Doctrines. Every U.S. president has one. Congratulations then to Donald Trump who, nearly 100 days into his presidency, has just formed his. On Tuesday, his chief of staff Reince Priebus told reporters the president was “really establishing” a Trump doctrine that will reshape America’s position in the world.
In Priebus’ own words, this is what the Trump Doctrine means: “Setting some certain lines of where we’re not going to allow people like [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] to go, but at the same time making it clear that we’re not interested in long-term, you know, ground wars in the Middle East, but obviously focusing in on ISIS and what we’re doing in the Middle East to protect us here in the United States, working with China on ongoing issues with North Korea that are very real and are serious issues that takes cooperation within the region to handle appropriately.”
A senior White House official, who spoke to reporters anonymously, tried to provide more detail. Trump, he said, will continue to put America first, as he did when he negotiated the release of U.S. aid worker Aya Hijazi from prison in Egypt. Trump’s “love” for people led him to attack the Syrian regime after allegations that Assad deployed chemical weapons against civilians in April, while the president's negotiations skills are being deployed in conversations with China.
“I think [the Trump Doctrine is] a combination of very good personal skills—one-on-one—which he’s incredibly talented, and it’s a commitment to the goals of the campaign, which is defeating ISIS, and it’s a commitment to people that there are certain things that the United States isn’t going to put up with,” the official added.
OK, so it’s not as succinct as the Jimmy Carter Doctrine—“an assault [to gain control of the Persian Gulf region] will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force”—nor is it as tough as the George W. Bush Doctrine which pledged to “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed [the September 11] acts and those who harbor them.” But both officials’ comments seem to give some indication as to Trump’s foreign policy plans—right?
Leslie Vinjamuri, associate fellow of the U.S. and the Americas Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House is skeptical. “I don't think that there is a consistent philosophy or strategy that we can discern from his foreign policy and if we try to discern one, we are creating it for him,” she says. “Trump has a set of ideas about how things should go, he's demonstrated that he’s willing to change his mind quite dramatically but in terms of having a consistent set of principles that he's willing to follow, I just don't see it.”
Vinjamuri is not alone in her criticism. Since taking office, Trump’s geopolitical plan has been hard to decipher, and even harder to predict. He discarded his long-held belief that the U.S. shouldn’t intervene in Syria; cooled in his friendly views toward Russian President Vladimir Putin; and seemingly decided against a trade war with China. But, in the absence of Trump formally explaining his doctrine, the views he’s expressed and the actions he has ordered might give a sense of what the rest of his presidency could look like.
On April 6, Trump surprised many when he authorized airstrikes against Assad ’s military targets, the first direct U.S. assault on the Syrian leader. (Trump ordered the strikes after Assad allegedly carried out a chemical weapons attack that left more than 80 people dead).
Whether Trump will repeat his actions is unclear. The move—which was reportedly motivated by his daughter, Ivanka Trump’s “outrage and heartbreak” following the attack —contravened the official White House policy on Syria, which is that it is focused on defeating ISIS. Nevertheless, it seemed a clear sign from Trump that he will not hesitate to retaliate if Assad crosses a so-called red line.
Trump’s belligerence continued after his attack on Assad. On April 13, the administration dropped a 21,000 pound bomb—dubbed the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) —on suspected ISIS insurgents in Afghanistan. It was the largest ever non-nuclear bomb the U.S. has ever deployed in war.
As with Syria, Trump’s decision to dispatch the bomb suggests he is more in favor of military intervention than he seemed during the campaign. And, though he hasn’t said much about Afghanistan, the top U.S. commander in the country, General John Nicholson, has called for more troops to join the fight there. Trump may well decide to follow the big bang with boots on the ground.
The same day that Trump ordered the Syria airstrikes, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Despite his campaign pledges to take China to task over alleged currency manipulation—including by imposing tariffs, Trump struck a more conciliatory tone.
He has since said that he and Xi have “great chemistry” and that they made “tremendous progress.” Reports suggest that Trump was prepared to shelve his economic grievances in an attempt to persuade China to try and rein in North Korea.
Trump has made it clear he will not tolerate North Korea’s military posturing. As Pyongyang continues to try to develop its missile capability, the U.S. has conducted naval drills nearby with South Korea and Japan and sent ships toward North Korea, as part of what he termed “an Armada.”
China has expressed concerns over the situation. On April 24, Xi phoned Trump and asked for all sides to “exercise restraint , and avoid doing anything to worsen the tense situation on the peninsula.”
Despite saying he would try to “get along” with Moscow, Trump has grown harder toward the Kremlin in recent weeks. His administration has offered its support to NATO (which Russia opposes) and conducted air strikes against Assad despite knowing it would anger Russia, Assad’s ally. U.S. officials have also expressed concern that Russia might be aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ninety-eight days into Trump’s presidency, the Kremlin may have given up hope for a rapprochement with the new White House.
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