This week, Donald Trump is getting a taste of what it’s really like to be president, and his responses have bolstered what his opponents said about him in the Republican primaries and the general election—that he’s temperamentally unsuited for the job.
Suddenly Trump is facing crises in Syria and North Korea, two of the most intractable problem countries on the planet, and he has taken the worst of all possible paths on both—threatening military action, even unilateral military action, without having a shred of a plan in his pocket.
His words on Syria are particularly egregious. Earlier this week, his secretary of state and U.N. ambassador publicly said that it was pointless for the United States to try ousting Bashar al-Assad from power, that they would instead focus on destroying ISIS and leave the rest to the Syrian people. Then, on Wednesday, Trump watched TV footage of women, children, and babies suffering the horrors of a chemical attack—almost certainly launched by Assad—and told reporters, “My attitude toward Syria has changed very much.”
Throughout his campaign, and as recently as this week, Trump castigated President Obama for drawing a “red line”—threatening, in 2012, to use force if Assad used chemical weapons—then declining to cross it when Assad did just that. Trump went so far as to say that Obama’s failure to follow through “set us back a long ways, not only in Syria but in many other parts of the world, because” his red-line warning turned out to be “a blank threat.”
Now, though, Trump is saying that Assad’s new chemical attack “crossed many, many lines, beyond a red line—many, many lines.” As a result, he’s put himself in a spot where he now has to do something, lest he be likened not just to Obama, but to Obama at what Trump and other critics assail as his weakest moment.
When Trump gets his Pentagon briefing on the subject, he will discover that none of the options they lay out for taking action against Assad are good ones. Will he do something anyway, to save face? And then what happens?
This was the question that concerned Obama the most when Assad crossed the red line with a sarin gas attack in August 2013. The option that Obama was all set to put in motion, according to officials familiar with the plan, would have attacked Assad’s air force, likely destroying all his planes as they sat concentrated on a base, as well as his command-control systems. This would be done using a small number of U.S. and allied aircraft, likely resulting in no American casualties.
But then three things happened. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had promised to join the attack, sent the notion to Parliament—which voted it down. Since the point of the plan was to punish Syria for violating international law, Obama felt he needed the legitimacy of international support. Absent that, he turned to Congress for authorization—and Congress voted it down, too (though that didn’t stop Republicans from subsequently criticizing Obama for not going through with the attack anyway).
Finally, in the course of running these obstacles, Obama contemplated the larger strategic issues. Maybe the strike would succeed; some of his advisers thought it would be so potent that Assad’s regime might collapse. But what if it didn’t? What if Assad went ahead and launched more chemical attacks? Or what if Russia and Iran, Assad’s two allies, stepped up their support, sending in troops, planes, and more. Obama would then have had to choose between two dreadful options: backing down, which would look worse than if he hadn’t taken action in the first place, or escalating, which could suck him and the nation into a civil war that he desperately wanted to avoid.
Russia then stepped in for the rescue, making a deal under which Assad agreed to surrender his chemical weapons—or, as we now see, most of his chemical weapons. Will some new deus ex machina save Trump from a similar dilemma—and if not, will he back off or sound the trumpets for a charge into the quagmire? The attack plan that Obama favored, at least for a while, might not be so enticing now: Assad’s planes are more dispersed, and his forces are entangled with Russian planes and advisers. An attack potent enough to have impact might also unavoidably draw in Moscow.
This isn’t to say that Trump should do nothing, especially after his words Wednesday. The question is what should he do? And, just as one might now argue that Obama should never have uttered the words red line, why did Trump go even further than Obama—invoking “many, many lines”—without knowing how to respond? This is what happens to someone habituated to dashing off tweets at all hours.
North Korea provides another case of Trump’s impetuousness. He is meeting Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping in what would be any American president’s most important summit of the year. Xi is bringing along an able crew of advisers, some of whom have closely studied American politics and Trumpian psychology. Trump comes with a foreign policy apparatus that’s staffed to a small fraction of its normal capacity, topped by appointees—Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster—who, whatever their various talents, have no experience in dealing with China.
The question of what to do about North Korea’s nuclear program tops the summit’s jampacked agenda, particularly following the latest missile test by Kim Jong-un’s government on Wednesday. In an interview with the Financial Times, published Sunday, Trump said, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” Asked if he believed the United States could solve the problem without China, Trump replied, “Totally.”
Once again, it’s the naïve bluster—the blithe certainty, untempered by the slightest knowledge of the history and politics of the region or the conflict—that sends shivers up the spine.
China’s interests in this subject are complicated. On the one hand, Xi is growing impatient with the antics of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. On the other hand, he has no desire to force the crumbling of Kim’s regime, leaving a humanitarian crisis on China’s remotest border and the prospect of a unified Korea controlled by the American allies in Seoul. Nor does Xi want to remove a threat to U.S. air and naval forces in northeast Asia, leaving them free to roam in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, where Beijing has vital interests. Trump might nudge Xi to recalculate his interests and put more pressure on Kim—Obama did that, to some extent—but he doesn’t have the leverage to push him very far.
Meanwhile, Trump is on record: If China doesn’t solve the North Korea problem, he will—“totally.” He isn’t the first one to believe that a fierce growl and a display of arms will make the Hermit King of Pyongyang cower. Vice President Dick Cheney thought so, too. In 2003, the U.S. sent bombers and warships within striking range of North Korea, and for good measure the vice president bellowed, “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it”—this was right after the U.S. military, with little effort and great speed, crushed the Iraqi army and sent Saddam Hussein running. Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader at the time (and the current Kim’s father) paid no attention.
But Trump probably doesn’t remember that sequence of disillusionment, or if he does, he may still think, as he does in so many realms, that he has the moxie to do things that none of his predecessors could manage.
“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” Trump moaned when his attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare went up in smoke. He’s about to discover the same thing about the world.