Trump’s Syria gambit feels like Russian roulette

Trump, Syria’s Assad, and Russia’s Putin: Three peas in a dangerous and confusing pod.

If you’re getting whiplash from yanking your head back and forth trying to keep up with Donald Trump’s evolving foreign policy (and we’re using that term loosely), you’re not alone. Trump is changing gears faster than a Grand Prix driver in a Bugatti.

Since 2013, Trump has strongly advocated staying out of Syria. His 140-character lectures told President Barack Obama not to attack Syria (“No, dopey, I would not go into Syria”); to get congressional approval before launching a strike; not to warn anyone of an upcoming strike (“SHOOT FIRST AND TALK LATER!”); and to leave it to the Arab League (“Why are these rich Arab countries not paying us for the tremendous cost of such an attack?”). In general, according to the now tweeter-in-chief, it was a bad idea all around (“MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!”).

During his entire presidential campaign, Trump instead focused on threats from the Islamic State. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley echoed Trump’s party line that Assad’s fate would rest with the Syrian people. It was basically, “What happens in Syria stays in Syria.”

Then Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack. Whether it was Trump seeing heart-wrenching photos on television or following the advice of his daughter, “foreign policy expert” Ivanka Trump, Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on a Syrian air base. But not before he warned the Russians, who spread the news to the Syrians, who removed almost all personnel. The number of aircraft destroyed, depending on which American official was delivering the message and when, ranged from 20 planes to 20 percent of the entire Syrian Arab Air Force. (Syria has at least 450 Russian-made fighter jets, so the loss of 20 planes doesn’t make much of a dent.)

The one-off air strike didn’t cause much damage, as Trump didn’t aim for the runways and Syrian jets took off the next day to attack Khan Sheikhoun, the same village they had attacked with chemical weapons. The “beautiful babies” Trump described were just as dead from both attacks.

What followed next was a series of head-scratching contradictory statements from Team Trump. Tillerson and Haley were forced to do a complete 180 on Syria. As Trumpland officials started calling for Assad’s removal, they also accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of helping orchestrate the attack. (Whoops! Trump now says he’d “like to believe” Russia didn’t know about the chemical weapons attack.)  Russians and Syrians retaliated against all this harsh rhetoric, saying it was the United States that had “crossed a red line” by launching the airstrike. “Donald Trump’s Russia reset already needs a reset,” said a story on CNN.

As all this was unfolding, more and more details kept emerging about Russian involvement in the 2016 election. A pro-Russian party in Ukraine delivered $1.2 million in off-the-books payments to the firm of Paul Manafort before Manafort was Trump’s campaign chairman. The FBI got a FISA warrant to monitor the communications of Trump adviser Carter Page, saying there was “probable cause” that Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, i.e., Russia.

So let’s save some time. Here’s a possible timeline that’s as likely as anything else, possibly all orchestrated by Putin in the first place:

  • Russians, with possible help from at least some on Trump team, interferes with the U.S. election, ensuring a Trump win.
  • Trump spends entire campaign and early part of presidency praising his BFF and “strong leader” Putin.
  • U.S. officials say policy is to keep hands off Syria.
  • The FBI investigation of Trump-Russia campaign collusion grows more serious.
  • Putin gets Assad to launch chemical weapons attack, much smaller than in 2013.
  • Trump is OUTRAGED and launches meaningless air strike.
  • U.S. officials talk tough, trying to give the impression that they’re anti-Russian after all. Despite Donald Trump Jr.’s 2008 admission that there’s “a lot of money pouring in from Russia” into Trump businesses and despite many Trump-Russia business ties, son Eric Trump now claims that air strikes and new tough stance “prove” that there’s no collusion between his daddy and the Russians.
  • Russia gets “concerned” that U.S.-Russia “relations” are souring. Main word used by both sides and media is “tense.”

You with me so far? OK, here’s what seems to be happening right now and what could happen soon:

  • Tillerson and Putin have a private meeting and toast each other with vodka, laughing about how they’re pulling all of this off. Since Tillerson ditches the traveling press, there’s no record of what’s said, so there’s no telling what happened. Again, what happens in Moscow stays in Moscow. Publicly, Tillerson says relations between the two countries are at a “low point.”
  • Trump, who has been dissing NATO since summer 2016 and threatening to withhold U.S. funds, now says NATO must resolve the Syrian disaster.
  • Miraculously, within a short time frame, things cool down and Assad uses no more chemical weapons.
  • U.S. media, confused as all get-out by now, report that Trump looked “presidential” in his dealings with the “tense Russia situation.”
  • Trump claims success and takes foreign policy victory lap.
  • The FBI is still investigating Trump-Russia ties.
  • Exhausted Americans turn their focus back to the Kardashians.

This is just policy on one country. Over the course of the campaign and his presidency, sometimes within the same week, Trump also:

  • Said Chinese were the “grand champions” of currency manipulation.
  • Said China didn’t manipulate currency after all, despite his constant campaign claims on that topic and his promise to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office.
  • Tweeted in 2016 that Russia was “not going into Ukraine, you can mark it down.” (Note: Russian and pro-Russian forces invaded Ukraine and Crimea in 2014.)
  • Said Ukraine is “an obstacle” to better relations with Russia.
  • Said U.S. is ready to act unilaterally on North Korea.
  • Said U.S. will work with China on North Korea.
  • In an interview with Maria Bartiromo on the Fox Business Network, to the question “What we are doing right now in terms of North Korea?” Trump answered, “You never know, do you? You never know.”

“You never know.” Oh, that’s for damn sure. Talk about an understatement.

The Atlantic ranked Trump’s most contradictory statements on foreign policy. They are:

  • The Iran deal. “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” “We have an agreement. I will police that deal.” “I don’t want to say what I’m gonna do with the Iran deal.”
  • Climate change. “We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement.” “I’m looking at it very closely [from an interview with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times]. I’ll tell you what. I have an open mind to it.”
  • The nuclear arsenal. “I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially.” “Let it be an arms race.”
  • ISIS. Trump has waffled between sending troops and not sending troops, taking ISIS oil and not taking ISIS oil.
  • NATO. “I had previously said that NATO was obsolete because it failed to deal adequately with terrorism.” (NATO policy has focused on terrorism for years.) NATO is obsolete “because it was designed many, many years ago.” “NATO is no longer obsolete.”
  • Russia. “I do have a relationship” with Putin, even wondering if Putin could be “my new best friend.” “I don’t know that I’m gonna get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there’s a good chance I won’t.”
  • Twitter. “I love Twitter.” “I don’t like tweeting.”

Trump said, picking up his phone and readying his thumbs.

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