Trump’s a Paper Tiger, and Everyone Knows It

The disaster in Syria highlights something that’s been apparent since the 2016 campaign: Trump is unfit to run American foreign policy.

A man dressed in army fatigues sits on a chair holding a gun. Trash is strewn behind him, and an empty white chair and a gun are next to him.
A Turkey-backed Syrian rebel sits in the border town of Tal Abyad. (Khalil Ashawi / Reuters)

The United States is, yet again, facing an unnecessary crisis of its own making. On October 6, Donald Trump decided, during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to withdraw U.S. military forces from northern Syria. And not for the first time. Erdoğan persuaded Trump to withdraw U.S. forces during a phone call back in mid-December 2018. In response, then–Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned in protest. Under bipartisan pressure, Trump agreed to keep a reduced number of troops in the region.

But this time was different. Instead of reversing course in the face of bipartisan criticism, Trump doubled down. The same day that he publicly announced his decision, Trump tweeted that an American troop presence was unnecessary to protect the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or prevent Islamic State fighters from escaping confinement, because “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”

Now the fears of his critics are coming to fruition. The instability created by the Turkish incursion into Syria—involving both the Turkish military and its proxies—has allowed ISIS fighters to escape. Images of executions and other alleged atrocities are circulating on social media. The SDF, desperate for partners capable of helping it fend off the Turkish advance, has formed an alliance with Russia and the Syrian government. On Thursday, the U.S. helped block a United Nations Security Council statement condemning the Turkish operation. On Friday, Turkish artillery landed near American forces. On Saturday, Trump ordered the total evacuation of U.S. troops from northern Syria. NBC News reported that “the decision to move troops out was largely because Turkish military and proxy force” had cut off American supply lines, and the likelihood of U.S. troops being drawn into the conflict was high.

There is no silver lining here. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops allowed a Turkish incursion into territory held by an American ally. For this, Trump received no foreign-policy concessions. The resulting invasion has set back the war against ISIS, and led the SDF—a force that was trained and armed by the United States—to ally with Russia and its Syrian client. In principle, Trump’s sudden shift in policy might have formed the basis for an effort to repair frayed relations with Ankara—which, among other things, had been kicked out of the F-35 program for buying a Russian air-defense system. But Trump undermined this possibility by slapping sanctions on Turkey. In effect, the United States is now sanctioning a NATO member-state in support of efforts by Russia and the Syrian government to consolidate control in a region formerly protected by the United States. Trump’s utterly bizarre October 9 letter to Erdoğan, in which he pleaded with the Turkish leader not to be “a tough guy” or a “fool,” surely did nothing to reestablish good feeling, let alone respect.

The story of how we got to this point doesn’t start with Trump. He inherited a situation in northeast Syria that could not remain in equilibrium forever, especially given his desire to bring U.S. troops home. Thus, one might argue that he ripped the Band-Aid off, forced an inevitable accommodation between the SDF and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and is now bringing the troops home.

But foreign policy is all about managing difficult trade-offs. For example, if policy makers take steps necessary to demonstrate the credibility of their commitment to defend an alliance partner, they might embolden that ally to draw them into a conflict that they’d rather not fight. If policy makers don’t take those steps, the ally might worry about abandonment and seek other security partners. As a great power, the United States has to constantly work to manage a wide variety of cross-cutting pressures. For decades, Washington has balanced arms sales to Saudi Arabia with Israel’s insistence that it retain its “qualitative military edge.”

Not only are trade-offs inevitable, but events rarely unfold as planned. Foreign policy takes place under conditions of uncertainty and risk. In short, foreign policy will inevitably produce lemons, so policy makers need to be prepared to make lemonade. What Trump has done, however, is jam the lemons into his mouth and choke on them. He’s managed to alienate some allies, get people killed, cause foreign leaders and policy makers to further doubt his reliability, give enemies of the United States a chance at regrouping, and further enhance Russian prestige as a power broker in the Middle East.

