Smoke billows in the town of Douma, the last opposition holdout in Syria's Eastern Ghouta. (Getty/Salon)

Trump’s Syria flip-flop

Who speaks for the United States abroad? The President or Bolton?


Terry H. Schwadron
January 13, 2019 9:00AM (UTC)
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I take it personally when the President of the United States tells me, his employer, one thing about how we’re conducting our international affairs, then changes it almost 180 degrees, and then turns and says there is no difference between the conflicting statements.

If I’m confused, I must assume that foreign governments who consider themselves either allies or foes are confused too. In any case, they will think twice about whether to trust any envoy from the president from diplomats to generals to vice presidents with critical information.

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It’s bad enough that Democrats in Congress feel that they cannot get a straight answer to What-Is-a-Wall questions from anyone other than Donald Trump himself, and even then, walk away realizing that they have heard a half-dozen versions of an answer even in one short meeting.

But when this confusion is applied to international operations and wars where our troops or our allies might be killed, that is unsatisfactory. That Trump doesn’t seem to recognize that his White House is giving out multiple, conflicting statements is nuts all by itself. That he doesn’t understand that people may end up dead because of it shows unfitness for office.

I get it that this president misstates facts, that he lies so often that we expect it.

But that’s no panacea for deployment of troops or bringing them home. People can get killed too easily for partisan chatter replacing a thoughtful caring about our military.

The issue du jour is Syria. On Dec. 19, Trump unexpectedly announced that America had “won” and had beaten the Islamic State, and all troops would be coming home immediately.  Military and diplomatic folks around the world reacted as if Trump had just pulled the rug out from beneath them, and former Defense Secretary James Mattis was so shocked and appalled that he resigned on the spot. Then on Sunday, John Bolton, the national security adviser, told Israelis and the public that it would be years before the United States withdrew its 2,000 troops in Syria.

Weird, but okay. Then on Monday, Trump pushed back against media reports that he had altered the timeline for removing U.S. troops from Syria, denying his administration had issued contradictory statements about plans for ending America’s role in the war. “We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” the president said in a tweet. Already, Turkish president Recep Ergodan is publicly scolding Bolton and refusing to meet him – not a good sign among allies.

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Dear Trump fans, this is what the rest of us find baffling about dealing with the president. It’s not just the contradictions, it is the denial that there had been contradictions. “Halfway into Donald Trump’s term as president, it is less clear than ever who speaks for American foreign policy or, on even the most basic level, what that policy is,” said Fred Kaplan on Slate.com. “If you were the Turks, the Kurds, the Syrians, the Iranians, ISIS, or anyone else in the world, friend or foe, whose words would you take seriously — the president’s or his national security adviser’s? Would you believe anything that either of them ever said again, about anything?”

Nothing in the rest of my universe — my role as husband, father, friend — operates like that. People depend on me (or me on them) to let them know something we’re doing so that they will know how to play their accompanying part. If my wife has parked the car on the next street, I’d expect to find it there when I go look for it. If she got the wrong street, she might say so, but she would not deny that there had been some confusion.

While officials said Trump had initially ordered a 30-day departure, the White House later agreed to an exit within 120 days, which would permit troops more time to break down bases and safely remove equipment and personnel. Then officials appeared to back away from plans for an immediate departure and from assertions that the battle against the militants was over. Military and diplomatic folks expressed concern that a precipitous departure could endanger the chief U.S. partner force, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and allow the Islamic State to return.

Bolton even suggested that the United States might not withdraw all American forces after all.

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Doesn’t Bolton work for Trump? Isn’t Trump in charge?

Let’s Make America Speak with One Voice Again.


Terry H. Schwadron

MORE FROM Terry H. Schwadron

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Dcreport Foreign Policy John Bolton News & Politics Syria




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