The foreign policy impotence of Donald Trump

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Syrian security forces gather under a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad at the old palace of justice building in Damascus following a reported suicide bombing on Wednesday.
Two suicide bombings hit Damascus including the attack at the central courthouse, as Syria’s war entered its seventh year with the regime now claiming the upper hand. | Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Follow @secuppAs the world’s gotten to know Donald Trump more intimately over the past year or two — sometimes a little too intimately — one thing has become overwhelmingly apparent: The brash, boardroom tough talk that made him a New York City real estate mogul will not be tempered by the weight and seriousness of the presidency.

There’s been no pivot from locker room talk and buffoonish bravado to a more polished and presidential sense of restraint befitting the office, particularly when it comes to delicate matters of foreign relations.

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He’s blasted Germany for not paying more for NATO’s military support; he reportedly hung up on the Australian prime minister over a “dumb deal” to resettle refugees in the U.S.; he demanded Mexico treat the United States “with respect” by paying for a border wall, after its president canceled a meeting.

But his tough talk and bluster has not been reserved for our allies. In the weeks after winning the election, Trump defied China and longheld U.S. protocol by speaking directly with the president of Taiwan, a move one staffer said was done in anticipation of “reaction and potential blowback” from China.

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And on yet another “worst deal ever” — the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear agreement — he used the same tough talk, pledging to tear that up upon becoming president.

Just this week, he warned China that the U.S. would “totally” take on North Korea and its nukes alone if it had to.

But Trump’s bark has not, as of yet, been met with much bite. Trump quickly caved in support of the One China policy; an adviser has admitted Trump might merely “review” and “renegotiate” the Iran deal. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization head, Ali Akbar Salehi, in fact, said he didn’t think the nuclear deal would see “any serious impact” from Trump’s presidency. And it remains to be seen whether Trump will actually press forcefully enough, either diplomatically or militarily, to tame North Korea.

Though Trump has long criticized former President Barack Obama for being too weak with our allies and enemies alike, he’s failed thus far to distinguish himself from his predecessor in any measurable way.

And in one arena in particular, Trump and Obama are no different. Both seem resigned to have allowed Bashar Assad to wage a genocide on the Syrian people.

In fact, Trump looks even more permissive than Obama, who at least on paper supported Assad’s removal.

For six years, the Obama administration dipped its toes in and out of the Syrian civil war, at times aiding rebels, at times vowing not to intervene; once calling for airstrikes, then ignoring calls for safe zones; warning Assad not to cross chemical weapons red lines, and doing nothing when he did.

That policy of tough talk and little action did nothing to halt the deaths of more than 500,000 Syrians, including 50,000 children. There are now more Syrian refugees than there are Syrians.

And on Tuesday morning, while Syrian families in Idlib were sleeping, a chemical attack believed to be ordered by the Assad regime killed as many as 60 people, including children, who succumbed to the grotesque and horrific effects of sarin gas.

Despite a continued holocaust in Assad’s Syria, the Trump administration seems to have no clearer vision — practical or moral — for ending the Syrian slaughter. Its immediate reaction to the Idlib slaughter was a statement from Press Secretary Sean Spicer blaming “the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”

This is morally unconscionable and politically shortsighted. As long as Assad is killing his own people without international accountability, extremists will continue to exploit the chaos and power vacuum to their benefit. And when Syrian civilians have a choice between death by Russian air strikes and chlorine bombs or a well-paying job with ISIS, eventually terrorism will be the better option.

As Sen. John McCain said of Trump’s confused Syria policy, “Trying to fight ISIS while pretending that we can ignore the Syrian civil war that was its genesis and fuels it to this day is a recipe for more war, more terror, more refugees and more instability.”

On foreign policy, Trump’s appeared far more impotent than impressive thus far. If he’s truly as tough as he says he is, he’ll not only flex America’s military might in Syria, but its moral might as well, putting an end to a genocide where Obama could not.

When it comes to stopping Assad, the world wants to know: Is Trump man enough?

Contact Cupp at

This column first appeared in the New York Daily News.

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