President Donald Trump at the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019

President Donald Trump at the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019 AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Why US Officials Say Trump is Flexing on Foreign Policy

“Trump has been Trump in foreign policy—but the safety nets are gone,” said one senior national security official, of the president’s Syria decision.

President Donald Trump’s unpopular and apparently precipitous decision to upend his administration’s Syria strategy this week shows a president acting alone, unfettered by standard policymaking processes, and unmoved by the advice of senior national security leaders, multiple administration officials say. 

“This isn’t new — Trump has been Trump in foreign policy — but the safety nets are gone,” a senior national security official told Defense One, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Mattis could get him back in. Bolton could get him back in. I’ve seen this at least 50 times before, and there’s been the senior officials to get the policy back on track.”

Others say it’s more than the departure of those respected early advisors: The system designed to inform and, often, purposefully slow national security decisions as sober as war is broken under Trump. And the president has grown more impatient with cautious advisors and more comfortable with his own instincts. 

Trump stood alone in a maelstrom of criticism from even his closest allies in Washington as the Turkish military began shelling U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, in northeastern Syria on Wednesday, less than three days after the president cleared U.S. troops out of Ankara’s path. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who typically defends Trump to the hilt, accused the administration on Twitter of “shamelessly abandoning” the Kurds to the Turkish assault. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a statement earlier in the week urged the administration to “prevent significant conflict between our NATO ally Turkey and our local Syrian counterterrorism partners.” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., called his decision “impossible to understand.” 

Related: As Assault Begins, Trump Vows to Make Turkey Keep Its Word While Lawmakers Vow Punishment
Related: ‘It Didn’t Have to Be This Way’: Just-Retired CENTCOM General Votel

In a series of statements and tweets, Trump has sought to make clear that he “does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.” Pentagon and State Department leaders have taken to the media to echo the president’s opposition to Turkey’s incursion into Syria, claiming that the president simply moved the small number of U.S. troops out of the area for their own protection against a superior oncoming force. Trump has been adamant about his opposition to “stupid endless wars” in the Middle East, tweeting early on Wednesday that “USA should never have been in Middle East.”

“From the first day I entered the political arena, I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars—especially those that don’t benefit the United States,” the president said later in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Trump has long sought to wield the massive foreign policy and national security apparatus under his control, often by tweet, only to see some of his more extreme policy impulses reshaped by senior advisors. In December, when he abruptly announced via tweet a complete and immediate U.S. withdrawal from Syria — a decision that prompted the resignation of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and top U.S. envoy to the conflict Brett McGurk — Pentagon leaders convinced Trump to allow a more realistic withdrawal timeline and leave about 1,000 troops labeled as a “residual” force.

The snap decision also came after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

“I don’t think the president’s personality has changed, the senior official said. “The interagency process—we don’t have it anymore. The interagency process has atrophied.”

Some former officials are even more frank: McGurk tweeted this week that Trump “makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation.” Recently retired Gen. Joseph Votel, Trump’s most recent commander for U.S. troops across the Middle East until March, wrote a blistering op-ed, saying that Trump’s decision “was made without consulting U.S. allies or senior U.S. military leadership and threatens to affect future partnerships at precisely the time we need them most.”

For Trump, his faith in his own capacity to form personal relationships and make deals with foreign leaders often takes the place of multi-agency, behind-the-scenes work that usually accompanies U.S. foreign policy. 

“We have a great relationship and that’s very important, whether you have a place like Saudi Arabia, in all fairness, or China, or North Korea, or any country,” Trump said in June of Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to have orchestrated the murder of U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. “Otherwise you end up in a lot of very bad wars and lots of problems.”

Over time, fewer security professionals within the U.S. government have access to Trump’s communications with foreign leaders — information that would typically be shared at least with top-level administration officials working individual issues. But White House officials moved to restrict access to records of those calls after embarrassing details of Trump’s phone calls with the presidents of Mexico and Australia leaked in the early days of his presidency, centripetally consolidating information and authority over foreign policy closer to Trump.

Many of the more experienced and strong personalities from the early days of the Trump administration — like Mattis — have since left or been dismissed. Former national security advisor John Bolton, who did not always see eye-to-eye with Trump but nevertheless was able to shape his foreign policy in concrete ways, was fired in September. Trump’s new national security advisor, former hostage negotiator Robert O’Brien, is seen as less experienced than his predecessors and likely to view his job as carrying out the president’s prerogatives rather than shaping policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a powerful figure in Trump’s orbit, but he is assiduous about staying on the same page as the president — making him an unlikely figure to seek to reform Trump’s policy preferences. 

Major policy shifts announced by tweet often appear to catch agencies by surprise. The Defense Department seemed to have little warning when Trump told Erdogan on Sunday that the U.S. would withdraw fifty special operators in northeastern Syria in expectation of the Turkish assault. As late as Saturday, the Defense Department was actively promoting the so-called “security mechanism” that the soldiers were participating in. 

“U.S. and Turkish militaries are executing concrete steps as part of the security mechanism framework to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. The Department of Defense will be transparent as each phase of the security mechanism is implemented,” U.S. European Command tweeted on Saturday.

Senior spokesmen from both the Pentagon and the White House denied that Pentagon leaders were blindsided by Trump’s decision. 

“Despite continued misreporting to the contrary, Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley were consulted over the last several days by the President regarding the situation and efforts to protect U.S. forces in northern Syria in the face of military action by Turkey,” Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a Tuesday statement. 

In Congress, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee demanded a hearing with Esper on the deliberation process behind what amounts to one of the most significant shifts in U.S. Syria policy under the Trump administration. 

“We still don’t have a full accounting of why and how the President reached his decision to stand idly by when so many of our national security interests are at risk,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., in a statement. 

Two administration officials who spoke to Defense One suggested that the ongoing public controversy over the president’s contacts with Ukraine combined with the maelstrom of media attention as the 2020 election looms has made officials leery of “sticking their necks out” to try to push back on Trump’s policy.

“It’s not just one crisis, it’s a myriad of crises,” the senior official said. 

These officials see Trump as, if not newly emboldened, newly able to take ownership of his own foreign policy.

“Foreign policy is the last area where Trump is finally allowed to be Trump,” one said.