Talking heads on television and so-called experts in the Washington policy community concluded long ago that President Trump has no cogent foreign policy and merely changes his mind from one moment to the next.
In recent days, they have pointed to early steps by the Trump administration, on China, Syria and NATO, as proof that Trump is infinitely malleable on policy matters.
While Trump arrived in office with relatively few policy details and is far less ideologically-dogmatic than his predecessors, he did outline on the campaign trail guiding principles for his approach to dealing with the world. For those who were paying attention to what he said rather than sneering at his candidacy, his evolving policy positions are not all that surprising.
In 2013, Trump urged the Obama administration not to lob missiles against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for deploying chemical weapons against civilians. Yet when Assad committed the same offense this month, Trump himself waged military strikes in response. Citing the suffering Assad inflicted on children, Trump noted that his views on Syria and Assad have changed.
The military strikes obviously contradict Trump's prior position. Yet his position on Syria was all along been tied to a broader position: stopping America's pursuit of "endless war" in the Middle East and elsewhere.
That broader position has in no way been abrogated. If anything, the Syria strikes contrasts sharply with President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq: Trump's number one example of "endless war."
To Trump, Iraq was an example of interventionism run amok, while the Syria strikes serve "the vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons."
As former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton explained, the strikes were "very measured, very precise, had a very limited rationale because of the use of chemical weapons." In that vein, Trump declared after the strikes, "We are not going into Syria."
During the election, Trump haters griped that he swung "from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence." Many of them now applaud his Syria strikes and clamor for more interventionism in Syria's ongoing civil war, but they continue to misunderstand him.
All along, Trump's distaste for George W. Bush's interventionism was coupled with disapproval for Obama's fecklessness, both of which he believed weakened the U.S. For instance, despite Trump's objections to the Iraq War, he has emphasized repeatedly that the U.S. should not have withdrawn precipitously, as the Obama administration did, and left a political vacuum that made the rise of the Islamic State possible.
In the case of Syria, Trump has consistently chastised Obama for haplessly drawing a red line that he failed to enforce in 2013. Given Syria's subsequent agreement with the U.S. to dispose of its chemical weapons, inaction in the face of Syria's latest offense would have only further weakened America's image.
In many ways, Trump's military strikes on Syria fall squarely in line with his promise to make America strong again.
During the campaign, Trump made headlines criticizing NATO as obsolete while complaining that its members do not pay their fair share for maintaining the alliance. Similarly, he entertained the possibility of America's Asian allies, such as Japan and South Korea, possessing nuclear weapons to defend themselves.
Soon after assuming office, Trump sent Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Asia to reassure allies of America's security commitment to the region. More recently, he declared NATO "no longer obsolete" because, according to him, it has stepped up efforts to fight terrorism under his prodding.
Detractors see another flip-flop. Yet they clearly were not paying attention to a common refrain in Trump's foreign policy pronouncements: Obama was a man who "dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies." Over and over again, Trump promised not to do the same.
While Trump was most critical of the Obama administration's nuclear agreement with Iran, made over vehement objections from U.S. ally Israel, he was pledging not to treat all U.S. allies similarly. As such, his willingness to continue standing with allies in Europe and Asia is only befuddling to those who wrongly predicted that the Trump administration would spell apocalyptic doom.
During the campaign, Trump labeled the U.S.-China relationship as one in which China benefited exorbitantly and unfairly at the expense of American workers and manufacturers. The bilateral trade deficit, totaling $347 billion in 2016, was a constant reminder to him of China eating America's lunch.
Of course, Trump's wrath against China was part and parcel of his longtime unhappiness with America's trading practices in which other countries are perceived to take advantage of the U.S. via tariffs, currency manipulation or other schemes. As candidate, Trump declared that he would label China a currency manipulator and renegotiate or pull out of bad trade deals.
Yet, as president, Trump has declined to label China a currency manipulator, citing the need to get Beijing's cooperation to check North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
This decision is hardly a seismic change to the Trump trade agenda. For instance, Trump made good on his promise to withdraw U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade pact, and is proceeding to renegotiate NAFTA with Mexico and Canada.
More specifically, he has not abandoned the effort to tackle trade imbalances with China, as his administration is working on a 100-day plan to extract Chinese concessions on imports, foreign investment and other areas.
Trump could always declare China a currency manipulator at a later date, if that label is warranted and if China does not deliver the security cooperation he expects. But if Trump sees "winning" as part of a bigger picture that includes national security, not just trade, his latest actions on China are consistent with his larger goals.
Many who refused take Trump seriously during the presidential election now continue to be in a mad hurry to get indignant or flustered about his policies. Having listened to Candidate Trump more closely during the campaign would have alleviated much of the current confusion.
Certainly, like other presidents in office, Trump will learn and evolve, change his mind, and even break some promises and disappoint his supporters. Trump is also an unconventional politician who believes that "a little hyperbole never hurts" and that a seemingly outrageous position could be an opening bid in a negotiation. Therefore, when trying to decipher his policies, it helps to know what the guiding principles are.
On foreign policy matters, observers should keep in mind that Trump's core promise to the American people is putting America's (not the world's) interests first and helping America "win" again. When this promise is considered along with his previous pronouncements, many of Trump's actions are not nearly as mystifying as his critics claim, and might in fact be more sensible than they would like to admit.
Ying Ma is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is the former deputy director of a pro-Trump super PAC and the former deputy policy director of the Ben Carson presidential campaign. She is the author of "Chinese Girl in the Ghetto."
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