President Donald Trump delivers a statement from Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., following the U.S. missile attack on a Syrian air base. April 6, 2017. (Video: The White House | Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)
After 9/11, the biggest foreign attack on American soil in history, it took George W. Bush almost a month to issue his first orders to take military action against Afghanistan. Though President Bush was determined to strike back quickly, there was a deliberate process of discussion, study, planning and coordination with allies.
It took President Donald Trump only a matter of days to reverse his entire Syria policy and take military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
For years, Mr. Trump had consistently said America should not become militarily involved in Syria, and he criticized President Barack Obama for creating a "red line" around chemical weapons (as well as for not following through on it once he made it). Mr. Trump has apparently never before expressed empathy for the millions of Syrians who have been killed or displaced by the civil war there. In fact he campaigned on barring Syrian refugees from the United States.
And on March 30, his U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson said in Ankara that "the longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people" rather than the United States, in response to a question about whether the dictator should be removed from power.
Then, on April 4th, a chemical attack was apparently carried out on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria, killing at least 80 people — including dozens of children — and injuring scores more. It was a horrific attack, but not unique under the Assad regime; more than 650 children were killed in violence from the Syrian civil war last year alone, according to UNICEF.
Still, on April 7th, just 72 hours after President Trump saw upsetting pictures of dead Syrian children, he launched 59 tomahawk missiles at Mr. Assad.
"I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact," Mr. Trump said during a news conference held in the White House Rose Garden. "My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much."
Putting aside whether the missile strike was the appropriate response, what is troubling is the decision-making process. Whether he guessed right or wrong, sudden lethal moves that reverse longstanding policy are disturbing. "Acting on instinct, Trump upends his own Syria policy," was the headline in the New York Times. The president's advisers "were clearly uncomfortable with the suggestion that Mr. Trump was acting impulsively," reported the Times.
As Ezra Klein put it on Vox, "He is unpredictable and driven by whims. He is unmoored from any coherent philosophy of America's role in the world. ... What we are seeing, instead, is a foreign policy based on Trump's gut reactions to the images flashing before him on cable news. And that's dangerous."
A portion of the mental health community has come forward to say they believe that Donald Trump shows troubling signs of mental illness. Aside from his narcissism, the most frequent concern these mental health professionals report is Mr. Trump's impulsivity. And in no area is impulsivity more dangerous than in the decision to use military force.
Mr. Trump has marginalized career diplomats at the State Department, whose budget he is slashing, and surrounded himself with a tight inner circle of blindly loyal relatives and true believers — a system built for speed not deliberation. He's not one for seeking consultation in general. When candidate Trump was asked whom he was seeking foreign policy advice from, he responded, "I'm speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain." Just how good a brain he has is up for debate, but the narcissistic fantasy that it's so good he doesn't need a brain trust bigger than me, myself and I, is scary.
"I know more about ISIS than the generals," Mr. Trump has said, "believe me." I don't. You shouldn't. And the fact that Mr. Trump believes himself should keep us all up at night.
John Gartner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a psychologist who taught in the department of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School for 28 years. He is the author of "In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography."