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Trump’s Realist Syria Strategy

Walter Russell Mead

As the echoes from President Trump’s second Syrian missile strike died away, many observers criticized the administration for lacking a coherent strategy. There is more than a little truth to the charge. The drama and disarray of this often-dysfunctional White House does not suggest a Richelieu at work. The presidential Twitter feed has not always been consistent or levelheaded on the topic of the Syrian war, and it is hard to reconcile Mr. Trump’s denunciations of Bashar al-Assad and his warnings about Iranian aggression with his apparent determination to remove U.S. troops from Syria as quickly as possible.

The tangled politics of last week’s missile strikes illustrate the contradictions in Mr. Trump’s approach. The president is a realist who believes that international relations are both highly competitive and zero-sum. If Iran and Russia threaten the balance of power in the Middle East, it is necessary to work with any country in the region that will counter them, irrespective of its human-rights record. The question is not whether there are political prisoners in Egypt; the question is whether Egypt shares U.S. interests when it comes to opposing Iran.

Yet the rationale for the missile strikes was not realist but humanitarian and legalistic: Syria’s illegal use of chemical weapons against its own people demanded or at least justified the Western attacks. For any kind of activist Middle East policy, Mr. Trump needs allies—including neoconservatives and liberal internationalists at home and foreign allies like Britain and France abroad—and the realpolitik approach he wishes to pursue would alienate them.

Nevertheless, as is often the case with this unconventional administration, a pattern if not quite a strategy is beginning to emerge—one defined as much by what the president rejects as by what he seeks to accomplish. The administration’s approach looks and often is erratic, but beneath the rants and the posturing Mr. Trump seems to be working toward an approach to the Middle East that reflects the interplay of American politics and interests in a strangely coherent way.

Mr. Trump sounds inconsistent at least in part because his choices are so unappealing. Iran’s Russia-assisted march toward regional dominance leaves the U.S. caught between two courses. Letting Iran have its way in Syria opens the door to a much more dangerous confrontation between Israel and its Arab partners on one side and Tehran on the other. But denying Iran a victory in Syria almost certainly would mean major American military commitments, as well as another extended exercise in nation-building as the U.S. tries to cobble together some kind of viable, nonradical government in Damascus.

Mr. Trump recoils from both choices on both political and policy grounds. Standing back while Russia and Iran run the table in the Middle East would be bad policy and bad politics—but so, too, would rushing into another Iraq-style military and political effort to stabilize Syria. The goal is to avoid bailing out without getting sucked in.

Mr. Trump may be unintentionally arriving at a form of offshore balancing. Rather than seek to impose an order of its own design on the turbulent region, Washington would simply ensure that no other power or group of powers succeeds in dominating the Middle East. When the balance of power appeared secure, the U.S. would have a low profile in the region; but when, as now, the balance appeared to be threatened, the U.S. would be more forward-leaning, working with partners who share its concerns to contain the ambitions of revisionist powers. Mr. Trump also seeks compensation from the countries whose independence America supports; rich allies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait should help pay for their defense.

For Mr. Trump, this is a common-sense approach to a thorny problem, and while the pressures of events—and the united efforts of his advisers—may sometimes cause him to deviate, his inner compass always returns to this course.

Mr. Trump’s approach carries its share of risks, but its failure is by no means assured. Both Russia and Iran are overstretched. They suffer from weak economies and parasitical state structures. Their populations are not in love with their Syrian adventures. Despite recent increases, oil prices remain well below the level they require to fund their ambitious foreign policies while meeting domestic needs. Expanded sanctions against both Russia and Iran are gaining support in Europe. Simultaneously, Arab-Israeli cooperation against Iran continues to gel. A coalition of front-line states, promoted and supported by the United States, may ultimately address the Iran problem in ways no outside power ever could.

The Trump agenda has a real chance of success in the Middle East—but only if the Trump administration can master the dark arts of alliance management. That may seem unlikely, but if there is one thing we have learned about this president, it is that he can be tactically flexible in pursuit of his goals.

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