In a conversation with an ambassador from Asia a few years ago, I asked why her country was still more favorably disposed to the United States than to a rising China. “Because we know what you believe in,” she responded. Since World War II the United States has operated in the Pacific with a certain set of interests and values. Both, she said, are “less clear” with respect to China.
It is predictability that builds and maintains alliances. It is constancy that enforces red lines, allowing others to accurately calculate the limits of American patience. It is vagueness and impulsiveness that invite testing and the possibility of deadly miscalculation.
President Donald Trump has now placed his own line in the Syrian sand: At the very least, the Assad regime must not use chemical weapons against civilians in its showdown assault on Idlib. But is this commitment the expression of a set of values with broader implications? Does it reflect an expansive interpretation of America’s global role, including the responsibility to protect civilians when feasible? Or is it the enforcement of a narrow norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction?
We have no idea which interpretation is correct because Trump himself is unlikely to know. Like on health care, he seems to be encountering these issues for the very first time. It is unlikely that he played through the scenarios of humanitarian intervention and regime change during campaign policy briefings with national security experts. Trump’s Steve Bannon-ridden inaugural address claimed that the world’s troubles are not America’s problem. But then there are the “babies” killed by nerve gas.
On Syria, Trump’s message has gone from mixed to pureed. Apparently, engagement in Syria is both a stupid move and a moral necessity. On foreign policy, Trump is ideologically rootless. He seems to have no considered views about the world, just confidence about his own abilities as a leader. And this places an unsettling randomness at the heart of America’s global role.
This inconsistency is the most consistent theme of Trump’s young presidency. During the campaign, he opposed entitlement reform, yet his health care bill contained the most fundamental entitlement reform – moving federal Medicaid spending from an open-ended match for state spending to a capped amount per person – that Congress has recently considered. He campaigned as a tribune for the working class, yet his economic approach seems heavily tilted toward the interests of the wealthy.
This has been attacked as lying. It also indicates a complete unfamiliarity with the issues and debates at the heart of American politics. He never encountered these matters during previous government service (which he did none of). He was not forced to explain his views during primary or general election debates (a few lines from the stump speech more than sufficed). Trump was not hiding an inner sophistication. His ignorance was presented as part of an anti-establishment package – as contempt for the quibbles of smaller men.
In this context, the current palace intrigue between Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner actually matters. This is not the normal circumstance in which a president with developed policy views is influenced at the margins by a diverse group of advisers. What we are seeing is a president without settled or tested policy convictions, influenced by advisers with sharp knives and fundamentally different views of the world. On Breitbart this is described as a conflict between “national populists” and “liberal, NYC Democrats.” It is the high-stakes struggle to provide the soul for a soulless presidency.
This inbuilt discord has turned normal West Wing tension into a red-carpeted cage fight. A Republican with recent White House interaction told me: “Watching them work was frankly terrifying. They fear each other, they hate each other, they are paranoid beyond belief, and it doesn’t work.”
And it should concern conservatives that neither side in the main White House conflict – ethno-nationalists or moderates related to the president – is actually conservative. It would be better for the Republican Party (and for the world) if the family were to win this contest, as it almost certainly will.
That change would make the administration marginally more humane. But it would not, for the most part, be a victory for conservative policy ideas.
More importantly: Would this divided, chaotic White House, as it stands, be ready for a major shock such as a terrorist attack or a serious military move by a rival power? There is every reason to think it would not be ready. And that makes a major West Wing personnel shakeup, costing Bannon his role, both likely and desirable.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.