Suddenly -- and predictably -- world events and rogue leaders have brought real, urgent problems knocking on the door of the Oval Office. Now Trump faces the world's most intractable conflicts -- and they demand a response.
As Trump has already discovered on the domestic front, criticizing is easy; governing is difficult
. And on foreign policy, nothing is more difficult than Syria and North Korea. Every solution conjures potentially worse problems.
Within the span of 24 hours, both countries provoked the world. In Syria, scores of civilians, including many children, were killed by an apparent chemical weapons attack
. By all indications, it looks like the work of President Bashar al-Assad.
We've seen Trump in action when he faces self-inflicted political crises. Now we'll find out what he does when the problems are violent, dangerous, potentially catastrophic international conflicts.
Trump's instinctive response was in keeping with what we have seen in the past: revert to campaign mode, shifting blame to domestic rivals. Then launch blustery threats.
What's unclear is what the third step is in that Trumpian kata -- a martial art routine of would-be warriors.
The danger is that by fulminating against the errors of his predecessors and puffing himself up as the one who will do what it takes, Trump is boxing himself in and creating pressure -- including political pressure -- to act rashly.
He and his administration have repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for the mess in Syria.
Only hours after we saw the first shocking images of scores of Syrian civilians foaming at the mouth, of dead children killed by chemical weapons, press secretary Sean Spicer declared that "the heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution."
Let's be clear, Obama's handling of the Syrian crisis was, in my view, disastrous. I wrote as much many times.
But attacking the former US President, blaming him at this stage for the misdeeds of a war criminal, is beyond the pale. Obama may have made poor choices.
But, as Trump is surely discovering, there are no easy options. Besides, recent statements by Trump administration
officials suggesting that the United States no longer objects to Assad remaining in power may have also played a role in making the Syrian leader feel safe enough to perpetrate this latest atrocity.
Still, to whatever extent the policies of the Obama or Trump administrations influenced Assad's decision-making, the guilty party is the perpetrator of that attack.
Injecting domestic politics into the crisis now is not only unseemly, it also raises concerns that Trump might allow domestic politics to influence his next step.
During a press conference alongside Jordanian King Abdullah II
, Trump said that on North Korea and Syria he is facing problems that his predecessor should have dealt with, a claim he has made before with respect to North Korea and its nuclear program.
Then came the bluster, the threats, the self-inflicted pressure to take muscular moves.
Consider the President's official statement on the Syria attack. It includes the requisite charge against Obama, blaming him by name for not enforcing his "red line" against chemical weapons use. Then it calls the attack "reprehensible," proclaiming that it "cannot be ignored by the civilized world," and "intolerable."
If the attack cannot be tolerated, then what is Trump prepared to do about it? When asked, he responded
, "You will see."
The pressure to act is enormous. That is completely understandable. The Syrian war is in its seventh year. The carnage has been unspeakable. The Tuesday massacre was horrifying.
Oddly, Trump seemed to have suddenly discovered the awful reality of the conflict. Assad had already used chemical weapons many times before. But after this attack Trump revealed
, "My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much."
It is not clear what, precisely, Trump intends to do. After repeatedly criticizing Obama for his failure to act decisively and for not enforcing his so-called red line, Trump said the latest attack
"crossed a lot of lines for me."
Trump seemed genuinely upset by what he saw. "When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas," that, he said, "had a big impact."
On North Korea, too, the Trump administration is giving every sign of preparing to act
. A senior White House official said, "The clock has now run out and all the options are on the table." All the options were already on the table before, but the clock running out suggests some kind of dramatic response may be imminent.
The impression was underscored by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's cryptic communiqué Tuesday night
: "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea," it said, adding ominously, "We have no further comment."
To be sure, Washington's efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear program and to prevent Syria's Assad from slaughtering his people have been dismal failures. I, along with many others, have written about that extensively in the past. We can only hope that Trump has better plans.
But the risk here is that the President is boxing himself into a corner and putting himself in a position where if he doesn't make forceful moves, he could suffer damaging political consequences at home.
After all, blaming political opponents, putting on displays of bravado and launching chilling threats can achieve much on the campaign trail. On the world stage, however, they may end up curtailing your options.
Trump is now in a position where he has to act. The question -- as it was for Obama -- is what to do. The risk in both Syria and North Korea is responding in a way that makes a disastrous situation even more catastrophic.
Obama's Syria policy was an abject failure. We can only hope Trump's will be an improvement. But there's no guarantee.