Thursday 18 January 2018

'America First' approach has flopped - but uniting the world against brutality earns Trump respect he craves

President Donald Trump speaks after the US fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria Photo: AP
President Donald Trump speaks after the US fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria Photo: AP

Carole Coleman

Donald Trump has finally waded into the tangled web that is US foreign policy. Despite his preference for the home front, events have dragged the new commander-in-chief onto the international stage.

After months of silence, America's voice is clearly being heard. Global moral leadership was never part of Mr Trump's plan, but it could turn around his presidency.

The wake-up call was this week's chemical attack in Syria. Images of dying children with oxygen masks strapped to their tiny faces made "a big impact" on the US president. He was visibly shaken as he spoke about "beautiful little babies". It was almost as if Mr Trump had missed the first six years of the Syrian war and was only now tuning into its recurring horrors.

Mr Trump's immediate reaction broached the tricky territory of red lines when he said the attack "crossed lots of lines for me". He rightly blamed Syria, but more significantly he fingered Barack Obama for failing to take action after the first reported chemical attack on Syrian civilians four years ago. This left the new president with no option but to do something himself. If he failed to act, Mr Trump knew that he too would be seen as weak.

Consequently, Mr Trump's brief crush on Russia has ended. Mr Trump's surrogates stated Russia was either "complicit" in the chemical attack or "incompetent" for failing to stop it. Seventy-eight days into office, this president now knows Vladimir Putin cannot be America's friend. Mr Trump wishes it could have been otherwise, but Russia is political kryptonite.

The blinders also came off in relation to Bashar al-Assad. Earlier, in order to go after Isil, Mr Trump was happy to overlook the Syrian leader's future. But if America is to gain real clout against Syria, it will have to insist that Mr Assad have no further role in the region's fate.

Until now Mr Trump has shied away from foreign policy because it's complex and time-consuming, not to mention costly. Diplomacy and war are not like making property deals. Messy stuff - like human rights, democratic values and collateral damage - must be factored in.

The upside for President Trump is that, in order to make a difference on the international stage, he doesn't need the backing of the US Congress. By opening his mouth and saying the right words, Mr Trump can instantly harden America's stance against a murderous dictator or bad actor. Mr Trump's mouth has always been his most effective tool. Now's the time to put it to really good use.

On Thursday night, Mr Trump didn't ask Congress for permission to unleash 59 Tomahawk missiles from American ships in the eastern Mediterranean. That will cause the president some grief but, because of the egregious nature of Syria's crime, it's likely a majority on Capitol Hill will back his decision.

The results of his first military strike will also appeal to Donald Trump's need for validation. This president craves respect, and taking a stand on brutality is something most Americans and much of the world can readily unite on. World leaders lined up to commend him yesterday, and even columnists at what Mr Trump likes to call "the failing 'New York Times'" said he did the right thing.

But now Mr Trump has stepped up, he's a foreign policy president. America is back at the centre of the Syrian conflict. Let's hope Mr Trump's team have a plan for what to do next. After all, Syria is a proxy fight with Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and various others all looking for something. If Mr Assad left tomorrow, who would replace him? More critically, would anything truly improve for the Syrian people?

North Korea, meanwhile, seems intent on luring Mr Trump into a brawl. The word is Pyongyang could develop a missile that can reach Washington before Mr Trump leaves office. Again the options - negotiations, sanctions or war - are all difficult. Convincing Kim Jong-un to part with his missiles is a non-starter, and applying sanctions or military action will require help from neighbouring China - the same China Mr Trump accuses of stealing American jobs.

The tete-a-tete at Mar-a-Lago may have broken the ice between Mr Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping - even against the background of a US military strike. But substantive agreement on trade and North Korea will take time, and the Chinese prefer to play the long game on big issues.

Soon the US president will engage with the international community on climate change. Mr Trump's recent executive orders fly in the face of the global movement towards clean energy. Some US coal and oil companies are even urging the US not to pull out of the Paris Agreement. Mr Trump's own admission this week that he sees himself as "flexible" means anything could happen.

On the campaign trail, Mr Trump hurled abuse at the international order. With a wag of his finger, he dismissed Nato, the UN, and all manner of international agreements. They didn't fit with his 'America First' mantra. Likewise he was quick to devalue his own State Department, CIA and National Security Council.

With his domestic agenda collapsing, Mr Trump needs a foreign policy success to boost his presidency. The traditional 100-day report card is due soon. The US president knows he has dropped the ball on healthcare and the travel ban - his first two big initiatives. But if overnight he's become a strong and tough voice for American values on the global stage, Donald Trump might just make the grade.

Carole Coleman is a former RTÉ Washington correspondent

Irish Independent

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