Analysis

Trump Brings Nixon’s Madman Theory to Tense Syrian Standoff

It’s hard to stay calm when a volatile and unpredictable U.S. president goes up against wily foxes such as Putin, Erdogan, Assad, Nasrallah and even Netanyahu

U.S. President Donald Trump addressing the chemical attack on a rebel-held town in Syria, April 9, 2018.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

In October 1969, Richard Nixon suddenly ordered U.S. forces throughout the world to go on high nuclear alert. Missiles were deployed, submarines exercised launches and B-52’s full of hydrogen bombs flew along the Soviet Union’s borders for 72 hours. Worried U.S. officials spread the word that Nixon was on a rampage, seeking to end the Vietnam War once and for all by nuking Hanoi. Most of them were not aware that they were participating in an elaborate ruse concocted by Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger aimed at pressuring Moscow and North Vietnam to agree to end the war on terms that Nixon would deem acceptable. Nixon dubbed the strategy “The Madman Theory.”

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Historians still debate whether the maneuver was successful. Some believe Nixon’s crazy spell pushed the Soviets to later sign nuclear limitation agreements; others point to the tens of thousands of American soldiers who died between the faux nuclear alert and the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam six years later as proof of the stratagem’s failure. One of the main vulnerabilities of the plan was that most of the world knew Richard Nixon well from his many years in top government positions and thus remained confident that he was essentially a sane and calculating statesman - something that can’t be said with any certainty of Donald Trump, even after his 15 months in office.

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The novice president is also a disciple of unpredictability. He deploys it indiscriminately, to friend and foe alike. “I don’t want them to know what I’m thinking,” he once said. Psychologists and social scientists agree that unpredictability can provide significant advantages in commercial negotiations as well as international crises - provided it is used wisely and comes equipped with an end game. In North Korea, some people believe, the system seems to be working for Trump so far, but the tensions in Syria following the apparent use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad’s forces on Saturday night presents a far more complex - and dangerous - challenge. Trump’s handling of the crisis could show whether his uncertainty and inconsistency are negotiating tactics for someone who considers himself a master of the art of the deal, or simply a product of his ignorance, selfishness, lack of experience and absence of good judgment. The latter possibility poses a grave danger to Israel.

FILE PHOTO: President Richard Nixon gestures during his news conference in Washington on June 29, 1972.
AP

Trump’s statements in recent days about his wish to withdraw the 2000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria upset American generals and dismayed Benjamin Netanyahu even before the chemical weapon attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma. Netanyahu tried to convince Trump to reverse his position, explaining that such declarations can only embolden Iran to expand its presence in Syria, but according to what we now know, to no avail. Senator John McCain claimed that Trump’s statements had even encouraged Assad to fill the vacuum and to challenge America by carrying out the horrific chemical attack.

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Trump was widely applauded in April 2017 when he ordered that 59 Tomahawks be fired on the air force base from which the planes that carried out the chemical weapon attack in Idlib had taken off. Unlike that wimp Obama, Trump had shown Assad and the world who’s the boss, the President’s disciples said. Since that devastating attack, Assad forces have carried out at least eight more gas attacks against civilians; in order to preserve the impression that Trump had taught Assad a lesson he’d never forget, Washington and Jerusalem simply ignored them. The Douma attack, however, was too big to ignore and the harrowing videos of the victims were seen in homes throughout the world. Assad was thumbing his nose and wagging his tongue at Trump; daring him, in essence, to respond.

Assad’s self-confidence stems from his impending victory in the Syrian civil war that started seven years ago in order to depose him, and from what seemed on Monday like a hardening of the Russian line towards both Jerusalem and Washington. With the war nearly over, Moscow is digging in its heels and acting more and more like Syria’s patron and protector, if not superior and owner. If the change in tone translates into actions, Israel’s future ability to prevent weapon transfers to Hezbollah and to deter Iran from expanding its military presence, especially near the Golan Heights, could be seriously hampered.

Under these circumstances, Trump’s expected decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal next month might delight Netanyahu and other critics of the deal, but could also set off a chain of events that would yield regional escalation and possibly war. Whether Trump would then have Israel’s back in more than just words or would simply disappear off the Middle East grid is anyone’s guess. If he does, everyone will recall how he warned “foolish” Obama in 2013 not to contemplate military retaliation against Syria after the horrendous chemical attack that left 1400 dead in Damascus because ‘bad things will happen” and the U.S. had nothing to gain.

The uncertainty is compounded by the enduring mystery of Trump’s relations with Vladimir Putin. Even though Trump attacked Putin personally after the Douma attack and even though he has approved new and biting sanctions against Putin’s cronies and despite the fact that his new National Security Adviser John Bolton has advocated a tougher line towards the Kremlin and relentless military action in the Middle East - there is still much that is unclear about the true nature of Trump’s “soft” line towards Putin.  Never mind the lingering doubts about Russia’s ability to simply blackmail the U.S. President.

Israel, the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Hezbollah and the Kurdish nation are all engaged now in a Syrian power play that could have dire consequences for Israel, including a dangerous confrontation with Moscow or worse, a regional conflagration. The end game of the Syrian civil war creates a multi-dimensional strategic maze that requires sound navigation lest it end in tragedy and even catastrophe. If Nixon and Kissinger were calling the shots one could sleep more soundly at night, as well as Obama, with all due respect to his haters. As things stand, Trump is now facing an array of seasoned and wily leaders, including Putin, Erdogan, Rohani, Assad, Nasrallah and more. He may be surrounded by men experience, but it is still the unpredictable, capricious and self-centered Trump who makes the final decisions. When he promises a response in 48 hours, as he did on Monday, one can’t even begin to speculate whether it will all end in with a whimper or with a bang.