There is always a reason why these giant pachyderms go rogue… if the tusk [is] growing into the flesh of the cheek or jaw, we must keep a guard day and night, for as the pain grows worse he becomes a killer, taking everything before him in wild stampedes.
—Dallas Morning News, May 17, 1931
On Wednesday December 19, President Trump abruptly declared “victory over ISIS” on Twitter. He announced that he was immediately withdrawing all America’s 2,000 troops from Syria.
Trump’s claim of victory was as false and as premature as President Bush’s declaration in May, 2003, of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. Despite major gains against ISIS, there are still pockets of resistance in Eastern Syria where the U.S. had been working closely with ethnic Kurds as well as elsewhere Syria and Iraq. The Report of the Lead Inspector General to the U.S. Congress indicates that although ISIS no longer holds significant territory, it has gone underground and that it may take decades of effort to permanently remove the terrorist threat.
On Thursday December 20, Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, resigned in protest with a letter that made clear that the issues at stake were not simply matters of tactics in Syria or the flawed process by which Trump made these particular decisions. Mattis’s letter of resignation rebuked the president’s fundamental rejection of collaboration with international allies and his failure to check authoritarian governments, such as Russia and China.
Trump received the letter from Mattis in person on Thursday. But either he didn’t read it or he didn’t appreciate its meaning. After meeting with Mattis, Trump immediately tweeted out a positive tribute to Mattis, praising the defense secretary on Twitter, saying he was retiring at the end of February 2019 “with distinction.” Trump also went on Twitter to announce that he was doubling down on his decision in Syria and halving U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a reduction of some 7,000 troops.
Apparently, Trump didn’t grasp “just how forceful a rejection of his strategy Mr. Mattis had issued”. Nor did he anticipate the shock-wave that the letter would send around the world or the days of negative press coverage of himself that Mattis’s letter would occasion.
On Sunday December 23, stung by the coverage, Trump displayed the true nature of his character in announcing that Mattis was now being dismissed as of January 1, 2019, rather than retiring at the end of February 2019, and that he was being replaced as acting Secretary of Defense by a former Boeing executive with no significant military experience. Patrick Shanahan.
Trump’s Decisions Made Under Threat From Turkey’s President Erdogan
As usual, the central challenge in evaluating Donald Trump’s actions involves understanding what actually happened, as distinct from the multiple misinformations and distractions that Trump distributes on Twitter.
By Friday December 21, it had emerged from reporting in the Washington Post that Trump’s momentous decisions to drastically reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East were not taken in collaboration with his senior policy advisors, or in consultation with allies, let alone as a result of a careful review of the medium-term strategic implications. Rather the decision in Syria was prompted by a telephone conversation with Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the previous Friday December 14
When he spoke to President Trump on the telephone a week ago Friday, Turkish President Erdogan repeated his inability to understand why the United States was still arming and supporting Syrian Kurdish fighters to conduct a ground war against the Islamic State. To Turkey, which shared a 500-mile long border with Syria, they were a national security threat…The Islamic State, according to Trump himself, had been defeated, Erdogan said. Turkey’s military was strong and could take on any remaining militant pockets. Why did some 2,000 U.S. troops still need to be there?
Erdogan indicated that Turkey was considering imminently invading the Syrian territory to deal with the U.S.’s fighting allies, the ethnic Kurds in Syria, whom Turkey regarded as terrorists.
“You know what? It’s yours,” Trump reportedly said of Syria. “I’m leaving.”
Thus, Trump indicated his willingness to abandon U.S.’s fighting allies, the ethnic Kurds in Syria, leaving them to be dealt with, and possibly slaughtered as terrorists, by Turkey’s army.
According to the Associated Press,
It was never Erdogan’s intention to get the United States to withdraw. Rather he made the demand as a bargaining move, to get other, lesser goals. Trump, displaying his mastery of the art of the deal, gave in to Erdogan’s maximum position. (The White House denies the accuracy of AP’s account of the call.)
Erdogan himself was taken aback at how successful he was in convincing Trump on the Syrian matter. Before the phone call, the consensus position that the Trump administration had reached, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, was that Trump would tell Erdogan to back off from his threats to attack Kurdish forces in Syria.
Caught off guard, Erdogan cautioned Trump against a hasty withdrawal, according to one official. While Turkey has made incursions into Syria in the past, it does not have the necessary forces mobilized on the border to move in and hold the large swaths of northeastern Syria where U.S. troops are positioned,
Trump’s decision to cut-and-run was announced on Twitter on Wednesday December 19.
Another Victory For Russia
On Thursday December 20, faced with the immediate storm of criticism of his decision, including even from Fox News, that Trump was abandoning its allies and handing another victory to Russia, Trump tweeted that Russia was “not happy” about his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
This was not true.
Moments earlier, Vladimir Putin in his annual press conference had praised Trump for retreating. “On this, Donald is right,” the Russian president said during his year-end news conference in Moscow. “I agree with him.”
Trump’s Slow Learning Curve
In making the decisions to quit Syria or Afghanistan, without consultation with security advisers or allies, Trump has shown no awareness of the lessons of premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2003 and again in 2011, when insurgencies metastasized into major international conflagrations—the Iraq insurgency and then ISIS itself.
The lessons of history show that terrorism isn’t crushed by a few military victories: it requires many years of effort. It isn’t a question of whether to fight terrorism. As ISIS’s attacks in Europe have shown, it’s rather a question of deciding where to fight it: in their backyard or in ours.