Trump’s botched Syria policy only highlights something that’s been apparent since the 2016 campaign: He is unfit to run American foreign policy. True, when it comes to unforced errors, Trump is unlikely to match the George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.

But as mounting evidence surrounding the Ukraine scandal demonstrates, Trump’s primary interest lies in his own advancement. His information environment is dominated by Fox News and fever-swamp, right-wing conspiracy theories. He’s also all short-term tactics and no long-term strategy. Trump seems to be simply incapable of the kind of strategic thought required for foreign policy. In a devastating Atlantic article, Mark Bowden interviewed numerous U.S. generals who attest that Trump refuses to work through how other countries might respond to his actions. He just wants to make “gut” decisions, which means that he neither anticipates nor plans for contingencies. This makes him fundamentally reactive.

Trump’s unusually singular focus on his personal interests, his distorted information environment, and his allergy to strategic thought set him apart. These traits also mean that his decision-making processes cannot be understood with the normal tools of foreign-policy analysis. Those pundits, analysts, and headline writers who insist on attributing some underlying logic to Trump’s decisions unwittingly normalize and sanitize his presidency. They make his actions more difficult, not easier, to understand.

The president’s impulsiveness does not mean, however, that his string of failures defies prediction. One of the major ways that states pursue their interests is to deter unwanted behavior—to make it clear to other international actors that they will suffer costs if they engage in that behavior. When it works well, deterrence is not particularly exciting, because the unwanted behavior never happens.

Trump cannot deter bad actors, because he’s predictably a paper tiger. For example, Trump ratcheted up tensions with North Korea to the point where many people worried that war was coming. But then he backed down and was soon indulging, both personally and politically, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un—while asking for concessions that North Korea was clearly unprepared to make. Now North Korea presses ahead with nuclear capabilities, while Trump insists that he’s got a great relationship with Kim, who likely views him as a doormat.

Similarly, when Trump withdrew from the Iran Deal, he described it as a horrible agreement that allowed Iran to continue all kinds of bad behavior. But Trump’s policies in the Middle East have not put much of a dent in Iran’s regional ambitions; Iran is now closer to nuclear weapons than before Trump took office. The only long-term plan seems to have been to apply pressure and hope something breaks. The administration’s occasional demand that Iran comply with the same agreement that Trump abandoned further suggests a profound lack of planning.

Because Trump’s approach to foreign policy is too often reactive, he finds himself turning to coercive diplomacy to clean up his messes—to try to put the proverbial horse back in the barn. This is exactly what’s happening with Turkey. Instead of trying to deter Erdoğan from invading Syria, Trump resorted to punitive sanctions after the incursion had already begun, after people were dying, after U.S. troops were trying to evacuate, and after the Russian-Syrian-SDF agreement. (Trump’s pursuit of sanctions is almost certainly a tactical response to domestic political pressure, rather than a developed contingency plan.) The imposition of sanctions carries greater political risks for everyone concerned than if Trump had read his talking points, pushed back against Erdoğan’s demands, and left American troops in place. Indeed, some reports suggest that Erdoğan was surprised by Trump’s capitulation—that Erdoğan believed he was opening a negotiation rather than issuing an ultimatum.

Trump may wind up reversing some of the damage of his Syrian missteps. But even if Trump forces Erdoğan to capitulate, he’s unlikely to walk away with any net gains. Trump certainly won’t reap any reputational advantage. Trump’s Syria policy, like pretty much all of Trump’s international endeavors, will likely leave the United States worse off than if he had simply maintained the status quo.

Someone will come out in better shape, however: America’s rivals, Russia in particular. Jeb Bush said that Trump would be a “chaos” president, and that’s one reason Moscow wanted him to win. Yes, Moscow came to hope that Trump would deliver on a new grand bargain favorable to Russian goals and interests, such as a return to spheres of influence and an abandonment of American liberal ordering. But his victory alone, the Kremlin wagered, would throw wrenches into America’s global advantage in alliances and partnerships. That bet has paid off.