President Trump never wanted to put U.S. troops in Syria. His strategy for defeating Islamic State — “I would bomb the s— out of them,” he said in his campaign — didn’t include boots on the ground.
His generals insisted that they needed U.S. forces to direct the mostly Kurdish fighters who battled the radical militia on the ground, so the president relented — briefly. But when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to move into northeastern Syria, Trump ordered U.S. troops out of the way.
Trump’s critics bewailed the outcome as a defeat and a betrayal of our Kurdish allies. To the president, it was a victory.
“Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds,” he wrote on Twitter. “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7000 miles away!”
It was the voice of the real Donald Trump, unfiltered by speechwriters or aides.
And it gives a clear glimpse of his foreign policy to come.
For his first years in the White House, Trump was surrounded by aides who tried to nudge him toward a conventional version of conservative internationalism: support for traditional allies, competition (if not confrontation) with Russia and China, a muscular U.S. role in the Middle East.
Republicans in Congress tried to restrain him, too, joining Democrats to slap sanctions on Russia over the president’s objections.
Trump never liked it. Now, with a new national security advisor (his fourth in less than three years), an untested Defense secretary and a secretary of State acting as his most pugnacious defender, the president faces few restraints. He’s increasingly conducting foreign policy as he sees fit.
What that means in practice should come as no surprise, because he’s reverting to views he’s held for more than 30 years.
The popular notion that Trump is mercurial and inconsistent in foreign policy is mistaken, Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution wrote in a 2016 essay that remains one of the clearest dissections of the president’s strategic thinking: “He has a remarkably coherent and consistent worldview.”
Trump doesn’t want U.S. troops fighting overseas. He’s willing to use air power, but reluctant to deploy troops on the ground — and implacably opposed to using U.S. forces for peacekeeping, which he dismisses as “police work.”
He doesn’t much care who runs other parts of the world or how they run it, as long as they don’t ask the United States for help.
He admires authoritarian rulers, including Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
He has little interest in human rights or democracy promotion.
And he’s allergic to lasting commitments, whether with small, dependent partners like the Kurds or longstanding allies like Germany, France and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“Trump’s starting point and defining emotion on foreign policy is anger — not at America’s enemies, but at its friends,” Wright wrote.
As early as 1987, Trump criticized President Reagan for spending money to defend allies — in that case, the oil exporters of the Persian Gulf.
“The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help,” the New York real estate mogul wrote.
In 1990, Trump expressed grudging admiration for China’s massacre of protesting students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength,” he said in an interview with Playboy magazine. “That shows you the power of strength.”
And in a 2000 book on foreign policy, Trump bluntly proposed U.S. withdrawal from NATO, an idea he has frequently returned to.
The surprisingly rich record of early Trump pronouncements on world affairs provides a road map to future Trump policies.
An unfettered Trump will seek to withdraw more of the remaining 14,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
He’ll renew his threat to take the United States out of NATO.
He’ll be tempted to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea, especially if it can help him make a deal to freeze Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program. (The U.S. goal has long been to dismantle North Korea’s nukes, but Trump has tacitly redefined success at a less ambitious level.)
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia may continue to benefit from a U.S. defense umbrella.
“They pay cash,” Trump explained last month.
As he pursues a trade deal with China’s Xi, whom he has called “a very good man,” Trump will be tempted to give Beijing a free pass on its military expansion into the South China Sea; he’s never sounded as passionate about China’s geopolitical expansion as its trade policy.
And he’ll continue to pursue a better relationship with Putin’s Russia.
Those moves will leave the United States less safe, less powerful and less able to respond to challenges around the world.
They’ll meet with criticism from Democrats — and, perhaps, from those Republicans who still cling to the muscular internationalism that Reagan represented.
The GOP dissidents face a challenge: The party’s voters largely support the president, not them.
They have a choice to make: Speak up for their convictions, or watch U.S. foreign policy erode.
The one option they don’t have is to express surprise. Trump’s been promising to do these things all along.