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America First

Donald Trump made it very clear on the campaign trail that the America’s foreign policy goals needed a change.  Less focusing on what was good for the world and more focus on what is good for America.  America First!  This fit in well with his populist messaging about ending globalization and helping American workers.  However, just as his economic goals seems to have shifted. Some are now wondering if the latest atrocities in Syria and North Korea will have President Trump singing a different tune.

Greg Jaffe, from the Washington Post, highlights the philosophical quandary that Trump faces as both North Korea and Syria have indirectly threatened the United States and the current world order.

Despite the tough talk, the Syrian chemical weapons attack poses a particular problem for Trump’s foreign policy philosophy. The attack by Assad’s forces offends America’s values and it violates long-standing international norms of behavior, but it does not present an immediate threat to America’s security or its economic interests. In an “America First” world, it is an atrocity, but hardly a call to action for the United States and its allies.

Trump’s initial reaction to the chemical weapons attack in Syria was to blame former President Obama for his inaction against Bashar Al-Assad.  What is odd about that is the “weakness” that Trump references go back to the last time Assad used chemical weapons.  In 2013 Assad used chemical weapons on his own people after President Obama had drawn a red line.  Obama chose not to act, being bailed out by both Congress’s hesitant approach to intervention in Syria and Putin’s assurance he could disarm Assad.  What is odd about Trump bringing that up is the fact that now Trump is in the same situation, kinda.  As Jaffe points out, America is not directly threatened by what Syria did.  Following Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, one would conclude America shouldn’t intervene.  However, Trump’s criticism of Obama’s inaction has some questioning if Trump could be changing his view on the US’ role on the global stage.

By Wednesday afternoon, Trump seemed to be hinting — without directly saying it — that Assad’s actions must be punished and that the Syrian strongman might have to go.

“I don’t have one specific way,” Trump said. “. . . I do change, and I’m flexible. . . . And I will tell you that the attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing.”

Earlier I had mentioned a possible change to the current world order.  Once again, this is something that candidate Trump would have dismissed as a plot of global elites to keep everything running the way they want.  However, what it really is about is understanding the role America has played in the world.  Thanassis Cambanis, of the Atlantic, points out that Assad’s use of chemical weapons was less about showing his strength and more about highlighting America’s new weakness…

Obama’s red line, and the flawed deal that followed that dismantled most but not all of Assad’s chemical weapons capacity, taught Syria and its backers an important lesson: at least in this current epoch, the guarantors of the international order are no longer heavily invested in its ethical core or its literal enforcement. Obama laid down only one explicit marker that would prompt him to intervene in Syria—the use of chemical weapons.

If this is true then it makes Assad’s current use of chemical weapons even more diabolical and horrific.  It’s hard to imagine that using chemical weapons could be even more horrific than on its face, but in this case, it’s true.  If 2013 was about showing the world Assad could do whatever he wants without repercussions  It is possible that 2017 is about Assad showing the world he can do whatever he wants, including killing his own people, and not only will there be no repercussions he could be rewarded for it.  Cambanis explains…

If he can drop chemical weapons on the same day that a conference in Brussels is discussing plans to reconstruct Syria, without any substantive response, then he’ll inch even closer to his current goal of winning a Western-funded rebuilding plan on his own terms. He hopes to cudgel the West into funneling reconstruction money through his regime, which committed most of the destruction in the first place. It’s absurd that until last year, the same Western governments that were calling for Assad’s ouster and funding for armed militants to overthrow him would now pay to restore his abusive authority— it’s also very possible.

This is without a doubt a terrifying prediction.  However, while it might be likely future.  It is definitely not certain.  As I mentioned above Trump’s geopolitical philosophy could be changing.  While his former position was clearly shaped by advisors like Micheal Flynn and Steve Bannon, a new voice has emerged in the White House with a different outlook.  H.R. McMaster.  Today the Washington Post reported that Bannon was out on the National Security Council and McMaster’s influence could be growing.

President Trump on Wednesday removed controversial White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon from the National Security Council, part of a sweeping staff reshuffling…The restructuring reflects the growing influence of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, an Army three-star general who took over the post after retired general Michael Flynn was ousted in February and who is increasingly asserting himself over the flow of national security information in the White House.

McMaster is someone that many traditional Republicans are happy and excited about.  WaPo reported that longtime Trump critic and neocon, Bill Kristol, seemed optimistic about McMaster’s growing influence, “McMaster is in charge and trying to chart policy in a reasonable way.”  I would have to second Kristol’s thoughts on McMaster.  McMaster is not only a brilliant military mind, but he also has no problem telling the President what is right and what is wrong.  People like that are someone that every President, especially Trump, needs.  Yes-men are a dime a dozen.  Actual advisors who actually advise are a far rarer commodity.

As someone who is a foreign policy novice, I couldn’t tell which direction we should go with Syria or North Korea.  However, I do know with someone like McMaster behind the wheel it is going to be very difficult for us to make a wrong turn.

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