The old joke about the key to being a politician is to never give a straight answer. If asked about border security, don’t promise anything specific, let alone a border wall, built with concrete and paid for by Mexico. If asked about Syria, don’t say that the enemy is defeated, that dubious allies will take responsibility for the fight, and that U.S. troops will soon be on their way home.
But Trump volunteered all of those details and did so publicly. Worse, he often did so on Twitter, where everything is permanent.
An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED, as has been reported by the media. Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides). Makes sense to me!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
December 31, 2018
His earlier promises have tied his hands and forced disastrous outcomes. Facing criticism for going back on the details of the border wall he promised, Trump refused to sign appropriations bills, shutting down the government. After hastily promising to pull troops from Syria and losing his Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in the process, Trump backtracked, undercutting the reliability of U.S. foreign policy.
When it comes to complex and shifting issues like immigration policy or ongoing conflicts abroad, the president needs to be adaptable, revising policy and promises as the situation changes.
Although Trump will have to find his own way out of the shutdown mess and building complications in Syria, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., gave him a crash course in talking issues without making untenable promises. The president would do well to pay attention.
Speaking on Sunday, Graham called the border wall a metaphor for border security, saying, “It’s just not about physical barriers. It’s about other things,” Adding, “The wall has become a metaphor for border security. And what we’re talking about is a physical barrier where it makes sense.”
Although that statement was met, rightly, with ridicule, that’s the sort of vague politician talk that Trump should have used when pressed on border wall funding before he shut down the government. That would have allowed him to say that he was fulfilling his promise while also sticking with what is possible without congressional support. Now, with the government shutdown and a series of tweets making quite clear that the president does not, in fact, see the wall as a metaphor, it is too late.
On Syria, Graham set conditions for the withdraw that amount to not leaving at all or at least any time soon.
The President will make sure any withdrawal from Syria will be done in a fashion to ensure:
1) ISIS is permanently destroyed.
2) Iran doesn’t fill in the back end, and
3) our Kurdish allies are protected.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC)
December 30, 2018
By sticking to those points, which are themselves vague, Trump could still talk about the withdrawal but in much more ambiguous terms while also avoiding the geopolitical fallout of a quick departure.
Of course, Trump has nixed that opportunity by claiming, untruthfully, that ISIS had been defeated and by holding himself up as a hero for bringing the troops home.
Graham’s tactic, while perhaps less satisfying at a campaign rally than robust chants of “Build the Wall,” would nonetheless set the president up for long-term success and maybe even real policy changes. Instead, he is facing criticism from all sides. His supporters argue he isn’t doing what he said, and his critics can’t believe he is actually trying.
Worse, another result of hard, specific promises that he cannot make good on is the current unfolding chaos as the government remains shut down indefinitely and our allies scramble to forge new alliances as threats remain unmet and policy uncertain.