Trump’s strike against a Syrian airfield prompted questions about his long-term strategy in the region. But those questions were usurped a week later when the military dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, giving new attention to America’s longest war.
Days later, attention shifted to North Korea, with fears mounting that the country could conduct its sixth nuclear test.
The confluence of hot spots around the globe is testing Trump as he nears the 100-day mark of his presidency.
“The world is a lot more complicated now than it ever has been,” said Alex Ward, a national security expert at the Atlantic Council. “If you’re looking at Syria, North Korea, et cetera, a lot of these are issues that the Obama administration had left – very intractable problems – left to the other administration.
“Trump has promised two things. He’s promised to do the opposite of Obama, and he promised to solve issues quickly. Now he’s trying to solve intractable problems on a very fast timeline.”
Trump took his most significant military action on April 6, when he launched cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield believed to be the launch site of a chemical weapons attack on civilians.
It was the first time the United States directly intervened in the Syrian civil war, and questions about the next steps in the conflict dominated the news for days – until the U.S. dropped a massive bomb in Afghanistan on a network of tunnels used by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The spectacle of using the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb on Thursday held public attention until the weekend, when North Korea began a celebration that many expected would include a nuclear test. The nuclear test didn’t come, but Pyongyang did conduct a failed missile test.
Each incident prompted questions about Trump’s wider foreign policy strategy.
“It’s hard to figure out exactly what the strategic view of this is,” Jon Alterman, a global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told The Hill.
“What does he think the uses of American power are? What does he think the limits of American power are? What does he think needs to be prioritized? What is he willing to defer or not do? It’s hard to think of any issue on which you couldn’t make a range of predictions.”
The White House has done little to answer such questions, repeatedly saying Trump will keep the element of surprise.
“He holds his cards close to the vest, and I think you’re not going to see him telegraphing how he’s going to respond to any military or other situation going forward,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during a briefing Monday.
Trump’s responses so far have elicited support from defense hawks in Congress. Those same lawmakers have been among Trump’s staunchest critics because of his noninterventionist stance during the campaign. Some Democrats, too, applauded at least the Syria strike.
And Trump’s critics have said they have faith in Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster to craft smart strategies to deal with challenges going forward.
James Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and a member of the Trump transition team, said the president’s team has found its footing on a range of issues that have cropped up in recent weeks.
“That’s not too shabby for a novice national security team and a president who has almost no experience in foreign policy, kind of managing all that,” Carafano said. “I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Oh my god, they screwed all of those things up.’ I think by most accounts people say, ‘Well, they got through those OK.’ “
But Gordon Adams, who worked in the White House in the Clinton administration, said without deputies underneath Mattis, McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, broader strategic goals would remain elusive.
That, in turn, could lead to a continued feeling of world events overtaking one another.
“If you want consistent policy in times of crisis, you need to have enough policy makers to take on the load,” said Adams, now a professor at American University.
Alterman at CSIS agreed: “How this administration will react to a crisis when so many second- and third-tier positions are unfilled, when they’re still working out their overarching approach to things, it’s a big question. And the people creating a crisis don’t wait for you to get your act together – they just create a crisis.”