A week ago, administration officials said that ousting Syrian President Bashar al–Assad was no longer the U.S. priority. After Obama and then-Secretary of State Kerry argued this point for months with the Pentagon and the CIA, the Trump White House simply labeled the idea of removing Assad “silly.”
Now it isn’t silly. In response to the chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held zone of northern Syria Tuesday, ousting Assad has returned as Trump’s policy priority. "I think what Assad did is terrible," Trump told reporters on Air Force One today. "I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen."
It happened Thursday when the United States launched an estimated 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian military target that launched the deadly sarin gas attack against innocent men, women and children. The U.S. response happened more quickly than most expected, possibly surprising the Syrian military.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today, “Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, and there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.” He went on to say that Assad would be removed by a political process of an international coalition and that those steps are already under way.
When asked about U.S. military intervention, Tillerson said, “It’s a serious matter that deserves a serious response.” When UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told the Security Council Tuesday that the U.S. “may take our own action,” that seems to be what she meant.
A vigorous response to the attack is imperative, most agree. How the U.S. responds could trigger a response from Russia. Or worse, Iran. Syria’s now a test for Trump’s foreign policy and military teams. The White House has already given the Pentagon more autonomy in the Middle East’s conflict zones.
China’s another test for Trump, and the exam started Thursday when President Xi Jinping arrived for a two-day summit at Mar–a–Lago. Secretary of State Tillerson smoothed the edges of Trump’s rough start with Xi when he visited Beijing a month ago. But it’s going to be an uncomfortable encounter: The two aren’t a match—not on personality and not on policy.
“The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one,” Trump Tweeted last week. “We can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.”
Trump has often had the wrong end of the stick with China, and he’s holding it again. China’s economy is expected to overtake the European Union’s by the end of this year. There are no alternatives for U.S. companies, which have somewhere between $50 billion and $80 billion (depending on which side is counting) invested on the ground in China.
Strong domestic demand has been boosting China’s imports from the U.S. since the final quarter of 2015; exports to the U.S. have slowed, while Chinese investment in the U.S. hits one record after another. If the trade and investment accounts are headed in the right direction, it’s worse than pointless to face off with them.
Trump’s other priority is to leverage economic ties to get Xi to put more pressure on North Korea. For a variety of reasons—political, diplomatic, strategic, economic—this holds zero potential. The Obama administration spent eight years proving this.
Trump could have made his mark by improving on the pointlessly tense relationship Obama left him with, notably on the South China Sea issue. Instead, he’s on track to make Obama’s mistakes again and some of his own—worsening ties while getting little or nothing for it.
On NATO, Israel, Iran, and other questions, Trump’s rhetoric has proven one thing, his policy framework another: This administration’s more about continuity than change—and transformation is out of the question.
That’s a very mixed blessing. Trump’s verbal excesses will no longer threaten global stability and longstanding alliances. But the previous administration’s messes and failures were many, and Trump stands to miss a lot of opportunities to fix or at least improve on them.
Relations with Russia are an outstanding question. Trump’s idea of a new “détente” with Moscow had supporters and critics in Washington; it could have opened the door to cooperation in areas of mutual interest. But the tragedy in Syria this week is the latest of many signs that Trump is going to stay with the acrimonious relationship that took root during the Obama years.