As President Trump prepares to meet the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago, the meeting should be viewed against the backdrop of all the global and geopolitical events which have occurred over the past several days. In addition, it should be understood in the context of all the meetings that Trump has held with heads of states since the inauguration. The one clear theme that appears to have emerged from all those initial meetings as evident from unofficial reports, is that the meetings were unpredictable and the results inscrutable.
As far as recent developments are concerned the four recent missile test firings emanating from North Korea clearly have been unnerving to China as well as the U.S. There is little doubt that North Korea was trying to test and assess the mettle of the U.S. They also wanted to see if the Chinese will address North Korea’s saber rattling—in public and in the U.S. The Japanese also are already unnerved and await a definitive, reliable response from the U.S. The Chinese undoubtedly do not want to engage the North Koreans publicly or militarily. It remains to be seen whether there will be serious message from the two leaders emerging from the Florida summit or whether it will be filled with official doubletalk. Russia as well as America’s allies will be on the outside looking in to the conversation.
Similarly, President Assad’s horrific launching of aerial chemical attacks against his own civilians must have been done with the acquiescence of Assad’s major benefactor, Russia. The Syrians did not choose this moment randomly to demonstrate that they still have CBW weapons. Syria on behalf of the Russians was also seeking to test Trump’s reaction to Assad’s renewed escalation of violence against his own citizens. This must have been tied to both Syria’s own relations with Russia as well as the continuing bizarre Trump-Putin relationship. The fact that Putin blamed the rebels for the attack–despite the fact that they have no planes—does not trouble the White House which attributed the attack to Assad and his commanders.
The Trump Administration could not accept responsibility for their failed Syria policy—whatever that policy might be—but preferred to blame the Obama Administration’s failed 2013 Syrian policy. Owning responsibility for anything other than a win is not within the President’s capability.
Trump did express appropriate sympathy for the tragic deaths and then re-energized attacks on Obama’s wire-tapping of Trump, now placing the blame on Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor. Trump was unable to keep the humanitarian tragedy front and center. (In this regards it will be interesting to watch how aggressive U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley will be, when she chairs the emergency Security Council meeting on Syria.)
The international community needs to digest these maneuvers as they consider how to respond to Syria. Russia is likely to veto a U.N. resolution condemning Syria and Trump is unlikely to escalate the U.S.’s role against Syria. What the Trump Administration might do in order to demonstrate strength is to increase the U.S.’s engagement in the war against ISIS; something to which Russia would not object. Meanwhile, China, North Korea, and Syria slide by because the Trump Administration has no policy direction. America’s allies remain totally nonplussed.