At this point, there is a fairly well-established pattern to the messaging arm of the Trump White House foreign policy. First, the president tweets his intention to reverse an established policy position and signals that his new approach will be implemented rashly and with blatant disregard for the wisdom of veterans and experts. Predictably, this sets off outraged reactions that tell you very little about the underlying wisdom of the position being upended or its alternatives. In an impressively efficient and depressingly predictable routine, Trump’s 280 characters convince his critics that he’s a reckless madman and his supporters that he’s a chaos agent and decision maker; either he’s leading the country over the edge or breaking through procedural paralysis to effect real and needed change.
Meanwhile, the most fundamental nuts and bolts questions—in Syria, for instance, whether a withdrawal of U.S. forces would also mean the end of air support for American allies in the region—never even get asked in the ensuing furor. Then, a week or two later when the initial announcement is all but forgotten, the president denies ever taking the position he had advocated while other administration officials, likewise, pretend that initial tweet had never happened and go about pursuing a more limited and conventional set of goals.
In the most recent example, Trump announced last month that U.S. military forces, about 2,000 of whom are currently in Syria, would be withdrawn from the country within 30 days. There was no longer any need for U.S. forces, the president said in a video message from mid-December, because: “We have won against ISIS.” With victory declared, Trump announced, “our boys, our young women, our men—they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.” In short order, the announcement led to resignations from both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the veteran diplomat and special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Now, a week into the new year, the president’s original declaration of intent has been contradicted, revised and counter-revised, and a more conventional policy seems to be taking form. This past Sunday, Trump denied to reporters ever saying “we were doing it that quickly.” Monday was a new day and brought a new announcement with the president tweeting “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!”
Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton speaking with reporters in Israel on Sunday during a stop there while he tours the Middle East, denied any timetable for the pulling U.S. forces out of Syria and stated that American troops would remain in the region until the Islamic State is defeated. “We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States, at a minimum so they don’t endanger our troops,” Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem the day before a planned visit to Turkey on Tuesday.
Appearing alongside Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed the strategic value of the Golan region on Israel’s border with Syria. “The Golan Heights is tremendously important for our security,” Netanyahu said on Sunday. After a planned helicopter tour of the Golan with Bolton, the American official would “be able to understand perfectly why we will never leave the Golan Heights, and why it is important that all countries recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” according to Netanyahu.
On Monday, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton both publicly backed the Israeli prime minister’s call for the U.S. to formally recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Jacob Siegel is a senior writer at Tablet and editor of The Scroll.