were getting out of Syria “very soon.” He reportedly ordered the military to come up with a plan to withdraw some 2,000 troops positioned there. Now, Trump’s team says: Never mind.

Trump has instructed his military commanders to quickly wrap up the American military operation in Syria so that he can bring troops home within a few months, senior administration officials said on Wednesday. He dropped his insistence on an immediate withdrawal, they said, after commanders told him they needed time to complete their mission.
The president’s decision to keep the 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria for the immediate future came in a meeting of the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room on Tuesday, hours after Mr. Trump had told a roomful of reporters that “it’s time” to bring American forces home from a conflict that has been a crucial battlefield in the fight against the Islamic State.
At the meeting, Mr. Trump’s top military advisers told him they had drawn up plans to pull American troops out of Syria immediately. But they also presented a plan for the forces to stay longer to clean out the residual pockets of Islamic State fighters and to train local forces to stabilize the liberated territory so that the group could not regain a foothold.

Trump reportedly said he would support a timetable of “months,” not years. “Months” can total 23 before the time span technically becomes “years.” But at this point, Trump has managed to confuse just about everyone and signaled a total lack of resolve; Iran and Russia can just wait him out before claiming their prize.

This is hardly a one-time occurrence. (“It was the latest instance of the president making an unscripted remark with far-reaching implications that prompted a behind-the-scenes scramble by his advisers to translate blunt talk into a workable policy. White House and administration officials also spent Monday and Tuesday trying to translate a series of confusing presidential tweets and comments on immigration into a coherent strategy, including a new legislative push and the deployment of the National Guard to the southern border.”)

There are several ramifications from this erratic, irrational and uniformed style of “governing,” if you can even call it that.

First, we see that Trump’s “gut” — what he wants to do — is invariably wrongheaded and dangerous. Trump’s “gut” tells him to put troops on the border, leave allies in the lurch and reward Russia and Syria by bugging out of Syria, start a trade war with China and other harebrained schemes that must be walked back — after Trump flunkies try to justify Trump’s initial, disastrous pronouncement. The Trump apologists who said all would be fine should be eating crow.

Second, neither allies (e.g. Europeans in the context of the Iran deal), Congress or foes such as Russia, Iran and China can tell if Trump’s grand pronouncements will translate into policy or be miniaturized and minimized. Given that, two equally troubling responses might be expected: Either do nothing (e.g. the European Union won’t agree to Trump’s attempt to revise the Iran deal, Congress won’t move forward on any immigration plan) or to overreact (e.g. a trade war), creating new conflicts that cannot always be defused. Yes, this is how wars (trade and military) start and how the United States loses influence.

Third, White House chief of staff John Kelly has obviously failed completely in his quest to impose discipline on the White House and create a rational decision-making process. It was always a fool’s errand with this president, but now it is worse than ever with Trump consulting Fox News whackadoodles and springing major personnel decisions (e.g. Larry Kudlow, John Bolton) on his staff. The same malady will hamper Bolton, who soon will be charged with re-creating the process of making foreign policy (or managing the existing one).  Kelly should have quit long ago. Now he is now subject to daily humiliations that come from holding the title of chief of staff but exercising no real authority. He’s a figurehead in an administration operated by the equivalent of a mad king.

Finally, it behooves those who have left, in particular H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, to advise Congress about what is going on. We don’t need another gossipy tell-all book with thin sourcing. We need an accurate assessment from those in senior national security positions: Is the president rational? Does he absorb information? Can he think two or three steps ahead? Does he think wild conspiracies are true (i.e., can he assess fact from fantasy)? Tillerson and McMaster (and Kelly, if he departs) owe the country the benefit of their eyewitness accounts. It’s time to decide whether Trump, quite apart from any medical diagnosis, is fit to run the government and serve as commander in chief. It is no longer possible to pretend that everything is fine. It’s not.

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