By Daniel Henninger
April 19, 2017 7:01 p.m. ET
After 59 Tomahawk missiles landed on a Syrian airfield, followed by the dropping of a 21,600-pound bomb on Islamic State’s hideouts in Afghanistan, the world has begun to ask: What is Donald Trump’s foreign policy? And so the search begins by pressing what Mr. Trump has done so far against various foreign-policy templates. Is he a neoconservative, a Scowcroftian realist or a babe in the woods?
We know this is a fool’s errand. There will be no Trump Doctrine anytime soon, and that’s fine. The Obama Doctrine, whatever it was, left his successor a steep climb in the Middle East and Asia. It is difficult to find doctrinal solutions for issues that everyone calls “a mess.” It is possible, though, to see the shape of an emerging strategy.
The place to look for that strategy is inside the minds of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
During his Senate confirmation hearings, Mr. Mattis said something that jumped out at the time. He called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “the most successful military alliance probably in modern history, maybe ever.”
This was in notable contradistinction to the view of his president that NATO was obsolete. Then last week, after meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, President Trump said of the alliance: “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”
Let’s set aside the obligatory sniggering over such a remark and try to see a president moving toward the outlines of a foreign policy that, for a president who likes to keep it simple, may be described with one word: allies.
NATO emerged as a formal alliance after World War II. Less formally, the U.S. struck alliances with other nations to base troops and ships, as in the Persian Gulf.
After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, foreign-policy thinkers began to debate the proper role of the U.S. as the world’s only superpower. Liberals argued that maintaining the U.S. at the apex of this alliance system was, well, obsolete. Instead the U.S. should act more like a co-equal partner with our allies, including international institutions such as the United Nations.
The idea of a flatter alliance structure, or leading from behind, came to life with the Obama presidency. It doesn’t work.
If indeed Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster are the architects of an emerging Trump foreign policy, their most formative experiences, in Iraq, may shape that policy.
After the Iraq War began in 2003, the U.S. tried to defeat the enemy essentially with brute force. Serving in different areas of Iraq—Gen. Mattis in Anbar province and then-Col. McMaster in the city of Tal Afar—the two men realized that force alone wasn’t winning. Instead, they sought, successfully, to gain buy-in from the local populations and tribal leaders. In return for that buy-in, U.S. forces provided security to their new allies.
The difficult and ultimately tragic question was, what happens after the U.S. leaves? In strategic terms: How does the U.S. stabilize a volatile world without becoming a permanent occupying force?
Last month, Gen. McMaster brought onto the NSA staff Nadia Schadlow, who has thought a lot about that question. Her assignment is to develop the National Security Strategy Report. The title of her just-released book, “War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success Into Political Victory,” summarizes its core idea:
Unlike its pullout from Iraq, the U.S. has to remain involved—engaged—in the turbulent political space that always exists between conflict and peace, a space filled with competition for influence and power. What Gens. Mattis and McMaster learned in the wake of Iraq is that if you make allies, you should keep them.
Thus, Vice President Mike Pence stood at the DMZ across from North Korea reconfirming the U.S.’s alliance with South Korea. A day later, he did the same in Japan.
Mr. Trump met in recent weeks with King Abdullah of Jordan, President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi of Egypt and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Salman. This week, Mr. Trump called to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his referendum “victory.”
These are the Middle East’s “tribal leaders,” or allies, whose buy-in will be necessary if the U.S. is to consolidate gains from the military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan—possibly with the partition of Syria into three tribal sectors.
Russia has separated itself by choosing instead an alliance with Iran to create a Russo-Iranian Shiite crescent extending across the Middle East to the Mediterranean.
The Mattis-McMaster foreign policy taking shape looks like a flexible strategy born of military experience in fast, fluid circumstances—our world. It is based on both formal and mobile alliances with partners willing to use diplomatic, financial, political and, if necessary, military pressure to establish stable outcomes. The word “abandon” doesn’t fit here.
Some might say that sounds like the U.S. leading alongside. With one big difference: The U.S. is in fact leading.