Boris Johnson declaring that G7 foreign ministers were in Italy to give Rex Tillerson a “clear mandate” to take a ditch-Assad message to his meetings in Moscow straight afterwards sound almost quaint. Has he been paying attention? Washington doesn’t do clarity any more, especially when it comes to Syria.
Let’s start with Tillerson’s head. At the G7, he vowed that henceforth the US would hold to account, “any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world”. He was making reference, of course, to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad against his own people and the US missile strikes that quickly followed. But was he saying Assad should go?
Maybe. Maybe not. In a television interview just before leaving Washington for Italy – his first since being confirmed – Tillerson demurred when asked to state that the removal of Assad had become official US policy again. “I think the president has been quite clear. First and foremost, we must defeat ISIS,” he weaselled, adding that it is for the Syrian people to decide Assad’s fate.
It gets more confusing because at the same moment on a different channel, Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, was saying the opposite. “If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that's peaceful and stable with Assad,” she told CNN. Never mind that she was contradicting a statement she had made on 30 March that, “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out”. But that, of course, was before the gas attack.
The Washington chatterati, by the way, are all about Haley right now because she precisely seems to be eschewing team play and carving her own, notably aggressive, narrative. While her boss, Donald Trump, still declines to criticise Russia directly – or Vladimir Putin – she has shown no such coyness. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” she asked at a Security Council meeting, glaring at her Russian counterpart and holding up blow-ups of teh some of the youngest victims of the chemical crime.
She is able to freelance precisely because Trump and his advisors offer no coherent policy on Syria or on much else on the foreign policy front. Haley in fact seems deliberately to be exploiting the muddle at the White House to expand her footprint. As she collects more power and influence, so speculation that she has presidential ambitions becomes more credible.
By the time Tillerson was preparing to leave Italy for Moscow, he was warning Putin that Assad was an “unreliable” partner for him, a curious understatement in the circumstances. He went on to say that the Assad reign was “coming to an end”, but added that the “question of how that ends adn the transition itself could be very important”. Clear as mud, that.
Much of the mud emanates from Trump himself, of course. He was elected on a promise to put nationalism before globalism and has repeatedly expressed the view, going back to before he even ran for top office, that the US has no business intervening in Syria. And then came his Tomahawk rainstorm against Assad, spurred, seemingly, by pictures of the children killed in the chemical attack, as if such atrocities hadn’t been committed before. Having consistently played down human rights as an area of US concern, suddenly he was using them as justification for military action.
Trump calls his unpredictability a strategy, which he presumably imagines excuses him from seeking either UN or Congressional approval before attacking another nation. It is probably true that the action took Assad by surprise. It took lots of people by surprise. And other regimes likely to attract his wrath, including in North Korea, will probably be more wary of him going forward.
Still, it would be nice to imagine that at least he knows what is coming next, on Syria especially. Will he now make the removal of Assad a priority or won’t he? If the day comes when Russian and US forces clash inside Syria’s borders, what will he do? Are boots on the ground in Syria a possible option for him or not? Is he prepared to take ownership of Syria after the conflict like Bush did Iraq, to everyone’s great cost? And on and on.
Just as baffling to America’s allies, meanwhile, is Trump on the one hand preaching “America First” while on the other submitting a request to Congress for an “historic” increase in spending on the military. Is this Trump adopting the Reagan doctrine of deterrence through ever- expanding military capability or is this Trump just enamoured (bigly) with the notion of strong?
It doesn’t help – or maybe Trump thinks it does – that there is no consensus in his own party on military and foreign policy doctrine either. The old Republican guard in the Senate which believed America had a global responsibility to hold the peace, sacrificing blood if necessary, is mostly gone, including World War II veterans like Robert Dole and Daniel Inouye. John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, keeps that flame burning with support from Senator Lindsey Graham but not many others.
But if McCain and Graham cheered the strikes on Syria, others like libertarian senator Rand Paul excoriated it. There are isolationist breezes running through the GOP today reminiscent of the America First Committee that, with help notably from Charles Lindbergh, fought so hard to prevent President Franklin Roosevelt from committing the US to the allied fight against Hitler until the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour – breezes that Trump himself frequently fans.
Thus the flaying he has received from voices on the far right, who see his strike against Syria as a simple betrayal of all those supporters who believed his America First rhetoric. “Media THRILLED that Trump is destroying his presidency,” Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator, snarled via Twitter.
Is this a president with enviable room for manoeuvre on foreign policy or a president stumbling cluelessly as his party and even his own cabinet lieutenants similarly fracture all around him. Either way, it’s no wonder America’s allies, including the other G7 countries, are straining to see clarity where there is none. Boris Johnson take note: the Washington DC subway stop for Tillerson’s State Department is not Silver Springs or Crystal City. It’s Foggy Bottom.