'Madman Theory'? Experts Weigh in on Trump's Intentions in Syria

Published April 16th, 2018 - 02:38 GMT
U.S. President Donald Trump (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
U.S. President Donald Trump (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)


  • Trump's plan for Syria is baffling nearly everybody
  • Al Bawaba tried to discern what exactly he wants to do by asking experts
  • Trump may be emulating Nixon in deploying the 'madman theory' in his foreign policy
  • Acting like a crazy person could escalate Middle Eastern wars


By Ty Joplin


Trump, who previously lambasted any involvement in the Syrian war, bombed the country, again.

People on the left were shocked, fearing this means a deeper, more committed and illegal intervention in the Syrian war. People on the right are outraged that Trump is going back on a campaign promise to decrease involvement in messy wars that have little tangible benefits for the U.S.

Trump’s tweets and past statements indicate that he has wanted out of Syria and thinks intervention is a terrible idea. Despite this, he loudly announced on twitter that missiles were coming, which left military officials scrambling. After the missiles hit their targets inside the country, he tweeted victoriously ‘Mission accomplished.’

Meanwhile, France’s President Emmanuel Macron claims he’s convinced Trump to stay in Syria for the long run—something Trump ardently campaigned against and for which his base is trashing him. Alex Jones, one of the most influential far-right supporters of Trump, actually cried on-air, lamenting that his ‘pure’ Trump is not the savior he’s been made out to be.

Entire careers have been made professionally reacting to Trump and the chaos he sows. But what does he actually want? What in the world does he want to do in Syria? Nobody seems to know, not least Trump himself.

To try and understand, Al Bawaba spoke with experts on foreign policy in the Middle East. The short answer is: it’s not entirely clear, but it looks like he wants to appear strong against aggressive opponents of U.S. foreign policy without dealing with any of the consequences of foreign entanglement.

In so doing, Trump may be emulating Nixon and his infamous ‘madman theory.’


What Experts Say Trump Wants

A missile leaves a U.S. Navy ship headed for Syria (Ford WIlliams/U.S. Navy)


Amanda Sloat is a Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and also seems to be just as concerned and puzzled as everybody else about what Trump wants to do:

“There are certainly more questions than answers at this stage. In terms of Syria more broadly, Trump has made clear that he is looking to withdraw U.S. forces as quickly as possible. His advisors persuaded him to allow more time to complete the Counter-ISIS mission. His recent tweets on potential U.S. strikes following the regime’s alleged CW [chemical weapons] use have reignited debates about the Administration’s broader strategy in Syria.”

In terms of weighing Trump’s options, Sloat was tentative: “It is possible to conduct punitive strikes in response to CW use, which is what happened a year ago,” and earlier this month with a new round of strikes in Syria. “But if the Administration seeks to widen the operation then there is a risk of conflict with Russia and other actors on the ground.”

In other words, if Trump goes much further beyond where he has already gone with striking insular targets in Syria, he may provoke an aggressive response from Russia and others who could seek to defense their assets and the assets of the regime.

Pavel Baev, a professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, was also skeptical: “Trump has not arrived to anything resembling a strategy in Syria." He later added, "He rushed to declare 'mission accomplished,' but it is hard to figure out what the mission was."

On the topic of engaging with Russia, Baev was quick to point out that the U.S. and Russia have well-established diplomatic means of making sure they do not directly engage with each other’s military:

“I think his desire is to make a great show of force and to minimize the risks. It is rather easy to manage the risks related to a possible clash with Russia – the de-conflicting channels work, and there is a lot of experience in discharging potential conflicts.”

The Telegraph recently reported that a 24 hour hotline between Russia and the U.S. was used by the Trump administration to let Russia know that it was going to strike targets in Syria. Russia and the U.S. regularly use such diplomatic channels to make sure they are never engaging with each other militarily.

Baev, though, was much more concerned about the potential to begin striking Iranian targets, which Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, among other influential policy makers, would love to do. To this possibility, Trump’s new reshuffled cabinet “may be eager to engage in this confrontation, but is hardly ready for it.”

Iranian forces are well-embedded in Syria, and have both local and Iranian militias in their ranks. Israel has been targeting them periodically throughout the war in strikes and Saudi is openly eager to get involved in Syria in order to combat Iranian forces.

