To the list of unanswerable philosophical conundrums – e.g., “What is the good life?” or “Do we have free will?” – add another: What the heck is the U.S. policy toward Syria?
On Dec. 19, President Donald Trump announced the pullout of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. “Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now. We won,” Trump said. His decision, made impetuously after a conversation with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, caught his own advisers by surprise. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis tried to change the president’s mind and, when he failed to do so, quit in protest. Next out the door was Brett McGurk, the long-serving U.S. envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition. Administration officials told reporters that U.S. troops would be gone within 30 days – i.e., by Jan. 18.
After a storm of protests from critics who pointed out that the Islamic State hadn’t actually been defeated – a fact that Trump now implicitly concedes – the president tweeted on Dec. 31 that “ISIS is mostly gone, we’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants.” Administration officials said this meant the Pentagon now had four months for the withdrawal.
On Sunday, national security adviser John Bolton seemed to lift the timeline altogether. He said that U.S. troops would remain in Syria as long as certain “objectives” remain to be met – namely the need to completely defeat the Islamic State and attain assurances that the Turks will not slaughter the Kurds. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement,” Bolton said, suggesting that there is no timetable at all. Trump, for his part, denied on Sunday that he had ever announced a rapid timeline (“I never said we were doing it that quickly”) even though he had. It’s on video.
I think I speak for the entire world in responding: “Huh???” As veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller tweeted: “In 40 years of living in Washington 25 working at State, never seen anything like this. Makes Marx Bros. movie look organized.” Of course, one’s sense of befuddlement has to be tempered by the grim knowledge that this is how this administration habitually operates.
If you Google “Trump administration mixed signals,” you will get a plethora of stories about China, trade, North Korea, drug pricing, attacking journalists, the closing of a Hungarian university, sanctions on Russia, and many other topics. Just last month, it was widely reported that Trump was withdrawing 7,000 troops from Afghanistan. But the Pentagon has gotten no such order.
The confusion is not getting any better as the administration completes its second year in office, for the simple reason that, as he completes his 73rd year on this Earth, Donald Trump cannot change his character or personality. He is so erratic, fidgety and illogical that, if he were a 7-year-old boy, he would be prescribed Ritalin and told to repeat a grade. He cannot even keep straight how he felt in the White House during the Christmas break. As that invaluable chronicler Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star notes: On Jan. 2, Trump said, “It was very lonely.” On Jan. 4, he said, “I didn’t even find it to be a lonely place.”
Because the president does not know his own mind, the administration does not know what policy it is supposed to be pursuing. Senior officials are just as helpless as the rest of us to divine the ever-shifting intent of the great Oz behind the curtain. That is a dangerous and destabilizing situation for a superpower.
On Sept. 19, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set 2021 as the deadline for North Korea to denuclearize. Seven days later, Trump said there was no deadline at all: “We’re not playing the time game. If it takes two years, three years or five months – doesn’t matter.” The disconnect between Trump and his advisers is one that North Korea strongman Kim Jong Un can readily exploit. This, in fact, helps to explain why Kim is so eager for a second summit: Aside from the fact that it presents another opportunity to legitimize himself, it is also an opportunity to go over the head of the president’s advisers, who are skeptical of his empty assurances, to get a better deal from the president, who claims to be “in love” with him.
Any attempt to apply unrelenting pressure on North Korea to denuclearize is doomed to fail with a president who is consistent about nothing save his inconsistency. Likewise, any attempt to contain China, Iran or Russia is impossible because of the conflicting signals emanating from the most shambolic White House in history.
You can go crazy contemplating this diplomatic malpractice or you can accept our fate stoically. In the movie “Chinatown,” a fellow private eye counsels J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) to overlook a monstrous injustice with the words, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” In similar fashion, a cynic today can say, in regard to administration incoherence and confusion, “Forget it. It’s Trumptown.”
Max Boot is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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