ELLIOT: Reality limits foreign policy options, but signals matter

Carlos Barria—Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airbase at his Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach

There is an old story about a Georgian running for Congress in the 1870s. When he finished making his stump speech, a woman in the crowd asked “Why should we vote for you? You told us we could beat the Yankees with cornstalks!””And we would have, too,” the candidate responded. “But they wouldn’t fight that way.”Campaign-trail rhetoric is notoriously flawed, if sometimes humorous. For the most part, this lack of reality is not explained by politicians being incapable of dealing with it, but rather because politicians are just as aware as the rest of us that you can’t fact-check the future.All politicians fall into the trap of overpromising, and while Donald Trump was more bombastic about it than others, the last few weeks have shown what many have long recognized: especially in foreign affairs, presidents have very little range of motion.But before we get to Trump, let’s go back to one of his predecessor’s most oft-repeated campaign promises to see this concept in action. Repeatedly on the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised to close the terrorist detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In his first week in office, he signed an executive order to close “Gitmo” within a year.Yet, eight years later, Gitmo is still very much functioning. What happened?One problem was that Obama’s central argument — that not all the accused terrorists at Guantánamo Bay were dangerous — ran up against its own logic, viz., that many of the detainees are dangerous. But Obama could have worked through that problem if he had proved the other part of his argument — that the existence of Gitmo itself bred new terrorists. That failed because Americans are more inclined to believe that terrorism is rooted in extreme religious adherence than to believe that potential terrorists are driven to extremism by the existence of a small-scale detention center (or that by removing the “Gitmo provocation,” the Islamist recruiters suddenly would have nothing to preach about).Thus, Obama ran up against strong bipartisan Congressional opposition to his promised policy. Still, he could have closed Gitmo unilaterally. Gitmo is a federally controlled military base. That location, combined with the national security powers of the presidency, mean that Obama had the power to close the center.The root of the Gitmo problem is that it was created to solve a more complex problem: prosecuting the War on Terror means capturing foreign nationals whose home countries are not at war with the United States. Many of the detainees’ home countries are providing much-needed cooperation in the global war, so what to do when they decline to accept the captured fighters back? Gitmo was the answer, and since Obama couldn’t solve the root problem (who can?), he left office with his campaign promise unfulfilled.Trump, for his part, has promised to “fill up” Guantánamo. He also promised to rebuild the nation’s military might and to pursue an “America First” policy in international affairs, meaning less actively meddling in the affairs of other nations unless a vital American interest is at stake.So what are we to make of the Tomahawk missile strike April 7 against a Syrian air base?First, the strike was more a continuation of America’s global policies than a break from it. Since Bill Clinton was commander-in-chief, every president has used diplomacy-by-missile-and-drone to keep the world’s more ambitious regimes in check. When Obama drew his infamous “red line” and then failed to enforce it, Assad was emboldened to deploy nonconventional weapons.Trump, then, was sending a signal that Obama was no longer in charge and that there will be consequences, worldwide, for evil. Signals are very important in global affairs. While conservative hawks have made too much of Obama’s “apology tour,” the former administration’s stated strategy of leading from behind sent a signal to many around the world that there was no sheriff in town. Trump will have to make up for lost time, and probably felt that Assad’s crime could not go unanswered. Otherwise, considering Trump’s America First rhetoric, he might seem to be doubling down on Obama’s strategy.As with Gitmo for Obama, Trump’s options were limited by the actions of his predecessor and the global balance of power. Whether we’re talking about cornstalks or Tomahawks, foreign policy answers are never as pithy and easy as campaign bluster — not in the 21st century any more than in the 19th century.
Drew Elliot is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines.