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Let's not confuse gut reflex with flexibility

You have to admit, It's hard to keep up with the man. In little over a week, Mr. Trump has:

  Launched the very attack on Syria that he repeatedly warned his predecessor to avoid;
  Reversed his position on whether Syrian President Bashar al Assad should remain in power;
  Criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, on whom he lavished praise throughout his campaign.
  Pledged full support for a NATO alliance that he derided during his campaign as "obsolete";
  Recanted his repeated charge that China is a "champion" currency manipulator;
  And abandoned his repeated claims that the U.S. military is "in shambles."

"A foolish consistency," Emerson wrote, "is the hobgoblin of little minds." But not even 100 days into Mr. Trump's administration, this is an about-face of truly heroic proportions. As the Washington Post commented, no previous president has reversed himself "so brazenly on so many issues so soon after an election."

In the process, many have noted, the president seems to be adopting some of the very "establishment" foreign policy positions he most strenuously criticized as a populist candidate. "The D.C. establishment," writes the Post's James Hohmann "isÖgiddy about Trump selling out his core supporters. Many country club Republicans are celebrating what they believe is a move toward 'the mainstream.'"

Or as columnist Daniel Drezner commented more waspishly, "Trump fought the Blob and the Blob won."

Well, not entirely. While many establishment figures praised last week's attack on Syria, even the most laudatory complained that the decision seemed to reflect no consistent strategic vision to replace the non-interventionist and anti-globalist "America First" slogan on which Mr. Trump campaigned. 

On Tuesday, longtime Syria policy critics Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called on the president to escalate efforts to bring down the Assad regime, while their Democratic counterparts urged the president to articulate and obtain Congressional approval of a clear strategy toward Syria.

Thus, even while applauding last week's cruise missile attack as "the right thing to do," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., warned that the U.S. could be headed into another open-ended intervention. "There should be a defined strategy," Schumer told reporters. "And I, for one, am really, really wary and worried about getting committed to another land war and making the same mistake that we did in Iraq."

Nor is Syria the only issue about which critics have bemoaned the lack of coherent strategy. With respect to Putin's Russia, writes one, "Given the ad hoc and often contradictory way in which the Trump administration talks about Russia, it is obvious that the White House has yet to develop a clearly articulated strategy."

Others have leveled similar complaints with respect to China. Between cancelling the Trans-Pacific Partnership and flip-flopping on Chinese trade policies, the administration seems directionless. Notes Fortune Magazine's Alan Wolff, "The U.S. has no apparent economic strategy of its own for Asia."

For his part, Mr. Trump insists that what others see as lack of strategic clarity, he views as useful ambiguity. "I like to think of myself as a very flexible person," he told reporters after last week's strike. "I don't like to say where I'm going and what I'm doing."

Of course, some would argue that, given the events of the past week and a half, what Mr. Trump calls flexibility looks more like gut reflex. 

On the other hand, a good deal of history suggests that most claims of strategic consistency are contrived and, more often than not, retrospective. In reality, grand strategies tend to have a short half-life. George F. Kennan's famous "containment" strategy survived less than three years before being "hijacked" ó his word ó by successor Paul Nitze. Ike's New Look survived little longer.

Even in war, in which its explicit formulation is most likely, strategy almost never will be executed as conceived. As 19th century Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck, widely regarded as one of history's preeminent strategists, commented ruefully, "Man cannot create the current of events. He can only float with it and steer." 

But while adherence to preconceived strategy probably is as short-lived as it is unusual, there's a considerable difference between deliberate adaptation and knee-jerk improvisation, between well-considered flexibility and gut reflex, between keeping options open and giving them little or no forethought.

Lamenting what he calls "The Non-Transformation of Donald J. Trump," the New Yorker's Jeffrey Frank writes that "What's most worrisome about Trump is what's been worrisome all along: that he doesn't think through the consequences of what he says and does, and that he acts without a glimmer of consistency, or guiding principle; he's a man of constant surprise."

In that one respect, he adds, Mr. Trump's behavior uncomfortably resembles that of another current national leader: North Korea's Kim Jong-un.

Kim himself might consider the comparison unfair. 

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