WASHINGTON — In one 24-hour period, President Donald Trump’s administration erased a red line in Syria and drew new hard line in North Korea.
Here’s a simpler way to look at what we learned about the new President’s foreign policy Tuesday: unenforced red lines in Syria and former President Barack Obama’s “weakness” helped cause a chemical weapons attack are bad and no longer operable.
On the other hand, ominously, “the clock has now run out” on North Korea’s nuclear program, although the US will not be commenting further on the nation’s missile tests.
No doubt different crises call for different responses.
That’s certainly true when it comes to chemical weapons attacks in Syria that target children and civilians that cause a direct and immediate threat to lives in a country ravaged by civil war compared to missile tests in North Korea that form a more existential threat in Asia.
But it bears mentioning that Trump’s administration spent parts of Tuesday repeating campaign criticisms of the Obama administration for drawing a red line in Syria while on the same day a senior White House official, speaking anonymously to reporters, issued the warning to North Korea.
“The clock has now run out, and all options are on the table,” is the exact quote.
That’s no red line, for sure. But it does tease some sort of impending action. It should be noted that the official statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was more dismissive, but also difficult to decipher, as CNN’s Chris Cillizza noted.
Trump is set for his first meeting later this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, where he’s expected to make the case for stronger Chinese influence over North Korea.
There are different stakes and different players in the case of Syria, but there, the White House finds itself retreating from a red line drawn by the Obama administration.
The threat of nuclear weapons is not involved, which changes the stakes. And there is no major power next door to Syria. Rather, the Trump administration had several days ago signaled a new openness to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad staying in power.
And this is a real-world example of where Trump’s openness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has aided Assad, could have consequences. Russians said the chemical attack could have been perpetrated by anti-Assad rebels. US intelligence officials said “it has the fingerprints of a (Assad) regime attack.” Other Western leaders agree with the US.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer laid fault for this latest attack on the doorstep of previous Obama administration’s inability to follow through after drawing its red line.
“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”
Trump repeatedly bashed Obama drawing the “red line” — vowing there would be consequences for the use of chemical weapons — on the campaign trail, which makes it all the more interesting that just months into his presidency, his advisers would be using such last-minute language like “the clock has run out” on North Korea.
Trump has used ominous language of his own regarding North Korea.
“If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you,” he recently told The Financial Times.
Making bold promises as an opening mark is a trademark of Trump’s negotiating style.
His pledge to build a wall and making Mexico pay for it has turned, for now, into the government using existing US funds to start a wall on a section of the border.
Banning all Muslims from entering the country has turned into the administration’s attempt, stymied by the courts, to stop travel from six majority-Muslim countries.
Repealing Obamacare on day one has turned into an attempt in Congress to roll back portions of the law incrementally.
Is the administration statement that clock running out on North Korea’s nuclear program the same kind of promise Trump made on the campaign trail or something else? It’s not immediately clear.
But the consequences can be very different where chemical weapons and a country aspiring to go nuclear are involved.