As a candidate, Donald Trump swaggered about how he'd order the military to do what he wanted. "They won't refuse," he said during a Republican debate, defending his call for the military to "take out" terrorists' families. "They're not gonna refuse me. Believe me." He also claimed to have unique expertise. "I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me," he said at a rally in Iowa.The U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base on Friday make clear a different reality: The Pentagon, not the White House, is playing the dominant role not just in military strategy, but in shaping foreign policy.
Most recent presidencies have been distinguished by tugs of war between different groups of foreign policy hands.... The Trump administration, though, doesn't really have many normal foreign policy experts among its civilian officials. Rex Tillerson may have a realist streak and Nikki Haley a moralistic style, but neither one has been part of these debates before. Mike Pence has nothing like the experience of a Dick Cheney or a Joe Biden. If Bannon's vision is getting sidelined, it's not like Jared Kushner is ready with a deeply thought-out alternative.What Trump has instead are generals -- James Mattis and H. R. McMaster and the other military men in his cabinet, plus, of course, the actual professional military itself. And it's this team of generals, not any of the usual foreign policy schools, that seems increasingly likely to steer his statecraft going forward.
It'd be overly simplistic, of course, to suggest that the brass are pulling Trump's strings, shaping the entirety of the administration's foreign policy. The broader dynamic is more complex: the president was reportedly affected by television coverage of Assad's chemical attack and an apparent desire to do the opposite of whatever Barack Obama did.But the real simplicity was Trump's assumptions that an almost mindless commitment to "America First" principles could realistically become the basis for a functioning foreign policy. It was a placeholder vision, which the president would replace with whatever the people around him told him to do. Last week, that meant listening to his party's orthodoxy and ignoring everything Trump has ever said, thought, or promised as it relates to U.S. policy in the Middle East.On health care, it was Paul Ryan who effectively told Trump, "Never mind what your instincts tell you; my plan is the way to go." On Syria, it was his national security team that did the same thing, effectively telling the president, "Never mind what your instincts tell you; this is an issue 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles can make better."It's a safe bet Trump's entire presidency will continue to unfold this way. It's not that he's determined to deliberately do the opposite of what he promised voters; it's that he doesn't seem to take any of those commitments especially seriously. Someone he knows and trusts -- Paul Ryan, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, et al -- comes into the Oval Office, presents him with an idea, tells him it's the smart thing to do, and Trump says, "Sounds good."He didn't necessarily change his mind about his vision; Trump never really made up his mind in the first place.