An alliance-skeptical president turns to old allies in Syria.
Ahead of Donald Trump’s decision to launch strikes against Syria’s chemical-weapons program, the U.S. president signaled a desire to leave Syria altogether. His advisers, based on their public pronouncements advocating leaving in place the 2,000 American troops there, likely tried to convince him otherwise. But then another, unexpected source claimed credit for changing his mind—the president of France.
“Ten days ago, President Trump said the U.S. should withdrawal from Syria. We convinced him it was necessary to stay,” Macron said in a televised interview Sunday. “We also persuaded him that we needed to limit the strikes to chemical weapons [sites], after things got a little carried away over tweets.”
It’s unusual to hear a claim that U.S. war policy is being made in France. But then again, so is Macron and Trump’s relationship. Despite being diametrically opposed on a number of policy fronts, the two leaders have managed to forge something of a friendship over the past year. In the immediate aftermath of the latest alleged chemical-weapons attack in Syria, it was Macron who was on the phone with Trump coordinating “a strong, joint response” to what they both considered to be an unacceptable crime by Assad. Less than a week later, both the U.S. and France ordered military strikes on three Syrian government targets, including a research center and two chemical-weapons storage facilities (the U.K., whose Prime Minister Theresa May discussed the matter with Trump a full two days after Macron did, also participated in the strike).
The White House maintains that the “U.S. mission [in Syria] has not changed”—it remains fighting the last remnants of ISIS. Monday night, Macron tried to resolve the seeming disconnect, saying that France, too, holds this position, and that other than the strikes on Assad's chemical-weapons program, the military engagement “is against [ISIS] and will finish the day the war on [ISIS] has been completed.”
The back-and-forth was emblematic of the broader relationship between Macron and Trump, who seem to stand shoulder to shoulder while only occasionally seeing eye to eye. And it stands out among Trump’s other relationships with European leaders, who have chided him over issues from values to intelligence leaks. “The friendship between our two nations and ourselves, I might add, is unbreakable,” Trump said in a joint press conference with Macron during his visit to Paris last July. It was a sentiment Macron seemed to share. “Nothing will ever separate us,” he said during the visit.
And the two leaders’ close coordination on controversial matters of war—even in the face of skepticism from their publics—brings to mind another storied trans-Atlantic relationship, that of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush, who were once dubbed “the odd couple.” Like Blair, Macron is known for his liberally minded youthful energy and his desire to transcend a left-right divide. The former premier’s spokesman, Alastair Campbell, noted the resemblance in January, dubbing Macron the “real heir to Tony Blair.” And Macron’s facilitation of Trump’s impulse to intervene against Assad—publicly blaming the Syrian regime for chemical attacks even as other allies hesitated to do so—also brings to mind how Blair helped Bush marshal international support for the Iraq war. A recent British government inquiry into the background of that war called the Blair-Bush relationship a “determining factor” in shaping it.
Macron-Trump is not quite the second coming of the Blair-Bush bromance. The Iraq War was a far larger undertaking, and remains that way, than anything the United States or its allies have done in Syria. “A night of limited cruise-missile strikes in Syria is an order of a magnitude different than committing tens of thousands of troops to an invasion, regime-change operation, and subsequent counter-insurgency,” Jacob Parakilas, the deputy head of the U.S. and Americas project at Chatham House, told me, adding. There’s also the matter of how Blair and Macron presented their relationships to the president in public. “I don’t think Blair ever claimed to have ‘convinced’ Bush to invade Iraq. He offered basically uncritical support throughout.”
But Blair did help make the case for the war in Iraq to Americans and others who might have been skeptical of the Bush administration's plans. And it was this role—and the subsequent chaos in post-Saddam Iraq—that made Blair, once of the U.K.’s most popular politicians, one of its most reviled. Given the limited nature of the most recent Syria action, it seems unlikely Macron will suffer the same fate. But he has been criticized by the far-right (represented by Marine Le Pen) and the far-left (represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon) in France, both of whom oppose military action in Syria. Moreover, Trump’s approval rating in France stands at just 14 percent—which points to the possibility that there may ultimately a domestic political cost to Macron of standing by Trump.
Perhaps a year ago, a relationship like this between Trump and any European ally looked unlikely. After all, the “America First” president had called into question his support for NATO, which he at one point determined to be “obsolete.” When Trump decided that the U.S. would strike Syria over its use chemical weapons in April 2017, he did so unilaterally. Macron had not yet won the French presidency. Even after Macron ascended to the Élysée in May 2017, his relationship to his American counterpart started out stiffly, with divergent policy goals and a series of awkward handshakes.
But somewhere between rebuking Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord and hosting him for a massive military parade on Bastille Day, Macron managed to charm the American president. And now, Macron isn’t just the world leader Trump has chosen to host for his first formal state visit as president next week—he’s also, admittedly by his own account, someone Trump turns to for advice in a crisis, which is not necessarily something an alliance-skeptical president would be expected to do.
It’s not as if Macron has much of a choice but to make nice to Trump, even if he doesn’t need to support any particular policy. The United States is the dominant global power. Trump's popularity in France (or for that matter in the U.S.) notwithstanding, he is still president of the United States. And as such, it is in Macron’s interests cultivate him if Macron wants to keep the ability to convince Trump how America should act in the world.