by Mike Lofgren
The post hoc fallacy is one of the more common logical errors. The fact that the sunrise follows the rooster’s crowing does not prove that the rooster caused it. There is a similar tendency in political commentary to attribute every event to the observer’s cherished theory or hated bugaboo.
After Donald Trump’s quick 180 on his stated intention to rapidly withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria, the commentariat was abuzz with the “reasons” for the turnaround. His America-First supporters, and many non-supporters of Trump who oppose military intervention, were quick to detect sinister forces influencing the president and causing him to retreat from his objective.
It ought to be abundantly clear by now that seeking deeper rationales for anything Trump does is like strapping a hyena to a couch and attempting to psychoanalyze it. Yet the punditry cannot resist the temptation. Some spin the barest of evidence into an imposing theoretical edifice, such as the idea that Trump is engineering a fundamental political realignment that will somehow re-industrialize the northeastern United States (if that makes Trump into a latter-day William McKinley, is Kellyanne Conway his Mark Hanna?).
On the other hand, even otherwise careful observers of foreign policy often see the dreaded hand of the hawks, or the neoconservatives, or the military-industrial complex, or the Deep State as the reason Trump reneged on his promised Syria withdrawal. Yet the terms used to label these hidden forces are never properly defined beyond the fact that the authors don’t like them, and so they must be held responsible for scotching a policy the writers would like to have seen carried out.
The fundamental objection to such theories is that they rob Trump of agency, and, in so doing, lessen his responsibility for what occurs in the government he presides over. This belief that policy can only be explained by the leader’s manipulation has a long tradition, such as the notion that it was the evil advisers of the tsar, and not the tsar himself, who were ultimately responsible for Russia’s sad state. Or, “if only the Führer knew!”
In any case, there is an overabundance of examples of the president’s extremely capricious reversals of policy. Wasn’t Mexico going to pay for the border wall? Now he claims that that nation already paid up (in invisible pesos, apparently). In 2017, Trump made a deal with the Democrats on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—then promptly broke his word. Do you recall his campaign promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something cheaper and better? You could wait a long time for that one.
Pundits aren’t used to dealing with this tsunami of political flip-flops because the normal accountability of a president to the voting base that elected him (much less the general public) does not function anymore. Remember how Trump said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would still cling to him like limpets?
If Fox News or the National Enquirer isn’t reminding Trump’s followers that he promised them cheaper and better health care, well, then, in the sight of God, he never promised it, and they’ll cheerfully make do without insurance coverage. Likewise, whether every military person departs Syria on the next plane, or he orders 20 combat battalions into that country, the vast majority of his supporters would be fine with either, because Big Daddy knows what’s best.
Obviously, the military and the foreign policy community would not be indifferent to the policy shifts. But how much influence do they actually have with the president? You could ask H.R. McMaster or John Kelly or James Mattis about their Svengali-like hold over Trump. The president’s relationship with the military is strictly transactional.
Trump simply does not care about the Pentagon except insofar as it serves his narrow purposes. I would conjecture that the brass hats consider NATO a bigger sacred cow than the Middle East, but Trump has done everything he can to antagonize NATO heads of government and sow dissension (to the point of all but accusing Montenegro of plotting World War III). The military, or the Deep State—call it what you will—has not been able to change his stance on the alliance any more than it can dissuade him from making goo-goo eyes at Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un.
Quite possibly, the snap announcement of the Syria withdrawal was simply an ad hoc ploy to divert negative media coverage from the looming government shutdown and the impasse over his beloved wall. There may well have been no deeper intent. One can hardly imagine the scales falling from Trump’s eyes after intently reading an impassioned plea for non-intervention in The American Conservative.
Or maybe the president reversed himself after finally recalling something he said in the campaign about “bombing the shit out of ISIS.”
Or perhaps Trump received a few gentle reminders from a specific portion of his base that he lovingly courts (and which, unlike 99.9 percent of Trump voters, he knows he cannot take for granted): his megadonors, like Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, and Bernard Marcus. The coin in which they deal counts for far more than a position paper on the Middle East by AEI or the Heritage Foundation, or a briefing by the Joint Chiefs.
It has become a platitude that American politicians think about their reelection more than actually governing. But Trump has taken this to the next level: it’s practically the only thing he thinks about, other than avoiding Robert Mueller. One of the many reasons that Republican officeholders all seem to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome is that the Trump campaign has essentially taken over the Republican National Committee and is running it full time as a Trump operation. (It is running at full steam even as parts of the government he is entrusted with are shut down).
So perhaps Syria per se is not even the issue. What appears to matter more is the care and feeding of megadonors who themselves don’t particularly care about Syria except for how it impinges on their passionate attachment for Israel.
If that creates confusion about the goals of U.S. policy, the most recent events will sow even more. Even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a Cairo speech, blasted former president Obama as a craven appeaser for supposedly ordering U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq—no, the withdrawal was actually set in stone by the November 2008 Status of Forces Agreement signed by George W. Bush—the Pentagon announced the Syria withdrawal was back on.
The U.S. political commentariat would do well to be a lot more restrained in its pontificating about the significance of the foreign policy—or any other policy—of the current administration. Beyond the shifting and insatiable needs of vanity, glory, and campaign cash, it is far from certain what underlies the diktats of Donald John Trump.
Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government and The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.