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Adult supervision returns to U.S. foreign policy

Among those not celebrating on inauguration day in January was everyone who was anyone in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Democratic liberal internationalists and Republican hawks alike were distraught at the new U.S. President's isolationist posture in world affairs, and feared the disasters to come if Donald Trump became Russian President Vladimir Putin's useful idiot.

Seasoned foreign-policy types grew even more sombre on the news, a week later, that Mr. Trump had given his chief political strategist a seat on the National Security Council, the inner sanctum of U.S. foreign policy-making where presidents are supposed to get schooled in being leaders of the free world. That Stephen Bannon – an isolationist, economic nationalist with a hate-on for globalists – could be given a prominent voice in the NSC was taken as proof Mr. Trump did not see "upholding the liberal world order" as integral to his job description.

Fewer than 100 days later, thankfully, the adults in the Trump administration have taken over. Mr. Trump's first National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was turfed after the retired general was caught lying about his preinauguration flirtation with the Russians. Atop the NSC now sits Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, a widely respected army general known for speaking truth to power and a wide-eyed grasp of geopolitics. Lt.-Gen. McMaster has rid the NSC of Mr. Trump's political hacks, starting with the Rasputinesque Mr. Bannon and former Fox News commentator K.T. McFarland.

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Read more: Putin pushes Russia back into the centre of international attention

Not even Mr. Trump likely understands his true motivations for ordering last week's military strike on a Syrian airbase only 63 hours after the "animal," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, dropped sarin gas on innocent civilians. For a moment, Mr. "America First" sounded like a normal U.S. President confronted with the awesome responsibility of policing the world. "It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," he said the night of the attack, repudiating pretty much everything he had ever said about Syria, Mr. al-Assad or what constitutes the U.S national interest.

Regardless of whether Mr. Trump was moved by the horrifying footage of lifeless Syrian babies or the advice of his foreign-policy inner circle – or most likely both – the air strike demonstrated that even a 70-year-old man of neither much learning nor a natural inclination for it, can indeed learn. Thank God the man is not stubborn. Stubbornness led his predecessor, former president Barack Obama, to spurn the advice of almost everyone on his own foreign-policy team by reneging on his threat of military action against Mr. al-Assad after the so-called "Butcher of Damascus" used chemical weapons on his own people in 2014. Millions of Syrians have paid the price for that inaction ever since.

By the time the rubber hit the road last week, Mr. Bannon was roadkill. A widely circulated photograph showed the White House chief strategist among the Trump advisers assembled at Mar-a-Lago in Florida for a briefing on the attack – but that gathering occurred post-facto. The plan to drop 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian air base had already gone down by then, drawn up by Mr. Trump earlier that afternoon in a meeting with Lt.-Gen. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis.

This trio – along with chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, first appointed by Mr. Obama and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, the Republican ex-governor of South Carolina – constitute Mr. Trump's foreign policy A-Team. As Mr. Bannon and Mr. Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner wage a West Wing war of attrition between themselves, the adults get on with the real business of running the world. Their work is never done.

The signals on Syria coming out of the administration since last week's strike have been anything but clear. Mr. Trump insisted on Tuesday that "we're not going into Syria," but did not rule out further strikes on Mr. al-Assad's regime. Further U.S. action remains a known unknown.

Still, it's good to know that U.S. foreign-policy making is now back in adult hands; that Mr. Bannon has been sidelined; that the Secretary of State has the number of Mr. Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, instead of being played for a fool by both, as was John Kerry who, echoing his boss at the time, bragged that "we got 100 per cent of the chemical weapons out" of Syria.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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