One of President Trump’s greatest strengths and weaknesses, as evidenced in his brief tenure in office, is his unpredictability. Or what he calls his “flexibility,” telling reporters this week, “I don’t have to have one specific way.”
When it comes to foreign policy, that quality, however defined, was on display dramatically last week when the president reversed course after long describing his commitment to “America First,” making it clear that he would avoid foreign intervention, specifically insisting on staying away from the pitfalls of Syria’s civil war and instead focus on defeating ISIS.
But after appearing emotionally moved by the sight of young Syrian children who were victims of the deadly sarin gas attack presumably ordered by President Bashar Assad, Trump gave the order for the missile attack on a Syrian air force base.
Recalling the critical moment in 2013 when President Obama went back on his own “red line” promise to take military action if Assad used chemical warfare — a move that we and many others criticized as signaling weakness to adversaries and allies alike — there was an element of relief in the immediate response to Trump’s action heard in Washington and friendly capitals, including Jerusalem.
The strike seemed to indicate America is flexing its muscles and letting the world know we are back in the game.
The trouble is that the Syrian civil war, as much of the Mideast chaos, is not a game, and it is far easier to get into the action than get out of it.
Is it even worth noting at this point that Trump had urged Obama not to get involved in the Syrian civil war, saying it was not America’s problem, or that the president acted last week without congressional approval, something he criticized his predecessor for doing?
Perhaps we are long past making an issue out of Trump’s inconsistencies, policy reversals and outright untruths. But if the “new” Trump is going to assert, as he did on Saturday, that “our decisions will be guided by our values and our goals,” does that mean that the president, showing empathy for the victims of the Syrian war, will now allow those fleeing that war to be allowed entry to our shores? Or will he allow “normal” bombing to continue in Syria, killing children and others, without a U.S. response unless chemical weapons are used?
A stable world order functions through a sense of predictability, with key governments having a sense of how other nations will respond to events and actions. But Trump, described by Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg as America’s first “isolationist interventionist” president, seems committed most to shaking things up. Certainly there can be positive aspects to a disrupter like him. For example, one can imagine that the Palestinian Authority and key Arab states could be so unnerved by Trump, fearful of dramatic actions he could take if they cross him, that they would be more responsive to U.S. calls for Mideast negotiations — and compromises — than they were during previous administrations.
At the same time, it should be noted that Israeli officials are worried about Trump’s seeming lack of a policy on issues like the Iran nuclear deal, which he blasted as a disaster, and the Syrian chaos.
With the U.S. and Russia now in confrontational mode, Jerusalem could suffer for lack of coordination between Washington and Moscow on how military moves will be made by each, seeing that Syria is so close in proximity to the Jewish state. For six years the Israeli government has managed to keep its people protected from the bloodshed so near to its borders. But Israelis are more vulnerable today as the cold-blooded Russian president and mercurial leader of the Western world go head to head, each determined not to blink first.
We are hopeful President Trump, in seeing the power he wields and the impact it has around the world, will allow elements of humility and far-sightedness to affect his momentous decisions.