Trump turns to foreign policy to win back approval at home
The missile attack on Syria showed America is prepared to act - and act fast, writes Tim Stanley
There was a time when North Korea was the great mystery in foreign relations - now the US seems opaque, too.
Donald Trump campaigned on a non-interventionist platform of America First. But in two weeks he has tomahawked Syria, dropped his biggest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan and gone toe-to-toe with North Korea. It all smacks of an about-turn dictated by events. But there's method in the madness. Trump is redefining his presidency with a new foreign policy.
The White House is a corporation where individuals vie for the boss's approval. Two groups seem prominent: the Nationalists and the Globalists. The Nationalists, headed by chief strategist Steve Bannon, shaped the early weeks of the administration. They also took the blame for its mistakes, including an attempt to ban refugees from several Muslim countries. A failed shake-up of healthcare illustrated the dangers of radical domestic reform.
Trump wants results. If you fail to deliver, you get demoted. Bannon has been sidelined, dropped from the National Security Council, and Trump has turned his attention to foreign policy instead - where the Globalists enjoy the upper hand.
Trump is said to be heavily influenced by his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Both are Globalists. According to Eric Trump, Trump's second son, Ivanka may have been critical to the decision to bomb Syria after it was accused of using chemical weapons.
Eric Trump said: "Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence. I'm sure she said, 'Listen, this is horrible stuff'. My father will act in times like that."
Indeed, the personal is very important in politics. Trump is probably acting on instinct.
One instinct is to defer to the military. Barack Obama's military policy was stop-go - sometimes aggressive, sometimes defensive, and always wary of long-term commitments. He withdrew troops from Iraq and resented being sucked into Libya. He dodged a chance to confront the Syrian government. Most importantly, Obama kept his generals on a tight leash.
Trump has let slip the dogs of war. His defence secretary, Jim Mattis, enjoys considerable power, the generals operate at their discretion.
Under Trump, the US has operated drone strikes at about five times the rate of Obama. After months of Trump attacking the Republican foreign policy establishment, it looks like the right-wing Globalists are back in charge.
In February, I spoke with a former Bush official who laid out the things he'd like done by Trump but didn't expect to see happen. Top of the list was confronting North Korea.
I thought this was unlikely in part because Trump's focus appeared to be on domestic politics and one of his key pledges was to label China a currency manipulator.
America cannot deal with North Korea without China's help - and if protectionist Trump was going to attack China for its trade policy, he wasn't going to get any assistance.
Last week it was announced that America would not be labelling China a currency manipulator after all. The foreign agenda has clearly triumphed over the domestic. The missile attack on Syria showed that America is prepared to act and act fast - the days of prevarication under Obama are over. And the dropping of a massive bomb on Afghanistan was a display of how powerful the US military is.
This means that the world enters its latest round of brinkmanship with North Korea on different terms to the past. By sending the US fleet to the peninsular, Trump implied: "We are not just about pacification. The US is willing to risk confrontation."
Showing some steel might just work. America cannot tame North Korea alone. The best way to do it is to push Beijing to discipline Pyongyang, and it's believed that the Chinese were rather impressed by the quick display of force in Syria - which Trump casually informed President Xi of over a slice of chocolate cake.
China has cautioned against war but not yet explicitly warned that it would go to North Korea's defence. They are bound by a mutual defence treaty, true, but some observers argue that it is invalidated if North Korea adopts an aggressive nuclear posture.
Having realised that making America great again through domestic legislation will be difficult, Trump has shown he is willing to sacrifice his populist agenda if he can do it through military action. The goal remains the same: boost the country, boost Trump and boost votes. The latter, he desperately needs. The context to all of Trump's actions is an abysmal approval rating. The President faces being a one-term wonder.
For that very reason, we must brace ourselves for a U-turn if this sabre-rattling doesn't work out. Trumpism is characterised by a lack of patience, an unwillingness to do hard and unpopular work. If Syria and North Korea prove intractable - or, worse, deadly - the smart money says Trump will back away.