Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
“We need to be more unpredictable to adversaries," President Trump had declared.
In the spring of the year, he pounded Syria with air strikes after chemical weapons were used, obliterating Obama’s red line disgrace, and restoring American deterrence and credibility.
But the day before the strikes happened, he had tweeted, “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
Now, in the last wintry days of the year, he suddenly announced a pullout of American troops from Syria. But the move only took those by surprise who hadn’t been paying attention all along.
When our first major airstrikes began, Trump had warned, “America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria… under no circumstances.”
Politicians usually say things like that. But Trump remains unpredictable by actually saying what he means in a business where everyone assumes that you mean the opposite of what you say.
“I would not go into Syria, but if I did it would be by surprise and not blurted all over the media like fools,” Trump had tweeted five years ago.
Trump’s actions in Syria encompass his preference for flexibility, quick strikes or withdrawals with no long term commitment. And that’s exactly what frustrates a national security establishment whose watershed moment was still the post-war reconstruction of Germany and Japan. They foolishly misread Trump by confusing commitment with consistency, and unpredictability with inconsistency,
Our foreign policy, crafted by unimaginative diplomats, who despite their pretentions have nothing in common with the flashing wit of a Talleyrand or the cunning calculation of a Metternich, is based on creating trust by being utterly predictable. They’ve succeeded brilliantly at being utterly predictable. And they’ve failed at using this predictability as leverage to build a trustworthy international order.
Trump has brilliantly wielded his unpredictability to make America into a mobile piece on the world chessboard. America has the ability to rapidly deploy troops around the world and pull them out. But we were too bogged down in a swamp of our own ideological abstractions to make use of our capabilities.
Establishment thinking deploys American troops in the 21st century like British soldiers in the 19th. The deployments never end. Instead we set up little colonies of contractors, mercenaries, reporters, aid workers, and try to bring civilization to the savages at the cost of endless blood and treasure.
These outposts of a phantom imperial order of the new age of humanity become besieged fortresses, islands in a sea of savagery which we are obligated to defend, and they attract our enemies who immediately begin funneling money and weapons, turning the guerrillas we were fighting into an even bigger threat. These humanitarian empires end up being neither imperial nor humanitarian.
Trump understands that there’s no point in maintaining a doomed foreign colony of tens of thousands in Afghanistan, or setting one up in Syria. These colonies give meaning and purpose to their populations, experts, analysts, journalists, aid workers, who shape our foreign policy, but they don’t help America.
The Trump Doctrine rejects these nation building colonies. It wields American power as part of an enduring strategy to build up American power by establishing deterrence, strength and flexibility. Its emphasis is on inflicting rapid blows and moving on, of turning our problems into other people’s problems, and of extracting economic victories from the chaos of foreign policy strife.
It throws out the idea that America must maintain an international order at its own expense, without anyone else being willing to do their fair share or do anything meaningful to serve our own interests.
None of this is a surprise.
Trump has been very consistent in conveying this same message throughout the campaign. But a blinkered establishment refused to take him at his word and is now shocked that he really means it.
When he bombed Syria, they assumed that he had come around to their way of thinking. Instead Trump was implementing his way of thinking, punishing Assad, sending a message to Russia, and moving on.
Even Secretary of Defense Mattis had originally called the strikes on Syria, a “one-time shot.”
Trump had rejected nation building during the campaign and after taking office. Just last December, he had introduced his national security strategy by warning that, “Our leaders engaged in nation-building abroad, while they failed to build up and replenish our nation at home. They undercut and shortchanged our men and women in uniform with inadequate resources, unstable funding, and unclear missions. They failed to insist that our often very wealthy allies pay their fair share for defense, putting a massive and unfair burden on the U.S. taxpayer and our great U.S. military.”
He had also noted that, “In Afghanistan, our troops are no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies of our plans.”
Last summer, Trump’s speech on Afghanistan had described a shift away from nation-building and the ridiculous timelines for withdrawal that had defined previous administrations. We would, Trump said, “shift from a time-based approach to one of condition". Instead of inflexible commitments, we would maintain flexible options, and respond to the situation, rather than following a fixed plan.
That’s what he’s doing.
We’re "not nation-building again,” he had declared. “We are killing terrorists.”
During the campaign, Trump had complained, “We’re nation-building, trying to tell people who have dictators or worse for centuries how to run their own countries.” He had made it clear that he might occasionally support short term interventions to solve “a problem going on in the world and you can solve the problem”, but not futile efforts to transform failed states into democracies.
Trump’s strategy has remained consistent. The only real question was not “if”, but “when”.
The establishment’s confusion is understandable. When George W. Bush ran for office, he fiercely condemned the nation-building exercises of the Clinton administration in Haiti and Somalia.
“I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building,” Bush had declared.
But then he got sucked into the seductive idea that the best way to end Islamic terrorism would be to change the political conditions of the Muslim world. In the Bush era, nation-building was used to introduce democracy into anti-American Muslim dictatorships. In the Obama era, the democracy push was perverted into a means of overthrowing allied Muslim dictators and replacing them with Muslim Brotherhood regimes. And yet many establishment Republicans continued to support this policy.
Syria began as an extension of the Arab Spring. Most of the Senate Republicans who want us to stay there are the same people who voted for a pro-Iran resolution opposing the Saudi campaign in Yemen. They’re not pushing us to remain in Syria to stop Iran. And they couldn’t care less about the Kurds. They want Syria to be a repeat of Libya with American military force being used for Muslim Brotherhood nation-building. And that is not in our national interests and it’s not what Trump or Americans want.
Trump’s main critics on Syria continue lying to us and lying to themselves that Syria will turn into a free democratic and secular country. But Trump isn’t interested in living in their fantasy world.
The Trump Doctrine has clearly and consistently rejected nation-building and extended interventions. Trump has said that America is not the world’s policeman. And, unlike most politicians, he’s meant it.
But Trump also isn’t afraid to be unpredictable.
He can go back into Syria, just as he left Syria. That’s the whole point. Instead of turning American soldiers into permanent targets, protecting a population of contractors, aid workers and reporters, with young boys from Tennessee and North Dakota getting their legs blown off so that the New York Times can get a Pulitzer Prize photo and a charity org can get more donors, he’s using our military power as a foil instead of a broadsword, landing a series of quick blows and then, unexpectedly, moving on.
That’s radically different from the military strategy that has bogged us down for a century. It’s smart and brilliant in exactly the way that the foreign establishment thinks that it is, but actually isn’t.
The establishment assails Trump as “inconsistent”. It values consistency above all else because it has no strategies, only ideological commitments to abstract ideas that don’t survive places like Afghanistan.
The abstract ideas on which our nation-building is based are not strategies. They’re values. And too many administrations, Democrat and Republican, have built wishful thinking strategies around values. Ideas and values are expressions of belief. Strategies are flexible plans based on real opportunities.
The Trump Doctrine is consistent in the abstract. It’s flexible in its implementation. That’s what it takes to actually win against terrorists, guerrillas and cunning enemies that seize opportunities instead of upholding ideas. And the establishment’s failure to understand that is why we’ve spent decades losing.