by W.P.S. Sidhu
As Donald Trump lunges towards 100 days of his presidency with the elegance of a raging bull in a china shop strewn with nuclear trip wires, he has notched up several dubious “firsts” in this brief period: the first to lose a hand-picked national security adviser to scandal in a mere 24 days; the first to have his executive orders be quashed by the courts; the first to backtrack on his stated foreign policy agenda vis-a-vis Syria, Russia, China and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato); and the first White House incumbent to have higher disapproval ratings (of nearly 60%) than approval ratings (of 37%) since Gallup started tracking this issue in 1945.
Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll reveals that a majority of Americans believe Trump is too impulsive in making decisions (63%) and that his policies have put the US in a weaker position internationally (45%). Trump’s approval rating is at least 15% lower than the previous lowest incumbent—Bill Clinton. While Clinton rued early in his presidency that he did not get a honeymoon period, Trump appears to have entirely skipped the honeymoon and gone straight to divorce proceedings.
Unsurprisingly then, even headlines of analysis by die-hard Republican experts warned that “The Trump administration is heading for a 100-day train wreck”. Commentaries by liberal and Democratic observers were predictably scathing and spoke of “100 days of horror”.
These articles reflect, on the one hand, dismay at the rejection of the ideal of the US as the leader of the free world, which can be traced back to World War I, and on the other, anger at the betrayal of the isolationist promise made by Trump. At his inauguration on 20 January, Trump gladly donned the mantle of disrupter-in-chief and promised an “America First” policy, which was expected to dramatically bring the US back to the traditional isolationist roots that have dominated its foreign policy for the longest period of its 240-year history. Consequently, he challenged the US-led world order, called for closer and friendlier ties with Russia, vowed to destroy the Islamic State in cooperation with Syria, declared his intention to label China as a currency manipulator and dismissed Nato as “obsolete”.
Less than 100 days into his nascent presidency, and coincidentally on the eve of the centenary of the US’ entry into World War I, Trump has done a volte-face on all these pledges, much to the chagrin of his nationalist supporters and the relief of the internationalist Washington establishment, its allies, and even rivals like China.
The spark for this transformation was the sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria, allegedly by the Bashar al-Assad regime. The incident traumatized the US president and prompted him to launch missile strikes against a Syrian air base from where the chemical attacks were supposed to have originated. This attack, which Trump justified on the grounds of “vital national security interest of the US”, without providing any legal or moral rationale, jettisoned both his declared intention to work with Assad against the Islamic State and not to get involved in the Syrian imbroglio. Above all, this ad hoc, impulsive and episodic attack is unlikely to worry Assad or improve the ground situation for Syrian non-combatants. It is also reminiscent of a similar attack launched in 1998 by the Clinton administration against camps and facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan and marks Trump’s return to the fold of mainstream US policy.
A related US reversal was also evident vis-à-vis Syria’s patron—Russia. Despite claims that Russia had intervened in the US election last year to aid the Trump campaign, the alleged “Siberian candidate”—already weakened by the reported links between his short-lived national security adviser, Mike Flynn, and Moscow—had no option but to revert to the usual opposition to Russia following the Syrian chemical attack. Consequently, the Washington establishment also adopted the default position against Moscow, much to the surprise of countries like India, which were quietly banking on better US-Russia relations. However, this Washington consensus on Russia is not dissimilar to the New Delhi consensus on Pakistan, where neither establishment has a benign view of the other.
In contrast to Trump’s return to conventional US wisdom on Russia and Syria, his unconventional approach to North Korea is both flawed and extremely dangerous. Previous US administrations had held China responsible for the antics of its truculent ally and Washington avoided being pitted directly against North Korea.
This time around, following the meeting with Xi Jinping, Trump appears to have let China off the hook in making North Korea behave and finds itself in confrontation with Pyongyang. Instead, Beijing has pitched itself as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang. Were the already dangerous situation in Northeast Asia to spiral out of control, the US would be held responsible while China would absolve itself of any blame.
In the run-up to the Trump presidency, this column made three predictions: First, that a domestically weak president with a divided mandate would have to deal with an increasingly chaotic world; second, despite Trump’s disruptive tendencies, there is likely to be more continuity than change in US policy; third, the US is invariably likely to be drawn into another war. Two of these have turned out to be right in Trump’s 100 days; let’s hope the third does not come to pass.
W.P.S. Sidhu is visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and associate fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.