Washington’s erratic policy baffles friends and foes

Diplomats are riding a wild horse, attempting to transmit to their capitals a coherent and considered framework.
Sunday 13/01/2019
US national security adviser John Bolton speaks during a news briefing at the White House. (Reuters)
Drunken sailor approach. US national security adviser John Bolton speaks during a news briefing at the White House. (Reuters)

Friends and enemies of Washington alike are struggling to understand US policy towards Syria. Erratic, uncoordinated and with a strong tendency towards the irrational are not prized policy attributes but they offer a good description of what one US politician called the Trump administration’s “drunken sailor” approach to foreign policy decision-making.

There was a time when a meeting with an assistant secretary at the US State Department or regional director at the National Security Council would help one understand the meaning and direction of US policy. No longer. In Trump’s Washington, it may be possible to get an authoritative briefing on US policy but it would be foolhardy to trust it.

The crisis over US policy on Syria is only the latest and perhaps the most transparent case in point. More than one diplomat spent the holiday break trying to answer urgent requests from home capitals seeking to understand the meaning of Trump’s decision to exit Syria within 30 days.

Diplomats followed the traditional script, meeting with colleagues and being briefed by State Department, Pentagon and White House officials — anyone who could throw some light on the president’s decision to pull out of Syria, which he described as a land of “sand and death.”

Countries traditionally send their best and brightest diplomats to Washington. Up-and-coming young professionals covet a posting to the United States as an opportunity to win recognition by senior ministers back home and to secure a place on the diplomatic fast track.

They have been unusually busy since Trump’s precipitous and, as it now turns out, premature announcement of US withdrawal from Syria. Diplomats are riding a wild horse, attempting to transmit to their capitals a coherent and considered framework that will enable their ministers and leaders to anticipate, understand and respond to US policy.

Leaders across the world have been searching for evidence of some compelling insight, some magic key to understand policy in the Trump era but they are using tools that, however useful in the past, offer little insight into how the Trump White House makes policy today.

Generations of foreign officials have been raised on the premise that the United States’ greatest strength is the recognised authority and legitimacy of its governing institutions. For diplomats, many of whom report to dictators or military officers with weak institutional cultures, Washington has been recognised by friend and foe alike as all the stronger for the national consensus supporting a governing and policymaking system that works.

In the old days, this fundamental assumption made perfect sense. Not now.

In Trump’s Washington, senior officials are no better sources of authoritative information than the doorman at the Willard Hotel and a policymaking process by any historical US standard hardly exists. There is only one “decider” but when he governs by caprice and policy is hostage to his latest whim — when there is no longer a “US policy” — what are diplomats to do?

One can imagine the surprise and dislocation that occurs when, as in recent weeks, Washington has so obviously failed to work. How do you tell your minister or president that there is no value to the traditional effort to fathom what under Trump is unfathomable?

Ask Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was betrayed by his faith in the “clear agreement” reached with Trump during a phone call in early December. “Despite the fact that we reached a clear agreement with Mr Trump, different voices have been raised from different echelons of the US administration,” Erdogan said.

Under Trump, policy decisions like the ones on Syria have an “Alice in Wonderland” quality — down is up and up is down — complicating efforts in world capitals to understand what is going on in Washington.

Washington’s traditional allies uniformly oppose the US retreat from Syria, while its enemies — Russia, Syria and Iran — welcome it. All have learned, however, that putting one’s trust in Washington’s policies on Monday risks being exposed and embarrassed by a change of policy on Friday.

“With this president,” observed a senior Israeli defence official to Al-Monitor, “anything could happen. For good and bad. There is no well-thought-out policy, no clear pattern of behaviour, no orderly decision-making. You wake up each morning hoping for the best. In the Trump era, we simply have to be ready for anything and not be surprised by any scenario.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is no fan of Washington or its ways but his response to Trump’s bombshell announcement reveals that Putin understands the limits of Trump’s power even better than the American president himself.

“As concerns the withdrawal of American troops,” he explained December 20 in his annual news conference, “I do not know what that is. The United States has been present in, say, Afghanistan, for how long? Seventeen years. And every year they talk about withdrawing the troops but they are still there. So far, we have not seen any evidence of their withdrawal but I suppose it is possible.”