To this, Trump is in a quagmire, stuck between his regional allies that want more war and his base that want less of it. 

Christopher Meserole, a fellow at Brookings, is also deeply concerned about the Iranian front, because it now appears that “the Israel-Iran fight is no longer just a proxy fight. It's become a hot war and will remain so for a while.”

“Israel is facing a threat it has never faced before: a barrage of smart missiles from Lebanon and Syria that could strike any target anywhere in Israel, at a scale that can overwhelm Iron Dome. It's not necessarily an existential threat, but it's close. They're not willing to let Iran continue building its stockpile in Lebanon and Syria,”  Meserole added.

More generally, on what Trump wants to do in Syria, Meserole is blunt:

“My sense is that Trump wants to blow up something Syrian and leave—whereas Bolton wants to blow up something Russian, and stick around for the after party. Whether Bolton wins the day is an open question, and will likely depend on how much support he’s able to drum up from the Pentagon. I don’t see any indication that Trump has changed his mind about wanting out of Syria in six months though.”


Trump the Madman

Trump and former president Richard Nixon (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba via Wikimedia)


There’s actually a theory detailing what Trump might be doing in Syria and the Middle East in general, called ‘the madman theory.’

The theory goes that a world leader convinces other leaders that he is an irrational, erratic person who cannot be reasoned with or his actions even predicted by others. This gives him the freedom to make foreign policy moves and threats that all seem vaguely credible, because the person making it is insane.

Theoretically, other world leaders would then not want to test this madman, and would appease him or at least not wish to escalate threats with him or engage in brinkmanship.

Richard Nixon made famous this way of conducting foreign policy during the Vietnam war, telling his chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, "I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point might do anything to stop the war.”

Nixon wanted the communist insurgents in North Vietnam to think he would be willing to nuke their country to end the war.

Tim Naftali, writing for The Atlantic, points out that Nixon’s madman ploy not only confused his enemies, but also his allies, who saw the U.S. as a less reliable partner. Domestically, Naftali argues that his strategy, “tore [the United States] country apart,” due to Nixon trying unsuccessfully to toe the line between war hawks and his campaign promise to end the ar.

Born from desperation in Nixon’s era, Trump has begun his presidency outright with it as a strategy, whether by design or accident.

In trying to negotiate a U.S.-South Korea trade agreement, Trump told his top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, to portray him to the Koreans as an actual crazy person:

“That's not how you negotiate,” Trump told Lighthizer. “You don't tell them they've got 30 days [to negotiate concessions]. You tell them, 'This guy's so crazy he could pull out any minute.'"

For Syria, this means Trump would be acting like a crazy person who could strike targets haphazardly without concern for entanglement and hope nobody calls him on his bluff.

His allies in the hawkish administrations in France, U.K., Israel and Saudi, seem enthusiastic to accept Trump’s threats but may be caught off-guard when it is revealed he genuinely has no interest in a sustained military involvement because he is a ‘madman,’ that he could abandon them exactly when they need the U.S. military to bolster their war efforts.

Nixon tried to act ‘crazy,’ to accelerate an end to the Vietnam war by 1969. It didn’t work, and the war cost tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers’ lives, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese deaths in addition to clandestine interventions of Laos and Cambodia that killed millions more.

It will likely not work with Trump either.

A Syrian man walks with a child after a strike in Eastern Ghouta (AFP/FILE)


Naftali continues: “In light of Trump’s tweets, it is fair to assume that some of the president’s unpredictability is unrehearsed. Nixon had an unstable personality, but his risk-taking in Vietnam, however ill-founded, was at least plotted with Henry Kissinger.”

"This theory presumes that a politician finds it useful to act like a madman, without being one. In Trump's case, there are reasons to assume that it may be the other way around," Baev added. 

Trump’s ad hoc style of governance could simply mean more devastation in the already wartorn Syria. By ramping up tensions, antagonizing his adversaries and showing signs that he will back his allies, more war may be encouraged, and escalations may be inevitable.

For those Syrians left in their country, who thought at one point that the war may be winding down, Trump’s strikes may stand in as yet another horseman of their apocalypse.

By appointing the hawkish Bolton as his national security advisor, and seeking to closely align with Saudi and Israel, Trump may be organizing his administration’s foreign policy around a madman doctrine which wants a war, even if it doesn’t know how to end it.

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