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Who Is Making U.S. Foreign Policy?

It’s a time of trial and tribulation for America’s allies and adversaries alike. Just what is U.S. policy these days? More fundamentally, who is deciding U.S. policy?

A presidential transition always creates uncertainty. Even when the Oval Office is passed between members of the same party, approaches and emphases differ. Personal connections vary. But today the differences are within a single administration.

Indeed, in virtually no area is policy settled.

President Donald Trump came into office committed to rapprochement with Russia. Yet even before taking office his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, sounded like bombastic Sen. John McCain in calling Moscow the greatest threat facing America. Later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded Russia’s withdrawal from Crimea—a political impossibility—before bilateral relations could improve. Now the U.S. military has shot down a Syrian plane, fielded by the Assad government, a Moscow ally, triggering Russian threats against U.S. aircraft.

Indeed, the latter threatens to drag America into the Syrian war as an active combatant, fighting not only the Islamic State but also the Assad government, Iran and Russia. In fact, his National Security Council was already pressing for a more active role against both the Assad government and Iranian-backed militias supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, which would turn America into an active combatant in the six-year-old civil war. Yet candidate Trump criticized the Iraq War as well as proposals for entangling the United States in additional Middle Eastern conflicts. When his Republican competitors threatened to shoot down Russian planes, he called ISIS the priority. He later criticized Hillary Clinton as a warmonger, in part for her hawkish approach to the Mideast.

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