President Obama had grandiose goals that he omitted to attain. He wanted Bashar al-Assad to go. He wanted the Russians to leave Syria. He wanted to promote democracy and protect human rights unless it became too costly (see: vacillation on military aid to Egypt). He wanted to advance the remit of international organizations and international law. His administration talked about “whole of government operations” but failed to conduct them.
President Trump has no grandiose goals. Despite the mollifying language in his National Security Strategy, there was never any real prospect the president would be bound by its restrictions. Nor was there any reasonable basis for believing Secretary of State Tillerson’s speech announcing a whole of government approach to Syria would actually be carried out. President Trump does not appear to believe in democracy promotion. He does not believe in nation building. He does not believe the victims of terrorism and rapine governments deserve America’s shelter or support. He does not believe in international organizations or international law.
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There are important similarities in the Obama and Trump strategies for the Middle East. They both want to use American military power freely and sparingly. Neither are comfortable with the extended duration of supporting fledgling governments and building partner capacity. Both undercut American public support for sustained internationalism by emphasizing the domestic opportunity costs of foreign engagement.
But it’s wrong to suggest, as Martin Indyk concludes in The Atlantic, that the Trump administration’s Middle East policy is effectively no different from President Obama’s “leading from behind.” Critics are not giving Trump enough credit: He does have a strategy for Syria and the broader Middle East. His strategy is to limit American involvement, to push responsibility for outcomes in the region back onto states in the region, and to let power determine outcomes. He has no particular affinity for states in the region, and professes to be a devoted friend to each without committing to enduring obligations to any. He is indifferent to government type, and just as likely to be a benefactor to authoritarians as to democrats. It is an approach international relations theorists call “realism,” of the variant called “offshore balancing,” as he seeks to withdraw U.S. forces from the region.
The one twist from standard realism is the president’s susceptibility to images of suffering. He indulges an occasional sentimentality to Do Something when randomly confronted by video of victims of chemical weapons attacks. It is not immediately apparent why that particular form of suffering merits action in his view when seemingly all other forms of brutality leave him unmoved. But he is willing to act punitively and in a limited way to penalize chemical weapons use. This he has done without letting it upend his strategy: It is not a commitment to change the horrible and predictable outcome of the Syrian civil war; it is narrowly constrained to avoid involving Iran or Russia.
It produced an outcome of working in conjunction with allies—both militarily and at the UN—to enforce the international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. This was something Obama, the advocate of international norms and institutions and great advocate of non-proliferation, only pretended to do.
And if the message has been confusing—with the president saying military operations will be sustained; the secretary of defense saying Friday’s strikes would be “a one-off;” and the UN ambassador splitting the difference, saying the U.S. was “locked and loaded” to recommence operations if chemicals were used again—that is a pretty standard problem in signaling limited intent while seeking to maximize deterrent value.
Trump is also willing to run risks that Obama never would have. President Obama declined to confront Iranian violations of the UN restrictions on missile programs, support for terrorism in the Middle East and even within the United States, threats to the free passage of shipping in the Straits of Hormuz, attempts to destabilize regional governments, or human rights depredations. Concern about confronting Russia featured in both his Syria sin of omission and his response to Russian interference in U.S. elections.
President Trump has twice been willing to conduct military strikes in Syria in and around Russian military forces. He allowed U.S. military forces to directly attack Russian mercenary forces. His administration appears to have alerted Russians to coming operations in order to reduce the risk of escalation or miscalculation. Those alerts reduced the effectiveness of attacks, with the Russians moving their military out of reach and giving the Syrian government time to reposition its own. But they were a sensible weighing of risk and reward.
That approach is actually different than Obama’s. Obama was self-deterred, whereas Trump—or at least his administration—runs limited risks. Obama generated false hope among reformers and victims; Trump generates no hope. But he does have a strategy, and it does carefully assess and manage risk to achieve its aims.