How the Washington blob swallowed Donald Trump

The US foreign policy establishment should be careful what it wishes for
    
by: Gideon Rachman
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News that the US has launched missile strikes in the Middle East is not normally a cause for celebration. But there was no disguising the relief and pleasure with which the US foreign policy establishment greeted last week’s decision by the Trump administration to unleash a volley of cruise missiles on Syria. Liberal newspaper columnists, hawkish senators and allied ambassadors were united in their approval.

Their reaction reflected a widespread revulsion at the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on civilians and children. But a crucial underlying reason for the buzz of satisfaction in Washington is the hope that President Donald Trump’s actions prove that the world’s policeman is back on the beat.

The Washington foreign policy establishment, a group derisively labelled as “the blob” in Barack Obama’s White House, is united by the belief that the willingness to use military power is crucial both to America’s global standing and to the stability of the world order. Mr Obama’s failure to use force to back up an American “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013 created widespread unease in the blob. And Mr Trump’s isolationist election rhetoric led to something closer to despair and fears of a complete abdication of US power.

So the sudden conversion of the Trump White House to military intervention in Syria has been hailed as a turning point. Mr Trump’s most ardent nationalist defenders meanwhile are appalled. Ann Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust, tweeted her dismay, asking: “Why get involved in another Muslim catastrophe?”

The Syria strikes have crystallised a growing sense that the foreign and security policies pursued by the Trump administration may ultimately turn out to be more conventional than his critics feared, and his nationalist supporters hoped.

In recent weeks, the signs of a shift towards conventional thinking have accumulated. Mr Trump has conspicuously failed to follow through on some of his most radical foreign policy pledges. He has not ripped up the Iran nuclear deal. He has not moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He has switched from open hostility towards the EU to cautious support. He has not held a bromantic summit with Vladimir Putin.

Just a couple of days before the Syria strikes, it was announced that Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist and the main advocate of “America first” nationalism in the White House, had lost his seat on the National Security Council. General Michael Flynn, who shared many of Mr Bannon’s radical instincts, was sacked as head of the NSC in February. He has been replaced by Lieutenant General HR McMaster, a man who is revered by the blob. Some of the lower-level appointments at the NSC also sent an interesting message. The newly installed director for Russia and Europe at the NSC is Fiona Hill, a noted critic of Mr Putin, who has been plucked out of the Brookings Institution, a centrist think-tank.

The Syrian strikes took place as Mr Trump was playing host to Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart.

The outcome of the first US-Chinese summit of the Trump years was, once again, much more conventional than Mr Trump’s campaign rhetoric. During the election, candidate Mr Trump accused China of “raping” America and threatened to raise punitive tariffs on Chinese goods.

He promised that he would not treat Chinese leaders to fancy meals but instead would take them to McDonald's. In the event, Mr Trump offered Mr Xi pan-seared Dover sole with champagne sauce at Mar-a-Lago and emerged from the summit purring about the marvellous rapport he had established with the Chinese leader. Talk of tariffs and confrontations on the high seas had given way to the usual bland, blob-like commitments to joint dialogue and study groups. The Chinese had reason to be pleased, if a little baffled.

Some in the Washington establishment are nonetheless hopeful that the coincidence of the Syria strikes and the Xi summit might serve a useful purpose, sending the message to North Korea, Russia, China and others that the US once again has a leader who is comfortable using military force.

But foreign policy traditionalists should be careful about celebrating Mr Trump’s apparent conversion. The Syria strikes could yet be a turning point — in the wrong direction. Three particular risks present themselves. First, Mr Trump’s about-face on the Assad regime demonstrates his volatility. If he can chuck out a year’s worth of rhetoric on Syria in 24 hours, he could easily reverse himself again in response to the next shocking event.

Second, there is a risk that the president, who is obsessed with his poll ratings, notices that military strikes have boosted his popularity and develops a taste for this sort of thing. But later uses of force, in North Korea or elsewhere, could be a lot riskier than lobbing a few cruise missiles on to a Syrian air force base.

Finally, there is the obvious danger of escalation in the Middle East. There is little sign that Mr Trump has thought about the steps after the cruise missile attack. But the risks and contradictions of military action in Syria are evident, and range from a Russian military response to gains for the jihadis of Isis. The blob should put the champagne back in the fridge and stay tuned.

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