The Trump administration’s foreign policy has been a dizzying spectacle of mixed messages and policy reversals during its first three months. But in last week’s crucial tests, Donald Trump made good decisions about Syria, Russia and China – moving his erratic administration a big closer toward the pillars of traditional U.S. policy.
The decision to strike a Syrian air base was a confidence builder for an inexperienced and sometimes fractious White House, a senior official said. Trump couldn’t be sure when he launched the attack that a Russian wouldn’t be killed, or that some other freak mishap might arise. The military option he chose had two virtues: It was quick, surprising Russians who hadn’t expected such prompt retaliation; and it was measured, sending a calibrated message rather than beginning an open-ended military intervention.
Trump famously likes to “win,” and he can probably claim one here after weeks of chaotic setbacks. As a result, the Syria operation, generally praised at home and abroad, has consolidated the power of Trump’s core foreign policy team, in ways that may alter the political balance of this White House.
Here’s the consensus among top Republican and Democratic former officials I spoke with: National security adviser H.R. McMaster ran a tight interagency process; Defense Secretary James Mattis offered the president clear manageable options. Trump wisely stayed off Twitter, encouraging his team members to do the work rather than disrupting them.
Perhaps the most visible beneficiary is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has found his voice after an agonizingly slow start. Tillerson clearly has gained Trump’s confidence, and has also forged an alliance with the decisive backstage operator in this White House, senior adviser (and Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner.
The knives are out for Stephen Bannon, who bid to be Trump’s key strategist but is now branded by some close to Trump as a divisive, self-promoting personality whose days are numbered. What seems to have angered Trump and his inner circle is the bid for supremacy by “someone who came on board 72 days before the election,” as one aide put it. “People are tired of games” from Bannon, he said.
Trump has also tilted toward China and away from Russia in the triangular game of nations played by this administration, much as it was by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Kushner’s apparent mentor. That rebalancing is the opposite of what Trump seemed to favor during the campaign, when he blasted China and wooed Russian President Vladimir Putin at every opportunity. But it’s a more sensible and sustainable course.
“I’m very supportive of the action on Syria,” says Tom Donilon, national security adviser for President Obama. But he notes: “On Russia, China and Syria, there have been almost whiplash-like changes in policy.”
Last week’s trickiest maneuver was simultaneously bombing Syria and meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump has basically done a 180 on China: After challenging the fundamentals of the relationship before he took office, Trump has now reverted to Kissingerian language of cooperation. The goal of the summit, officials say, was for the two self-styled “big men” to get to know each other. They spent nearly four hours in one-on-one conversation, explaining how they look at issues such as North Korea and global trade.
The White House described a “textured” conversation, with Trump at one point offering Xi a backhanded compliment: “We had a long discussion already. So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Trump’s impulsive, unpredictable style has confounded the Chinese, who like to plan every detail, but officials say their overall satisfaction was conveyed by their lack of criticism in a communique after the summit.
Tillerson is taking Trump’s message to Moscow this week. He’s expected to tell top Russian officials that their alliance with President Bashar Assad is a loser, and that the U.S. will work with Moscow on a political transition to replace Assad with another figure acceptable to Russia. “We want them to have to make choices,” one official explains. “We can work together or against each other.”
The Trump team feels that after last week’s strike on Syria to enforce the chemical weapons ban, the U.S. has regained the strategic initiative from Putin. “Russia is catching as opposed to pitching for a change,” says one senior official. “They are on the back foot, surprised by Trump.”
Rebuffing Putin is a worthy goal, if an unlikely one for Trump. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates offers the crucial caveat: “There’s merit in getting Russia off balance politically, but being militarily unpredictable when Russian forces are directly involved is a very risky business.”
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by The Daily Star.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 13, 2017, on page 7.