In Wash­ing­ton, the old play­book is back

Trump doesn’t give a fig for fol­low­ing rules, but he does care about pop­u­lar­ity

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - GWYNNE DYER

It was strik­ing, in U.S. me­dia cov­er­age of Don­ald Trump’s first 100 days in of­fice, that most ob­servers noted with re­lief that his for­eign pol­icy has turned out to be less rad­i­cal than they feared. In fact, it’s not rad­i­cal at all. He has al­ready fired cruise mis­siles at a Mid­dle Eastern coun­try, a rit­ual that has been ob­served by ev­ery Amer­i­can pres­i­dent since Bill Clin­ton.

The old Don­ald Trump was an “iso­la­tion­ist” who op­posed U.S. mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion over­seas un­less U.S. in­ter­ests were di­rectly threat­ened. When it seemed likely in 2013 that Pres­i­dent Obama would at­tack the Syr­ian regime over its al­leged use of poi­son gas on civil­ians, Trump tweeted: “The only rea­son Pres­i­dent Obama wants to at­tack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE state­ment. Do NOT at­tack Syria, fix U.S.A.”

And lo! Obama did not at­tack Syria af­ter all, al­though it had crossed the “red line” he had drawn in a state­ment the pre­vi­ous year.

On sober sec­ond thought — and af­ter be­ing warned by James Clap­per, his Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence, that the ev­i­dence sug­gest­ing that Syr­ian dic­ta­tor Bashar alAs­sad’s regime was re­spon­si­ble for the gas at­tack, while ro­bust, was not a “slam dunk” — Obama de­cided not to launch cruise mis­siles at Syria.

This was the mo­ment when Obama broke de­ci­sively with the for­eign pol­icy or­tho­doxy in Wash­ing­ton, and the think-tank “ex­perts” and the reign­ing me­dia pun­dits never for­gave him for it. To­ward the end of his sec­ond term, he ex­plained his de­ci­sion to Jef­frey Gold­berg, the ed­i­tor-in-chief of The At­lantic, in the fol­low­ing terms.

“There’s a play­book in Wash­ing­ton that pres­i­dents are sup­posed to fol­low. It’s a play­book that comes out of the for­eign-pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment. And the play­book pre­scribes re­sponses to dif­fer­ent events, and these re­sponses tend to be mil­i­ta­rized re­sponses ... In the midst of an in­ter­na­tional chal­lenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t fol­low the play­book, even if there are good rea­sons why it does not ap­ply.”

It did not ap­ply be­cause de­stroy­ing the As­sad regime would just hand Syria over to the ji­hadi fa­nat­ics of Is­lamic State and alQaida. It did not ap­ply be­cause the Rus­sians might in­ter­vene to save As­sad, per­haps lead­ing to a di­rect US-Rus­sian mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion. It did not ap­ply be­cause there was no sup­port for an at­tack in Congress.

“Don’t do stupid shit” was Obama’s prime rule in for­eign pol­icy, and em­u­lat­ing Ge­orge W. Bush’s de­ci­sion to in­vade Iraq in or­der to de­stroy Sad­dam Hus­sein’s non-ex­is­tent “weapons of mass de­struc­tion” def­i­nitely qual­i­fied as stupid. Even treat­ing the Mid­dle East as a re­gion vi­tal to Amer­i­can se­cu­rity was stupid. With the Cold War over and the United States no longer de­pen­dent on Mid­dle Eastern oil, it wasn’t even im­por­tant any more.

Fast for­ward to 2016, and Obama must have been torn when he con­tem­plated his suc­ces­sors. Hil­lary Clin­ton had worked for him and would pre­serve his legacy in do­mes­tic af­fairs, but she was to­tally or­tho­dox in for­eign pol­icy and would fol­low the play­book wher­ever it led. Whereas Don­ald Trump, in his crude and sim­ple way, ac­tu­ally shared Obama’s dis­trust of the for­eign pol­icy elite.

But with Trump it was just gut in­stinct, not a rea­soned analysis of why the play­book was wrong. Once he was in of­fice, and an­other poi­son gas at­tack in Syria landed on his desk, that in­stinct was swiftly over­whelmed by an even stronger urge to do some­thing dra­matic.

In pol­i­tics, the Law of Mixed Mo­tives al­ways ap­plies. No doubt Trump was truly hor­ri­fied by the im­ages of dead “beau­ti­ful ba­bies”, but he was also aware that his pol­icy suc­cesses in the first hun­dred days were sparse and that his pop­u­lar ap­proval num­bers were way down.

So off went the cruise mis­siles, al­though the ev­i­dence that the As­sad regime was re­spon­si­ble for the gas at­tack was even less cer­tain than last time. It was purely a ges­ture, aimed mainly at the U.S. do­mes­tic au­di­ence, and there has been no fol­lowup. But it did con­form to the play­book’s rules, and the re­sponse by the “lamestream” me­dia verged on the ec­static.

Trump doesn’t give a fig for the play­book, but he does care about pop­u­lar­ity. He cam­paigned as an iso­la­tion­ist, but now he has dis­cov­ered that a lit­tle sabre-rat­tling abroad yields in­stant pop­u­lar­ity at home.

He is sur­rounded by peo­ple who still be­lieve in the play­book, and they now know how to press his but­tons. There will prob­a­bly be more “limited” mil­i­tary strikes with cruise mis­siles, not just in the Mid­dle East but also in North-East Asia. And there may well be more wars, be­cause sabre-rat­tling is not a pre­cise sci­ence.

Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent journalist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

ROB CARR, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Trump and Obama on the Capi­tol steps in Wash­ing­ton, with their re­spec­tive wives Michelle Obama and Me­la­nia Trump: One pres­i­dent turned out to the a rule-breaker, the other fol­lowed the Wash­ing­ton sta­tus quo.

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