In his first annual message to Congress, John Quincy Adams, among the most experienced and intellectually formidable presidents, warned leaders against giving the impression that “we are palsied by the will of our constituents.” In this regard, if in no other, the 45th president resembles the sixth.
Donald Trump’s “Oh, never mind” presidency was produced by voters stung by the contempt they detected directed toward them by the upper crust. Their insurrection has been rewarded by Trump’s swift shedding of campaign commitments, a repudiation so comprehensive and cavalier that he disdains disguising his disdain for his gulled supporters.
The notion that NATO is obsolete? That China is a currency manipulator? That he would eschew humanitarian interventions featuring high explosives? That the Export-Import Bank is mischievous? That Obamacare would be gone “on Day One”? That 11.5 million illegal immigrants would be gone in two years (almost 480,000 a month)? That the national debt would be gone in eight years (reducing about $2.4 trillion a year)? About these and other vows from the man whose supporters said “he tells it like it is,” he now tells them: Never mind.
The president, whose almost Sicilian sense of clan imparts new meaning to the familiar phrase “family values,” embraces daughter Ivanka’s belief that America suffers from an insufficiency of entitlements, a defect she (and he, judging from his address to a joint session of Congress) would rectify with paid family leave. Her brother Eric has said (to Britain’s Telegraph) that he is “sure” that 59 cruise missiles flew because Ivanka said to her father about Syria using chemical weapons, “Listen, this is horrible stuff.”
Although a senior Trump adviser, Stephen Miller, has stipulated that presidential powers to protect the nation “will not be questioned,” still they persist, those impertinent questioners. They do because when candidate Trump’s open-mic-night-at-the-improv rhetoric of quarter-baked promises and vows is carried over into the presidency and foreign policy, there are consequences, especially when his imprecision infects his subordinates.
One cannot erase with an “Oh, never mind” shrug Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement that the “message” foreign leaders should take from the Syrian attack is “if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.” It is not true that the United States will respond, other than rhetorically, to all crossings of those four red lines. If, as Tillerson says, the United States is committed to “holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” the United States is going to need a much bigger military than even the president’s proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending would purchase.
If the attack on Syria was intended to buttress an international norm and enforce an international agreement concerning chemical weapons, it was not clarifying for press secretary Sean Spicer to say that you will see a presidential “response” if someone uses chemical weapons or “a barrel bomb.” This is a nasty but conventional munition that turns scrap metal into shrapnel.
In foreign policy, the nature of an action is a function of what the actor says about it. So, the attack on Syria was either cathartic — a one-off spasm of (understandable) indignation — or it was a “message” of unclear content to unspecified addressees.
Perhaps the message was that the United States is not (in Richard Nixon’s words explaining the 1970 invasion of Cambodia) “a pitiful, helpless giant,” or that (in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 words) “America is back, standing tall.” Eliot A. Cohen, former State Department counselor (2007-2009) and currently a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, says that the strike “was the right thing to do” and “a firm response to a loathsome crime.” But he also says:
“Having tipped off the Russians, and targeting things rather than people, it did not do much damage to anything the Assad regime cares about. . . . An effective, destructive attack — that is, one that would worry the Assad regime — would have killed skilled personnel, military and political leaders, and elite fighters. . . . Blowing up some installations is not, in fact, ‘proportionate’ to the massacre of children.”
Messages are important, whether delivered by words or missiles or words about missiles. Trump’s retreat from positions that enchanted his supporters is a matter mostly between him and them. How he addresses the world, however, will reveal whether he has gone from candidate to commander in chief without becoming presidential.