Now they have a clear answer, with the administration pushing regime change in Syria as non-negotiable (compared to one week before when Tillerson, Haley, and Spicer said "no regime change"), burning bridges with Russia (compared to "getting along with Russia"), and fixating on North Korea (despite the topic never coming up during the primary or general election campaign).
Right after the airstrike, I said this is not Trump acting voluntarily, given his lengthy history exhorting our presidents not to do things like this, and his unwavering big-picture goals to get along with Russia, not get involved in so-called humanitarian interventions or nation-building ("regime change"), and so on.
Rather, he was having his arm twisted by the military faction of the Deep State, mainly the Pentagon. It does not have to involve literal arm-twisting, or threatening force directly against him. All they need to say is:
"Look, we've had this big-picture plan for a long time, and nothing has changed out there in the world to make us change the big picture, certainly not you getting elected. What does someone outside the government or military know about geopolitics and war? Russia is our #1 enemy in the world, Iran is our #1 enemy in the Middle East, and Syria is allied with both of them. That means we're going to fuck around with Syria, whether that conflicts with your pro-Russian, anti-regime change agenda or not. You can either get on board with us, and make up some BS about being 'flexible' in order to save face in public -- or you can publicly speak out against our vision, while we go ahead and run with it anyway. Do you feel like starting off your presidency with the image of someone who doesn't even have authority over the military that you are nominally the Commander-in-Chief of?"
Faced with that choice, of course Trump has to go along and publicly support the failed vision that he has been savaging for over a decade.
Now things get interesting. At least one world leader is 100% wise to the situation between the anti-interventionist President and the suicidally interventionist Deep State. As it happens, he's one of the key figures in the war that future historians will probably describe as leading up to WWIII -- Assad from Syria. In a recent interview, he lays out the situation in crystal-clear detail:
Telesur: How do you assess the current policy of Donald Trump in the world, and in Syria in particular?
Bashar al-Assad: The American President has no policies. There are policies drawn by the American institutions which control the American regime which are the intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, the big arms and oil companies, and financial institutions, in addition to some other lobbies which influence American decision-making. The American President merely implements these policies, and the evidence is that when Trump tried to move on a different track, during and after his election campaign, he couldn’t. He came under a ferocious attack. As we have seen in the past few weeks, he changed his rhetoric completely and subjected himself to the terms of the deep American state, or the deep American regime. That’s why it is unrealistic and a complete waste of time to make an assessment of the American President’s foreign policy, for he might say something; but he ultimately does what these institutions dictate to him. This is not new. This has been ongoing American policy for decades.
First, Assad believes that Trump's anti-interventionist stance is totally sincere. What explains the reversal is the strength of the Deep State that Trump is opposed to, on the matter of interventionism -- they literally control the armed forces, so how exactly is Trump going to tell them "no"?
If Assad just wanted to score cheap points, he could have said that Trump was just a phony or con artist on the campaign trail, or that he was a mush-headed flip-flopper. We hear these moronic comments about Trump's personality all the time from cynical idiots in the West, but they are wrong (otherwise he would have flip-flopped on TPP, Supreme Court nominee, etc., where the military is not involved). It's encouraging to know that at least Assad does not blame Trump personally, but rather our Deep State.
He also doesn't put the blame on hamburger-eating Americans chanting "USA!" and waving flags. He knows that Trump won because those American people are sick of interventionism. Again, contrast with the cynical idiots in the West, who want to blame "Fox News watchers" along with "temperamental Trump".
Presumably, Assad has discussed his assessment of the situation with Putin or other high-ranking Russians, and perhaps with other world leaders in Iran, China, etc. They were all confused after the airstrike, and have been trying to figure out objectively what the truth is, in order to best prepare for the future. Who knows how many other leaders share Assad's correct assessment of "Trump vs. Deep State"? But it's at least being discussed as a serious hypothesis.
Note that it is irrelevant what you the reader believe explains Trump's apparent reversal. We are not major players in this game, while Assad and other leaders are. It's their perceptions that matter.
Now here's the problem: if Assad believes that it's the Deep State that is thinking up plans, executing them, and coming up with responses, why would he want to interact with Trump? He explicitly says that Trump might say something contrary to the will of Deep State, making his words not only meaningless but in the opposite direction of what will truly happen. When Trump says "no to regime change," it's guaranteed that the official Deep State plan is "yes to regime change".
The same applies to the chief diplomat, Secretary of State Tillerson, who also went on record saying that there would be no regime change, and Assad's fate would be left up to the Syrian people -- only to be saying the exact opposite just one week later. The same applies to UN Ambassador Haley, a major go-between for the international community, as well as Press Secretary Spicer, the official voice of the White House.
But still, Assad, Putin, etc. would like to communicate with the American side in the conflict. Discussing goals, deconfliction, entering into negotiations, and so on. However, they have no one to interact with on the American side, since all of the official figures cannot be relied upon to speak on behalf of the Deep State. Not Trump, Tillerson, or Haley.
Sure, Trump or Tillerson could read statements on behalf of Deep State -- but not engage in a back-and-forth conversation across the conference table. They would have to keep taking a break to check in with Deep State. The other side would say, "Why don't you just send a Deep State representative instead?" But agreeing to that would make Trump lose face, unless he could frame it as the representative having more extensive knowledge and experience in this one particular area -- not as that rep being the duly selected voice of Deep State.
Normally, this is not a problem because the President is in fact a voice for Deep State, because he has no real priorities of his own, and is just hungry for power, or else he is a true believer in the goals of Deep State. Now that the President has taken a principled stand against the status quo of the foreign policy Establishment, his counterparts in other countries will always have to ask, "Is that Trump speaking, or is that Deep State speaking? We only want to hear from those who wield true military authority."
There is one possible Cabinet member who can speak on behalf of Deep State, because he was not part of the coordinated message saying "no more regime change in Syria", and therefore does not have a record of changing his message 180 degrees within one week. That effort came at the end of March, and included the Secretary of State, UN Ambassador, and Press Secretary, not to mention Trump saying this back to 2013.
But who else is missing from that list, someone who is centrally involved in foreign policy and war? The Secretary of Defense, one of "the Generals" who is much more a member of Deep State than outsiders like Trump or Tillerson.
In fact, Mattis did hold a joint press conference in London with his British counterpart, also at the end of March. He was pointedly asked about the administration's policy on regime change in Syria, and was it different from that of Obama, who was pro-change? Mattis dodges that question, which is better than saying "I know the President wants to end the plan for regime change, but the Pentagon does not share that view." Still, it's striking that he was silent, when the other major international relations figures were public and unequivocal about ending the regime change policy toward Syria.
(Vice-President Pence also refrained from joining the "no regime change" effort in late March, but undertaking major foreign negotiations would seem to go beyond his office.)
Trump has just given Mattis more latitude in determining the number of Americans to deploy in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, etc. Perhaps he will soon be delegating Mattis as the official representative for the American Deep State in any future discussions or negotiations. Either that, or the diplomatic channels could be shut down entirely with no reliable voice on the American side.
On the one hand, Trump could publicly lose his reputation for authority; on the other hand, there could be an end to discussions between the two sides in an increasingly hot war. I don't pretend to know which choice is better for the American national interest, off the top of my head, but that's where we are now.