Trump's foreign policy approach with Syria, Russia is a 'blunt tool'

All it took was two tweets about Syria, experts say, to demonstrate that when it comes to Donald Trump’s foreign policy consistency, the U.S. president is all thumbs.

President's tweets contradict his own 'Trump Doctrine' on telegraphing military moves

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter early Wednesday that missiles 'will be coming' at Syria. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Donald Trump tapped out a pair of tweets about Syria on Wednesday morning, proving to his critics that when it comes to his foreign policy consistency on Twitter, the president is all thumbs.

The morning missives promised an imminent launch of missiles against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for unleashing a suspected chemical attack on its own citizens. To observers, the aggressive message was a head-scratcher from a president who once underscored the importance of never telegraphing military strategy.

"How stupid is our country?" he asked, lamenting the lack of "sneak attacks" in response to a question about his plan for Syria during a debate with Hillary Clinton in October 2016.

Just two weeks ago, the president announced plans to withdraw troops from Syria, only to now promise military action similar to last year's U.S. launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles targeting Assad's Shayrat Airbase.

This unstrategic inconsistency is not a doctrine.- Jim Arkedis, former U.S. Department of Defence analyst

What's lacking is any discernible plan or defined end goal, said Jim Arkedis, a former Department of Defence counterterrorism analyst.

"There is no Trump Doctrine. Because to have a doctrine, that implies there's some consistency," Arkedis said.

"This unstrategic inconsistency is not a doctrine if you can have thousands of bureaucrats contributing to a national security strategy that can be thrown out the window based on what a very unstable man wakes up and thinks in the morning."

Things were muddied even further early Thursday after Trump tweeted he "never said when an attack on Syria would take place," an apparent response to critics who pointed out the president's former hang-up on telegraphing military action.

"Could be very soon or not so soon at all," he said, before congratulating himself and his administration for "ridding the region of ISIS."

'Bluster first'

Wednesday's tweet informing the world that missiles "will be coming," and that Russia ought to "get ready" for a U.S. onslaught against its Syrian allies was just the kind of strategic giveaway Trump has condemned from his predecessors.

Its hardline tone also brought to mind the aggressive negotiating tactics he seems to be trying to repeat, said Russia expert David Szakonyi.

A man walks with his bicycle past damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, on March 30. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

"For these delicate international conflicts, Trump has deigned himself to intervene because of the U.S. position in global affairs, and it's like we have to take this very strong position," he said. "He approaches these bargaining decisions, these relationships, with this bluster first to force the other side to the negotiating table in order to exact concessions."

There was Trump's "fire and fury" warning of nuclear annihilation for North Korea, for example, and his "trade wars are good" taunt when he imposed U.S. tariffs against China.

Trump could argue it works. The White House confirmed the hermit kingdom's leader Kim Jong-un is willing to meet with Trump in the coming months. And Chinese President Xi Jinping announced he would ease tariffs on automobiles in a conciliatory gesture.

It seems to Szakonyi that Trump is drawing bargaining-table tactics for statecraft from his business instincts.

He hesitates to call it a pattern, but it does seem to be "evidence of Trump's negotiating strategy" of applying pressure then trying to acquire leverage.

'Blunt tool'

For his part, Arkedis isn't against military force against Syria.

"It's just that last year, the use of military force was completely detached from any sense of strategy," he said.

He sees the same situation playing out again.

"If you're going to use military force, make sure you know why you're doing it."

Szakonyi warns that Trump would be wrong to presume antagonizing the Syrians or Russians won't have potentially dire consequences, as Russia has backed Assad's regime and threatened to down U.S. missiles and launch sites, which could include ships and aircraft.

​"There's a lack of research into trying to predict how the other side will react to this being wielded as a blunt tool to compel the other side to back down without a full realization of the risks of escalation," Szakonyi said. The potential for miscommunication and mishap is immense, with U.S. and Russian forces already having come near to contact in Syria.

Trump's second tweet of the morning regarding Russia also struck some as alarmist, referencing the Cold War, a time when the Soviet Union and the U.S. were on the brink of nuclear war.

It's certainly not as scary as it was during the Cold War, said Henri Barkey, a Middle East expert and the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University. But he noted Trump's change in tone criticizing the Kremlin and, in recent days, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"All of a sudden in the last two weeks he's becoming anti-Putin," Barkey said. "He seems to have changed. The question is why? We don't know."

Analysts widely agree the U.S. has an obligation to strike Syria again, possibly with a coalition of partners. Left unanswered, though, is what the U.S. does next in terms of a Syria game plan, Barkey said.

One thing that appears certain is that a U.S. attack on Syria is imminent.

"If Trump talks aggressively and does nothing, he would look like a paper tiger," Barkey said. "And that's exactly what he doesn't want to look like."

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Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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