As the extraordinary vanities and profanities of the drama of President Donald Trump’s inner circle combusting continue to crackle, those of us around the rest of the world can take comfort in one thing: at least he is busy.
It’s not a particularly popular view at a time of global discombobulation, but it is possible to see 2017 as having been “not as bad as it could have been.”
The extraordinary unraveling of the White House’s past and present staff members, resulting from the meteor strikes of Michael Wolff’s book and Robert Mueller’s investigation, has led to a kind of paralysis when it comes to foreign policy. The commander in chief has time to bark, but not necessarily to bite.
Yes, we had the naming of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Kim Jong Un as a “Little Rocket Man,” and US-nemesis Vladimir Putin as “very smart.” But this is a foreign policy conducted minute by minute, over Twitter.
In this field, at the least, it isn’t coherent and rarely backed up with action. Even on Thursday, when @realdonaldtrump tweeted that North and South Korea wouldn’t necessarily be talking if the US hadn’t carried such a big stick of late, what we saw was the reputed product of more presidential bluster, not actual US armed action.
In fact, 2017 saw only two real moments of genuine foreign policy action that was Trump’s and Trump’s alone.
First, he bombed the Syrian regime in response to a horrific chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun. But the 59 cruise missiles were swift, hit a relatively distant part of the regime’s military infrastructure, and were accompanied by a background message that it was almost certainly a one-off. It was like the 90s again, when Bill Clinton would bomb Saddam Hussein overnight because he wanted to send a message, but not actually start a war.
Second, he announced a policy in Afghanistan. Wars there are nothing new, but this was an actual moment of departure from — say — the script of the previous administration. Trump kept the ISIS war going pretty much as it was when he was inaugurated. In Afghanistan, he announced his own retweak of the almost decades old variations on strategy. And, most importantly, he declared winning as his goal. Like everyone before him, he may not get there. But he does own a policy.
There are plenty of global crises where he could have been a lot more irrational or destabilizing. He hasn’t upped US assistance to the Saudi Arabian side in the war in Yemen — already claiming many civilian lives and causing an unprecedented famine.
He didn’t act militarily in or around North Korea. He’s stayed out of Libya, mostly. And been mostly rhetorical about Venezuela. It could have been so, so much worse.
Foreign policy and conflict does take a lot of planning and effort. Even wars that are bad ideas require plotting. Trump is often far too busy reacting to occasional slights to spend the time needed to devise and gain congressional support for proper sustained military action. He also has the firewall of experienced military generals around him: Mattis, McMaster and Kelly, who have all seen war and are hence not fans of it.
2018 has been described by some as a smorgasbord of potential geopolitical disasters, not seen for decades. That is true. Previous guaranteed norms are evaporating fast, often thanks to Trump’s Twitter thumb.
But what we have learned from 2017 is that, no matter how troublingly foreign policy can seem to be used as a distraction by this administration to its domestic woes, they don’t have the time or the bandwidth to be that focused or damaging.
Of course, that’s no comfort in another Crimea or North Korean ICBM crisis. And it’s no reason for broad comfort with the White House’s foreign policy. But the distraction does limit what proactive moves they can make outside of America.