President Trump and his administration seem to be all over the place on Syria. There's a good chance we are witnessing the disorder of an understaffed, inexperienced administration headed by an inconsistent President driven by "instinct" and easily baited.
But here's another possibility—and while perhaps over-optimistic, it's not crazy, judging by what we know of Trump: The administration has a coherent foreign policy philosophy to use force sparingly and to avoid nation-building and policing the world, and it pursues this philosophy through targeted shows of significant force along with the weapon of strategic ambiguity.
Throughout the campaign and before he entered politics (though not consistently) Donald Trump suggested a less adventurous foreign policy than his past four predecessors. Both Bushes had attacked Iraq, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama launched humanitarian wars where no U.S. national interest was evident. Trump suggested an "America First," mindset with his (irregular) opposition to U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
Once in office, however, Trump launched 58 tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase, retaliating for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical-weapons attack on civilians. Isn't this exactly the sort of humanitarian war, with no direct U.S. interest that Trump hates? Couldn't this drag us into the same quagmire we saw in Iraq? Couldn't this destabilize the region and help ISIS and al Qaeda just as Libya and Iraq did?
All of these questions may earn an affirmative answer in the near future. But it's also possible to interpret the missile strike and the ensuing comments consistently with Trump's stated foreign policy.
Trump was enforcing the red line that Barack Obama drew: use of chemical weapons would earn retaliation. This doesn't mean Trump will wage a war to depose Assad. It does send the message that the U.S. will enforce its ultimatums. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley put this message into words: "We are prepared to do more, but hope that won't be necessary."
This is peace through strength. From all of Donald Trump's remarks—on foreign policy, on business dealings, on presidential leadership—this is a common theme. Make it clear that will use as much force as necessary, and then you won't have to use that force.
To understand Trump, beginning with the GOP debates, I've always found it useful to think about a dog park, or a nature documentary. The big gorilla isn't constantly fighting off lesser males, because the big gorilla has established that he will demolish the lesser males.
This was how Trump saw the debates: talk over Kasich, mock "Liddle Marco," insult Jeb's wife and refuse to apologize. Show them that they are secondary, and make them anticipate the certain pain they will feel if they mess with you. And it worked. Why do you think it took so long for his opponents to really take him on? Because they knew that he would, without fail and without concern for facts or relevance, punch back.
That's a hopeful way in which to read Trump's Syria missile strikes, and Haley's words corroborate it.
Other Trump administration officials have contradicted Haley's words, suggesting that the goal is regime change. Heck, Haley has sent this message, too.
"There's not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime," Haley said on CNN. "If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it's going to be hard to see a government that's peaceful and stable with Assad."
"I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a G-7 meeting. This may sound like a clear threat, and a promise of military regime change, but Tillerson made it more ambiguous. "But the question of how that ends, and the transition itself … We are not presupposing how that occurs …"
Trump's people will say Assad is going, there is no peace with Assad, but never that we will take him out. The message is always slightly vague, and sometimes contradicting other clear messages.
This ambiguity could very likely be the fruit of an indecisive president or a divided administration. Given Trump's inconstancy, this is unnerving to anyone wary of yet another regime-change-war in the Muslim world.
But the administration's ambiguity is also unnerving to Assad. If Trump said, "we will punish you for chemical weapons attacks, but we're not doing another regime change," Assad could rest easily.
What we may be seeing—maybe—is strategic ambiguity. No good dealmaker shows his hand and states his limits early in a negotiation, you'll learn if read Art of the Deal. If the other guy has no idea what you'll do, and if you show a willingness to do anything, you have the advantage.
Of course there's another interpretation of all of the above facts: Trump doesn't know what he's doing, and he's flying by instinct and emotion.
With Trump, you never know.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.