Trump, Inconsistent as Commander in Chief and Chief Diplomat
Despite running on the platform of an “America first” foreign policy — declaring NATO obsolete while threatening to pull out of NAFTA, promising to label China a currency manipulator, make Mexico pay for the border wall, and ‘bomb the shit’ out of ISIS, since taking office much of Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric has clashed with reality while he clumsily finds his footing on the global stage.
A few days before issuing his controversial travel ban, Trump made headlines by reportedly making a vague threat of possibly military intervention while on the phone with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto — setting the tone for a succession of awkward hiccups to come in his interactions with world leaders.
Later that weekend as the travel ban controversy unfolded and overshadowed the remarks he made to the Mexican President, Trump also hosted his first foreign leader at the White House — British Prime Minister Theresa May.
The two had a cordial meeting and jointly pushed for a trade deal, with Trump remarking that “I think Brexit is going to be a wonderful thing for your country.”
In the months since, Trump has hosted numerous other leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Jordanian King Abdullah, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Each visit was marked by the leaders’ unique approaches to interacting with Trump — Trudeau taught him how to shake hands, Merkel maintained her characteristic calm by smiling for a presser after Trump handed her a fake ‘bill’ for billions of dollars Germany supposedly owes to NATO, and Xi ate chocolate cake while Trump informed him that we had “just fired 59 missiles … heading to Iraq”.
The President meant to say Syria, of course, where he had ordered a strike against the Assad regime in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed over eighty people.
In 2013, the last time Assad used chemical weapons, Trump didn’t hesitate to criticize President Obama’s involvement in the country.
In the strike authorized by Trump, intended to “deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons”, the Pentagon announced that 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been fired at Assad’s Al Shayrat airfield — targeting fighter jets, aircraft shelters, radar equipment, ammunition bunkers, and air defense systems.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis claimed that the strike destroyed about 20% of Syria’s air-force, while Russia’s defense ministry said that the U.S. strike took out only six planes. Within three days of the strike the airfield was operational again.
Responding to questions about whether this would mean large-scale U.S. involvement in Syria, the White House bumbled and failed to get a consistent message out. At one point Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that use of barrel bombs by the Assad regime could prompt U.S. action, then later insisted that his comments did not indicate a change in U.S. policy.
The strike in Syria appeared to be an opportunistic attempt by Trump to seize on the international outrage at the chemical attack and remake his image as commander-in-chief, which had been marred by a botched raid in Yemen in which 23 civilians and U.S. Navy Seal Ryan Owens were killed.
The Yemen raid was the first approved by Trump, and was a learning experience for the new President.
The White House touted the raid as “a success”, with Press Secretary Sean Spicer claiming that “American lives will be saved because of it. Future attacks will be prevented.”
Senator John McCain opted not to hold back, instead calling the raid a “failure” and facing harsh backlash on Twitter from Trump, who said McCain doesn’t know “how to win anymore.”
Trump ultimately doubled down on his decision, hosting the wife of the Navy Seal killed in the raid, Carryn Owens, at his first address to Congress and mentioning her in his speech to a lengthy round of applause.
Owens’ father, on the other hand, has called for an investigation into the decision to launch the raid, which the previous administration had not gone forward with. William Owens has so far had no luck imploring Trump not to “hide behind my son’s death.”
As U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have ramped up in recent months, civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq have also skyrocketed. In March alone, airstrikes reportedly killed more than 1,200 people — more than triple the previous high in January.
As U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley put it, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
Although Haley might see Trump’s actions so far as indicative of a “new sheriff”, not everyone necessarily agrees.
For example, Trump used to to able to rile Mexico with minimal effort — but now after several months with no border wall underway and NAFTA still in place, the country is beginning to see him less as a real threat and more, as one Mexican Senator described it, “sitting at a poker table bluffing rather than making serious decisions”.
The ultimate bluff for Trump will come in the form of a challenge none of his predecessors have been able to tackle — one he might not be able to ignore.
As tensions flare on the Korean peninsula, Trump’s administration has taken a hard-line against Kim Jong-Un’s regime in North Korea, pushing for stronger sanctions, declaring the era of strategic patience over, and Trump himself admitting recently that, “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.”
The administration made a misstep in the conflict earlier this month, however, falsely announcing that a U.S. aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson, was headed to the Sea of Japan.
After Trump declared that “we’re sending an armada” in response to provocations from North Korea, news of the carrier’s arrival spread throughout East Asia — stoking fears that Trump was considering a pre-emptive strike just days after he ordered the tomahawk strike in Syria.
In reality, the carrier was 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula, on its way to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy. Officials blamed a “glitch-ridden sequence of events” for the error.
Trump has also attempted to reach out to China for help in controlling the regime, while Kim has responded to his tough talk by vowing to conduct more missile and nuclear tests.
China remains stuck between a rock and a hard place, not wanting the regime to collapse but also fearing that the situation between North Korea and the U.S. could “slip out of control.”