Love him or hate him, President Donald Trump engenders strong feelings, and with his presidency reaching the symbolic 100-day milestone at a moment of international tensions, battle lines are sharply drawn on the effectiveness of his still-developing foreign policy.
As an understaffed White House team navigates through a spate of early tests, the outlines of a foreign policy framework are beginning to emerge.
When asked by a reporter about a “Trump Doctrine,” White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus explained, “Setting some certain lines of where we’re not going to allow people like [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] to go, but at the same time making it clear that we’re not interested in long-term ground wars in the Middle East.
"Obviously, focusing in on ISIS and what we’re doing in the Middle East to protect us here in the United States, working with China on ongoing issues with North Korea that are very real and are serious issues, that takes cooperation within the region to handle appropriately," Priebus said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Watch: Trump Foreign Policy Draws Fire, Praise at 100 Day Mark
'Basic building blocks'
Jim Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy at the Trump-friendly Heritage Foundation, said ensuring peace and stability in the Middle East and Asia are two of three “basic building blocks” of the president’s policy. The other is mitigating Russia’s “destructive influence.”
“The president gets that” Carafano told VOA. “He’s not soft on Russia. The administration has been very clear that Russian meddling has been unhelpful and destabilizing and we’re not going to stand for it.”
Carafano said Trump has compensated for his lack of foreign policy experience by assembling a team of seasoned professionals.
“When there are decisions to be made, the president turns to (Homeland Secretary chief John) Kelly, (Defense Secretary James) Mattis, (National Security Advisor) H.R. McMaster, (Secretary of State Rex) Tillerson and (Attorney General Jeff) Sessions. He listens to them and respects their input," Carafano said.
The Trump inner circle has “proven they’re pretty good on crisis management,” he added. “They’ve had two major crises with the Syrian chemical weapons attack and the flare-up with North Korea. By most accounts, they handled those pretty well.”
Administration critics, however, have not been impressed. No less a media star than New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick, a fierce Trump critic, wrote: “His Presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security...”
“A pretty abysmal record,” James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington, told VOA.
Goldgeier described as “laughable" administration missteps such as announcing that a U.S. Navy battle group was speeding toward the Korean Peninsula when it was actually heading elsewhere.
“The best thing I can say is that he (Trump) has realized that positions he took during the campaign are not workable and that he needs to rethink the way he was going to approach countries like Russia and China,” Goldgeier, who was a senior Clinton administration official, said. “He starts from a low base, with very little knowledge of history or previous policy, and not a lot of people who can support him.”
A senior White House national security official, at a background briefing, cast the shifts in postion as a positive, arguing it shows Trump’s policy is not doctrinaire. “It’s very pragmatic,” said the official, who cannot be identified under briefing rules.
“The president weighs the risk of any action he’s anticipating. But what he’s also done in these first few weeks is weigh the risk of inaction,” the official said. “Whereas considering the risk only of action could have a tendency to paralyze a leader, what he’s done is he’s recognized there is a cost associated with inaction, and the obvious example of this is the response to the mass murder of civilians with chemical weapons in Syria.”
Many in Washington’s foreign policy establishment, however, remain nervous about how the rest of the world sees Trump’s apparent reversals of position and contradictory statements on sensitive issues.
At a forum this week on “U.S.-Asia relations under Trump” at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, participants worried about the potential for a serious miscalculation by friend and foe alike.
“Our allies don’t like unpredictability,” said Richard Fontaine, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona. “When you’re talking about deterrence, unpredictability tends not to be a good idea.”
Michael Swaine, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, “The most critical issue is North Korea. ... We see a not-very-clear policy as to how to deal with this problem within the administration, with signals sent out in various directions. It’s not reassuring.”
Swaine summed up the concerns of many of the forum’s participants in one sentence, saying, “Many of worst-case assumptions about what the Trump administration would do in Asia have not materialized.” Then, after a long pause for effect he added, “yet.”