It’s a truism that no American president enters the office as president with appropriate experience for the challenges that lie ahead. Donald Trump had less experience than any predecessor, with no background in public administration. His only prior encounter with the military was in seeking deferments from serving in Vietnam on the grounds that he was suffering from “bone spurs.”
While it is necessary that any president learn on the job, Donald Trump’s learning curve has been painfully slow, perhaps even negative. Coming to the presidency with the declared view that “he knew better than all the generals,” despite an absence of background or a proclivity for quick study, Trump at least initially surrounded himself a group of experienced generals. But rather than learning from the encounters, Trump seems to have acquired an ever-more inflated opinion of his own capabilities and a reduced need to consult with others.
Trump’s unwillingness or incapacity to learn appear to stem as much from personal inclination as from a contrary worldview that came on center stage with Mattis’s letter of resignation.
Some analysts might dispute whether Trump has a set of thoughts that are sufficiently coherent to dignify with the label of a “strategy” or a “world view.” To these critics, Trump is merely flailing away, ignorant of history and unthinking about longer-term international implications.
Nevertheless, a careful examination of Trump’s two years in office shows a remarkably consistent view of international relationships. Thus, in June 2018, “at the G7 summit, Trump refused to sign what is hardly a controversial document—the language was G-7 boilerplate, affirming ‘our shared values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and our commitment to promote a rules-based international order.’”
This week’s decisions on Syria and Afghanistan confirmed that Trump has no interest or belief in such principles.
On the contrary, Trump seems intent on dismantling those very principles. He finds the constraints of a rules-based international order painful and frustrating. The national and international order he is trying to construct is the opposite of democracy. With more than 7,000 false or misleading statements to his credit since becoming president, he lacks the disposition to truthfulness that is an essential condition of democracy.
At the G7 summit in June, Trump called his host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “dishonest” and “weak,” and flew on to Singapore, where he lavished time and enthusiasm on the North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un—“a very talented man” and a “funny guy” with a “great personality.”
Trump is more comfortable dealing with autocrats who can make instant decisions without bothering to consult with other power centers or consider multiple points of view. He has no problem in doing business with a Saudi leader who has been credibly implicated in the murder of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump may even be starting to imagine himself to be a fellow-strongman who can make abrupt decisions without consulting anyone. As the author of the ghost-written book, The Art Of The Deal, he perceives himself as a great deal maker. But if he was, he would have known that President Erdogan was offering a bargaining move, not issuing a final ultimatum. Trump believed because he wanted to believe, and because it fitted his worldview in which a few powerful dictators call the shots. Like all weak leaders when faced with a threat, his immediate instinct was to cut-and-run.
Trump’s impulsiveness as a decision-maker and weakness as a deal-maker were also on display in last week’s discussions about the budget.
On Tuesday December 18, the White House appeared to show support for a short-term spending measure that did not contain money for a wall along the Southern border but would have kept the government open until February. 8. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution to that effect.
On Thursday December 20, Trump changed course, asserting that he refused to sign a funding bill that didn’t provide money for the border wall. No accommodation could be reached with Democrats who believe that the border wall is wasteful. The result? The government is undergoing a partial shutdown for almost week or longer.
So what caused Trump to flip? It appears that he bowed to backlash from conservative pundits — notably Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh — who lambasted the president for appearing to concede on the wall funding.
Faced with taking a leadership stand against his base and avert a government shutdown that no-one wanted, Trump instantly capitulated.
A Government In Disarray
Yet Trump’s reversals on Syria and Afghanistan and the government shutdown were only three of the unexpected twists and turns of this most surprising week of the surprising Trump presidency.
So far, the result has been disarray. The federal government is shut down. Stock markets are in free fall. Foreign allies are voicing alarm. Hostile powers such as Russia are cheering. And Republican lawmakers once afraid of crossing this president are now openly critical.”
“Trump’s instincts are impulsive,” said David Axelrod, an Obama political strategist: “Almost always grounded in his own narrow politics and often motivated by spite.”
Yet it is wrong to call Trump merely chaotic. True, there are many surprises. But the havoc isn’t random or accidental. The result may be chaotic but it’s a deliberate strategy of distraction. The goal is to flood the zone with so many questionable steps that the opposition is unable to focus, let alone respond or resist them all.
“Trump Is Going Rogue”
During Trump’s first two years, Trump enjoyed unusual advantages. Subservient Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. A booming economy through no fault of his own, though supplemented by unnecessary tax cuts. A rightish majority in the Supreme Court. A media megaphone in the form of Fox News. An adulatory base that sees Trump’s flaws as gorgeous.
All that is now changing for the worse. He faces a determined majority opposition in the House. The economy is heading into bear territory. A Chief Justice who seems intent on reestablishing the political independence of the Supreme Court. Fox News has been taken aback by the recent inexplicable swerves and pivots. And even’ Trump’s base is beginning to see cracks in the façade.
Meanwhile, to Trump’s daily consternation, Mueller’s Russia Probe is exploring the hypothesis that Trump, his campaign, his organization, and his associates have been more oriented to their own welfare than that of the country, both during the 2016 election and since Trump took office.
The Russia Probe seems to be functioning on Trump like the tusk of a rogue elephant that is growing painfully into his flesh, causing the president to stampede in multiple directions. The result is that alliances and institutions that have given us seven decades of global order, free of any world wars, are now at risk.