Washington Post Trump with his speaking notes during a session on school safety at the White House. Image Credit:

WASHINGTON: They think pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan would be a debacle. They think North Korea cannot be trusted. They think Daesh is still a threat to America. They think Russia is bad and Nato is good.

The trouble is their president does not agree.

More than two years into his administration, the disconnect between President Donald Trump and the Republican establishment on foreign policy has rarely been as stark. In recent days, the president’s own advisers and allies have been pushing back, challenging his view of the world and his prescription for its problems.

The growing discontent among Republican national security hawks was most evident on Tuesday when Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader and perhaps Trump’s most important partner in Congress, effectively rebuked the president by introducing a measure denouncing “a precipitous withdrawal” of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

The senator’s repudiation came on the same day that Trump’s own intelligence chiefs gave Congress a radically different assessment of international threats facing the United States from the president’s own. They warned about fresh Russian efforts to interfere in US elections, predicted that North Korea would never agree to give up its nuclear weapons and made clear that Daesh is still plotting attacks around the world. They made no mention of Trump’s top security priority of building a wall along the southwestern border.


Nearly two weeks ago, more than two-thirds of House Republicans voted to overturn the Trump administration’s move to ease sanctions on Russian companies linked to a prominent oligarch, Oleg V. Deripaska. And last week even more House Republicans voted to bar Trump from withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), as he privately suggested to aides several times last year.

“Perhaps as we now pivot to the presidential elections, the Republicans may finally be thinking, well, maybe we ought to recalibrate a little here and understand there are real risks and we have to provide a check and balance on the commander in chief in whatever ways we can,” said Wendy Sherman, an undersecretary of state under former president Barack Obama.

Many traditional Republicans have been uneasy about Trump’s foreign policy since the beginning and from time to time have pushed back, most notably in 2017 when Congress nearly unanimously passed sanctions on Russia over the president’s objections. But the rupture of recent days comes amid disgruntlement over the 35-day partial government shutdown that ultimately failed to achieve Trump’s goal of extracting money for his border wall.

“We’ve had a couple of rapid-fire shocks to the system,” said Eric S. Edelman, undersecretary of defence under former president George W. Bush now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

In addition to the shutdown, he cited Trump’s abruptly announced decision to pull US forces from Syria, resulting in the resignation of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and quickly followed by the president vowing to withdraw half of US troops from Afghanistan.

In Republican circles in Washington, however, the unease coincides with a critical juncture in Trump’s foreign policy. His pullouts from Syria and Afghanistan come as trade talks with China head toward a climactic deadline and Trump prepares to get together next month with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, for their second summit meeting after an initial encounter in Singapore last year.

Strongest supporters

Some analysts said it was the way Trump makes his decisions as much as the decisions themselves that rattle the foreign policy establishment. Announcing the Syria pullout by Twitter without preparing the allies or framing the public explanations left even some of the president’s strongest supporters in Washington unnerved.

“I don’t think Leader McConnell or anyone else wants to take the wheel from the president or even give him rudder direction,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official who worked on Syria and is now diplomat in residence at Bard College. “They want to be sure he’s at the helm and he knows he has a crew. They want real deliberation to take place on these tough issues. They want the president to be part of it.”

The administration has yet to even agree with itself on the state of affairs in Syria. At first, Trump declared Daesh defeated, then said it was not but could be finished off by others.

McConnell seemed less than convinced. In a speech introducing his measure on Tuesday, he took on Trump’s approach to the Middle East. “Simply put, while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” he said. “And we do know that left untended, these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”

While not mentioning Trump by name, McConnell directly rebutted the president’s argument about the limits of US responsibility for patrolling the globe.

“We are not the world’s policeman,” the senator said. “But we are the leader of the free world. And it is incumbent upon the United States to lead.”

The White House declined to comment on Tuesday.

McConnell’s decision to offer his measure on Syria and Afghanistan, which has no binding force, was notable in part because he has sought to avoid open rifts with the president.

— New York Times News Service