Trump’s Policy Reversals Are Welcome but Incoherent
When Richard Nixon and Ariel Sharon made U-turns, they made sense. Trump's don't.
A leader, a much-derided outsider, came to power promising to deliver on the hardline policies that had long been his signature. Rough around the edges, he reveled in the tut-tutting of policy elites decrying the damage he would do.
Once in office, however, he confronted realities he had not fully anticipated. His bold pronouncements as an opposition candidate first ran into headwinds, then gave way to nuance, and, finally, in some cases, he outright reversed them as policy. Erstwhile supporters voiced frustration, even fury, while longtime detractors found themselves, to their own surprise, offering first muted, then more fulsome praise.
The leader was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel. As he stared down his harshest critics, those longtime allies in Israel’s settlement movement — who were beside themselves over his boldest stroke, Israel’s full withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 — he had a simple explanation for why his policies as prime minister veered so sharply from the maximalist line he had long advocated in other posts: “What you see from here, you don’t see from there.”
Could this dictum (it sounds much better in Hebrew) help explain the stunning reversals of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy in his first hundred days?
Trump’s whiplash-inducing reversals span a much broader set of issues than those with which Sharon made headlines. Already since his inauguration, Trump has: adopted a more adversarial posture toward Russia, put on ice his budding bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, authorized airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces following a brutal chemical weapons attack, reversed a determination to avoid distractions from the counter-Islamic State campaign in Syria, indicated tolerance for Assad’s rule, launched a traditional American-led effort to advance Middle East peace (including pressure on Israel to restrain settlement construction, dashing the hopes of Israeli one-staters), backed down from threats to reconsider the One-China policy or engage in a trade war with China (most recently by declining to declare China a currency manipulator), and pledged his fealty to the NATO alliance, which he had throughout his campaign declared to be obsolete.
Such reversals are not, in fact, unprecedented for American presidents. The most famous example even bequeathed us a name for such decisions: “Nixon goes to China.” But Nixon’s historic visit in 1972 was not the only such example. Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union, going much further on arms control than his long-held views would have predicted. President Bill Clinton also reversed himself on China, lowering the volume on human rights from his 1992 campaign rhetoric and ultimately pursuing permanent normal trade relations. And President Barack Obama, after years of following through on his determination to end U.S. involvement in Middle East wars, found himself compelled to launch a new campaign against the Islamic State in his final year in office.
All these presidents were informed, in some sense, by Sharon’s logic. From the seat of power, and the responsibility that comes with it, a leader often confronts realities and trade-offs at odds with his or her ideology. And a wise leader has the ability to be flexible, finding ways to adapt to changing circumstances while protecting and advancing his or her nation’s interests.
But we shouldn’t get carried away with the analogy when it comes to Trump. The ability to see new considerations, options, and limitations from “here” that one couldn’t see from “there” is a hallmark of mature and realistic leadership. But the policy changes of these earlier leaders had other characteristics as well.
One is a serious challenge to a deeply held ideology. The Nixon to China story was so notable precisely because of Nixon’s credentials as an anti-Communist hardliner. It had been his calling card for his entire political career. Sharon’s commitment to settlement expansion was much the same. These leaders deeply believed in their political paths, and their diversions from them was all the more meaningful for that reason.
A second common feature of these course changes were lengthy, orderly processes leading up to them. Already in 1971, Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, had made a secret visit to Beijing, testing the opportunities and laying the groundwork for the president’s trip the following year. Sharon, for his part, laid out his disengagement plan in a major speech 18 months before its implementation, and engaged in extensive negotiations with the George W. Bush administration to provide Israel with forms of strategic and political compensation he felt Israel needed and could not get from the Palestinian leadership.
Third, the policy changes these leaders made had clearly defined strategic purposes. Nixon viewed an opening with China as a key means of gaining leverage over the Soviet Union at the height of Cold War tensions, with the goal of advancing U.S.-Soviet detente as well. He also saw potential benefits in drawing China into efforts to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War, given Beijing’s influence with Hanoi. Sharon concluded that Israel’s continued control of Gaza imposed too high of a cost, with insufficient benefits to Israel’s security. He also assessed that had Israel not taken its own initiative to advance the process of Israeli-Palestinian separation, left moribund by the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit and the violence of the Second Intifada that followed, the country would have faced pressure from the United States and others to agree to an initiative not of its own design.
Now contrast these features — a challenge to deeply held ideology, a thoughtful and orderly process, and a well-defined strategic purpose — with Trump’s recent about-faces. When a president who argued vociferously through his campaign for closer relations with Russia, a trade war with China, and estrangement from NATO can so quickly pursue the opposites of these things, it suggests that he has no fixed positions, and indeed, no ideology to speak of. Such a leader, as others have observed, is frequently susceptible to persuasion by the last person who briefs him.
The lack of stable views is compounded by shockingly thin knowledge, and the inescapable conclusion that previously expressed positions had no more depth than advertising jingles. In ten minutes, by Trump’s own account, Chinese President Xi Jinping educated him on the complexities of Beijing’s relations with North Korea. Prior to the emergence of pictures of the Assad regime’s vile chemical weapons attack on civilians in Idlib, Trump seemed utterly unaware of the regime’s systematic brutality. And campaign rhetoric expressing nonchalance about Israeli settlement construction quickly ran up against the reality of trying to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks supported by Arab states.
Finally, these on-a-dime policy shifts suggest an ad hoc decision-making process, in which the president’s emotions and whims are at least as influential — and maybe far more so — than any carefully vetted set of options teed up by his key advisers. Even the best, most thoughtful advisers — people like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis — will struggle against loosey-goosey presidential decision-making. The lack of a process leading up to a decision, and the failure to embed it within a well thought out strategy, contributes to the incoherence of, for example, a secretary of state, a U.N. ambassador, and numerous other senior officials offering wildly different interpretations of the significance of the U.S. missile strike on Syria for the U.S. attitude toward the Assad regime’s future.
But an important question arises: How important is it that leaders thoughtfully challenge their own ideologies, conduct orderly policy processes, and outline new strategies, if they can arrive at correct policy outcomes without going through these steps? Does any of this matter? As someone who believes Trump made the right call in striking Syria, and has greeted his reversals on Russia, China, NATO, and Israel/Palestine with a mixture of appreciation and relief, I’m not sure that it does, at least as far as these particular policy decisions are concerned. With or without a proper process, supporters and detractors will switch sides. More and more foreign policy elites and allied nations are applauding the administration’s reversion to the mean of past U.S. policy, and more and more of Trump’s core supporters may be surprised or troubled by his reversals, as has already become evident with respect to the Syria strikes.
But we should not be reassured. Trump is not Nixon, and he’s not Sharon. Even when you agree with a given policy reversal, the instability represented by these lightning changes does not inspire confidence, in Americans or in their allies. The next whiplash change on any policy matter, even reversing the reversals, could be just around the corner.
Photo credit: Nixon in China. AFP/Getty Images