“People will tie themselves in knots trying to discern a linear, rational decision-making (process) from Trump. It’s never been part of his character and it’s never going to be.” – Tim O’Brien, a biographer of Donald Trump.
The world is dealing with an American president who is motivated by impulse rather than strategy, by whim rather than rational decision-making.
It was that way last week when President Trump suddenly abandoned his non-interventionist approach to Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian civil war by unleashing a flurry of missiles at an airbase in Syria. His intent was to punish al-Assad for a sarin gas attack that killed more than 80 Syrian civilians in a rebel-held town. Trump professed to have been deeply moved by pictures of the victims.
“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” he said when he announced the retaliatory strike.
It was not the first atrocity committed by the al-Assad regime, not the first use of deadly chemicals, and not the first time beautiful babies had been killed. But perhaps it was the first time Trump had seen such graphic pictures of dying Syrian children. Although sincerity has not been a hallmark of Trump’s political career, he did seem genuine in his reaction to the pictures.
How long will the impulse last?
For the moment, Trump’s action has raised the stakes in the Middle East for both the United States, whose involvement in the region has been little short of disastrous in recent decades, and for al-Assad’s patron and benefactor, Vladimir Putin, who has no practical choice but to redouble Russia’s support for the Syrian strongman.
But maybe that’s just what Trump wants. A confrontation with Moscow would distract attention, on and off Capitol Hill, from the ongoing investigations into alleged pro-Trump meddling by the Russians in last fall’s election. So for Trump, it is a propitious moment to create some distance between himself and his former pal, Putin – and in the process draw himself a bit closer to China’s president, Xi Jinping, his guest at Mar-a-Lago at the end of last week.
If Trump has a playbook, Washington’s allies are not privy to it. More than one American commentator has suggested that Trump’s unpredictability is driving foreign leaders crazy.
So far, friendly leaders are offering guarded support for the missile attack, although they are clearly concerned about what Trump’s next move might be. These include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, whose relations with the new president have been strained. Britain is also onside, although it made a point of saying it would not participate in any U.S.-led military adventure in the region.
That is roughly the position of the Trudeau government in Ottawa: moral support with no military commitment. After speaking to Trump on Friday morning, Trudeau offered support for “limited, focused actions to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to launch such attacks.”
Translation: Canada will support additional one-off missile strikes if Ottawa agrees they are necessary.
Trudeau said he urged the president to work with the international community to develop a multilateral approach to the Syrian crisis. “We all know that the long-term solution in Syria must be diplomatic , must be worked on by the international community,” the Prime Minister said.
His foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, echoed that, saying Russia must put pressure on the Syrians.
Trudeau said Trump did not ask for any Canadian assistance to deal with Syria. This doesn’t mean there would not be a request in the future if Trump gets the impulse.
Justin Trudeau undoubtedly remembers what happened in 2003 when President George W. Bush asked Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to join in the American-led war against Iraq. Chrétien turned him down.
The war dragged on for 10 years, and Chrétien said later that his refusal was the best decision he made in his decade as prime minister.