What exactly is Donald Trump up to?
It is a legitimate question to ask – and with no criticism implied – given that even as I write a Russian warship is sailing into the eastern Mediterranean, the location from which the American missiles that hit a Syrian air base were launched.
It is impossible to make assumptions, moral or political, about what this American president is thinking at any given time, on any subject. Nor is it any consolation knowing that it is no less difficult to understand what President Putin might have in mind from one machismo-fuelled day to the next.
Those facts alone, it seems to me, make for a volatile and potentially dangerous situation.
A clash between US and Russian warships may be unlikely, as a procession of military experts hastened to assure us on television last night, but I’m not sure I trust their judgements either. Frankly, I don’t sleep easier in my bed knowing that two of the three super-powers at present are led by strutting egomaniacs who far from failing to acknowledge their unpredictable impulses seem to revel in the confusion that those impulses let loose.
Before the American presidential election, candidate Trump said relatively benign things about President Assad of Syria, and a number of his advisers are known to have ‘courted’ their Russian counterparts – though to what extent is admittedly the subject of several current investigations. Now, Trump suddenly thinks Assad is a horror – in which conclusion he has finally caught up with the rest of us – and in attacking him consciously puts at risk any prospect of a détente with Russia, which has long supported the Syrian dictator in military as well as political expressions.
In venting his disgust at the chemical attack on Syrian civilians, is Trump now saying he was wrong all along to have trusted either Assad or Putin?
Or has he merely undergone a change of heart – as opposed to mind – in the aftermath of the recent chemical attack?
Trump is plainly not the kind of man who will admit to having been wrong, or even misled, on any subject. So it must be assumed that his order to attack the air base was no more than an emotional reaction to the horrific scenes on television of women, children, and – as he put it – ‘little babies’ – recovering from the effects of inhaling nerve gas.
That is a commendable response in any man. Who among us felt any differently? But it has to be asked even so whether it is also an appropriate response from an occupant of the White House who has a nuclear trigger twenty feet away.
The essential problem in this matter, as in so many others, is that any attempt to read Trump’s mind, or ascertain his views on the evidence of past pronouncements, is bound to fail. He has no discernible underlying political philosophy, at least not as it might be applied to foreign affairs, and could not articulate even if he had. Such is the size of his ego that he is more likely to make snap decisions for their short-term effects rather than measured responses that recognise possible long-term consequences. One relatively minor example is the dismissal this week of his political strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, just weeks after he was, controversially and puzzlingly, appointed to it.
We can only hope that Trump has about him, both in the White House and the State Department, enough sensible worldly-wise counsellors to pull him back from any precipitate actions derived either from perceived insults or outraged sentimentality into which he may be tempted during this crisis.
We live in curiously troubling times.