Washington (CNN)The Trump White House is finding out that running the world is even more complicated than trying to pass health care reform.
The administration is struggling to frame and explain a coherent foreign policy response to two related crises — the fallout from chemical weapons attacks in Syria and rapidly deteriorating relations with Russia.
The intractable problems would challenge any new White House. But the Trump team seems to be exacerbating its learning curve by failing to come up with unified approaches and rhetoric among top officials. And it’s reeling from a series of missteps, including a Holocaust-related gaffe Tuesday by White House spokesman Sean Spicer.
The confusion is threatening to erode any political benefit for the beleaguered Trump’s administration over the President’s decision to launch cruise missile attacks in Syria to punish the use of chemical weapons, a move widely welcomed by many US allies and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Various Trump officials for instance struggled to get on the same page Tuesday over the question of whether Russia knew in advance about the chemical weapons attack by its ally President Bashar al-Assad’s government that killed more than 80 civilians.
“I think that they knew,” US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley told CNN’s Jamie Gangel, going further than statements by Spicer and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that there was no such consensus in the intelligence community to support such a conclusion.
The apparent contradictions were symptomatic of the Trump team’s failure to agree a public line on its first big national security test. Haley’s comments and a string of other seemingly jarring interventions by officials are raising questions about the coordination of the foreign policy process between the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon and may reveal a lack of basic strategic planning and messaging in the still understaffed administration.
The last few days have seen a flurry of gaffes, walk-backs, vague, sometimes conflicting statements and off-the-cuff policy making by President Donald Trump himself, Tillerson, Haley and Spicer.
Only Defense Secretary James Mattis, who offered a seasoned, strategic and coherent briefing about the Syria attacks and the US response on Tuesday, appears to be in position to give a lesson on discrete yet steely diplomacy to his administration colleagues.
In the frenetic, chaotic world of Trump’s first 100 days in office, the administration has often appeared to be discovering the complexity of governing for the first time. The President famously declared for instance that no one knew that health care reform would be so complicated even after the years of bitter debate that accompanied the passage of Obamacare.
A similar realization is now becoming evident on foreign policy.
Trump spent months on the campaign trail castigating his predecessors for getting sucked into a Middle East quagmires, and had even attempted to close the door to refugees from Syria in his executive orders imposing a travel ban, which have been stayed by the courts.
Yet his heartfelt response to horrific images of gassed children in Syria, and decision to launch military action, appeared to completely reverse his stated foreign policy intentions. His instinctual move to order his first major military actions of his presidency also raised concerns that he was basing military action on emotion before arriving at a strategic long-term determination of next steps or the consequences of bombing Syria.
Spicer throws White House off-message
Tuesday was yet another dizzying day for America’s allies, enemies and analysts as they try to arrive at clarity about Trump’s intentions.
Attempts by the administration to explain its strategy on Syria and to shame Russia for its backing of Assad were blown out of the water by a huge blunder by Spicer.
Trump’s spokesman reached for an unwise comparison by saying that even Adolf Hitler had never used chemical weapons against civilians during World War II, despite the gassing of millions of Jews and other minorities in death camps.
Spicer appeared on CNN’s “The Situation Room” on Tuesday to apologize for the Hitler analogy.
“It was a mistake, I shouldn’t have done it. I won’t do it again. It was an attempt to do something that should not have been done. There really was no explaining it,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Former Bill Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, who served another Democratic President, Barack Obama, as CIA chief, praised Spicer for apologizing but said his comments were a damaging distraction for the administration.
“When he says the kind of stupid things that he did today, it hurts the administration, it changes the story,” Panetta said.
‘We are not going into Syria’
Spicer is not alone in muddling the administration’s message and fogging perceptions of the Trump administration’s Syria policy.
Haley set off a firestorm of speculation after telling CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that “regime change is something that we think is going to happen” when referring to Assad. Days earlier, administration officials had appeared to indicate that they believed that ousting Assad should not be a priority of US policy in Syria.
The President himself also weighed in on Tuesday, blaming the previous Obama administration’s failure to enforce a US red line over the use of chemical weapons — though did not bring much clarity to the situation.
“We are not going into Syria,” Trump told Fox Business Network.
It was left to Mattis, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, to clarify that America’s policy was still primarily geared towards destroying ISIS and not regime change. He said the missile strikes were a separate attempt to outlaw the use of chemical weapons.
“There is a limit, I think, to what we can do. And when you look at what happened with this chemical attack, we knew that we could not stand passive on this,” the former general told reporters.
“But it was not a statement that we could enter full-fledged, full-bore into the most complex civil war probably raging on the planet at this time.”
Mattis however, in his sober way did make clear to Assad that using chemical weapons again would draw a response, but did so in a way that avoided putting the administration’s credibility on the line and highlighted the lack of precision and restraint evident in other administration statements.
A White House tested
But the Syria confusion is not only unfolding example of the administration learning that events have a way of quickly testing an inexperienced White House.
Events of the last few days appear to have completely reshaped the assumptions that Trump brought into office about improving relations with Russia that have pitched to their lowest point since the Cold War.
“If we got along with Russia and Russia went out with us and knocked the hell out of ISIS that is OK with me folks,” Trump said at a campaign rally in October. Then-candidate Trump expressed his admiration for President Vladimir Putin many times, including in an NBC interview in September.
“If he says get things about me, I am going to say great things about him,” Trump said. Back in August, Trump told supporters: “there is nothing I can think of that I would rather do than have Russia friendly.”
But as Tillerson jetted toward Moscow for his first visit as Secretary of State, relations seemed to be worsening by the hour as Putin compared the Syria attacks to the Iraq war, which Moscow vigorously opposed.
Trump’s room for maneuver with Russia was already curtailed by allegations that some campaign aides had links with Moscow at a time when it was accused of interfering in the presidential election.
The aftermath of the missile attacks ordered by Trump have appeared to have alerted the administration as never before to the geostrategic factors that make any rapprochement between Moscow and Washington a long shot.
Even members of his own administration appear to be undermining the President’s hopes of improving relations with Russia, which sees Syria as a crucial Middle Eastern ally and props up Assad’s government to maintain its influence in the region.
Tillerson, who was once branded by critics as too close to Moscow, owing to his business deals in his former job as the head of ExxonMobil, talked tough before arriving.
During a stop in Italy, the top US diplomat blasted the Russian government for supporting Assad and other US enemies.
“Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah. Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interests?” he said.
Back at the White House, Spicer effectively gave Moscow an ultimatum: choose better relations with Trump administration or its relations with nations that pursue policies contrary to US interests.
“It’s no question that Russia is isolated. They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran. That’s not exactly a group of countries that you’re looking to hang out with,” he said.
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