After reported chemical attack in Syria, Trump's 'loose cannon' instincts are his best asset

Nobody really knows where President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff urges GOP colleagues to share private concerns about Trump publicly US-China trade talks draw criticism for lack of women in pictures Overnight Defense: Trump to leave 200 troops in Syria | Trump, Kim plan one-on-one meeting | Pentagon asks DHS to justify moving funds for border wall MORE’s foreign policy will go next. This is more an observation than a judgment. It’s not clear that Trump has, or even wants, a formal doctrine. Previous presidents, either through planned statements or in reaction to major world events, formed a set of organizing principles for international affairs meant to guide America’s course abroad.

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Trump takes a decidedly different approach. He appears more influenced by his gut reactions than by expert opinion, and ultimately places his instincts over consensus. Unpredictability in foreign policy comes with risks, but it can also be an asset. On a number of major challenges abroad, President Trump has chosen to disrupt the conventional wisdom, and so far — as with the planned North Korea summit — there is reason for optimism.

But Trump is also being forced to reckon with some of the same intractable foreign policy problems that bedeviled the Obama administration before him. At the top of that list are two national security challenges — Syria and Russia — that of late are on a deeply negative trajectory. Trump’s unorthodox approach to foreign affairs will be thoroughly tested in both arenas.

This weekend, the Assad regime was accused of gassing dozens of civilians, including women and children, in a rebel-held suburb to the east of Damascus. Trump called this horrific attack “mindless,” on Twitter, and referred to Assad as an “animal.” Even more ominously, the commander-in-chief wrote that there would be a “big price to pay” for the attack.

The tweet could be bluster, or a harbinger of cruise missiles to come. It certainly leaves open the possibility that Trump will consider a strike against the Assad regime again. This would be the second time that Trump enforced the red line against chemical weapons that President Obama ignominiously abandoned.

More likely, Trump will avoid a major military response to Assad’s latest alleged war crime. There will be official statements of condemnation, but that will have to suffice. Blowing up some Syrian regime airfields didn’t have a lasting effect the last time, and it would be too risky to try for a bigger response with a different outcome this time. Any U.S. military action targeting the Assad regime is a serious escalation, one that could have unforeseen consequences and put U.S. troops at risk.

Adding to the complexity is that Trump has publicly stated his preference for a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Syria. If the United States pulls its military assets out of Syria entirely, Assad’s forces (with Iranian and Russian help) will undoubtedly gain more territory and control. Clearly, the president doesn’t want to get stuck in a no-win situation, and understands that the risks of further deterioration. His desire to hold Assad accountable is at odds with his understanding that we cannot ask our soldiers to rebuild yet another Middle Eastern country.

The reported Syrian chemical weapons attack has also brought Trump’s Russia policy into a new phase. The president specifically cited Putin as responsible for backing the “animal Assad” on Twitter. Up to this point, the media has relentlessly criticized Trump for refusing to publicly call out the Russian president. As the conspiracy goes, Trump’s reticence to attack Putin is indicative of some relationship between the two based on either collusion or coercion. Now that narrative is flimsier than ever, as Trump blasted Putin for complicity in the reported gassing of children.

More importantly, Trump’s statement about Putin comes after a series of aggressive actions have already been taken to punish Russia’s behavior. The White House just put more sanctions on Russian oligarchs earlier this month, including some with very close ties to the Kremlin. Trump has also sent weaponry to Ukraine for use against the Russia-backed separatists there. These are concrete steps that show Trump is taking Russian provocations seriously across the board.

Whether Trump is able to make meaningful, lasting headway with Syria or Russia remains to be seen. In general, however, the Trump foreign policy has been much more successful at this stage than his critics would have ever imagined. Allies are reassured, enemies have been put on notice. Whether it’s trade with China, airstrikes against ISIS or caustic tweets directed at Kim Jong UN, Trump is running a foreign policy that relies — above all else — on the President’s own sense of what is best for America. And recent events show that this is a president who is as unpredictable to rogue states as he is to a pathologically hostile press at home.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: Trump pushes to speed up 5G rollout | Judge hits Roger Stone with full gag order | Google ends forced arbitration | Advertisers leave YouTube after report on pedophile ring 4 ways Hillary looms over the 2020 race Hillary Clinton met with Biden, Klobuchar to talk 2020: report MORE, in the final hours of her ill-fated 2016 campaign, referred to Trump as a "loose cannon". This was meant as an insult, and was supposed to contrast Clinton’s polished, professional style with Trump’s shoot from the hip approach. When it comes to how President Trump approaches the rest of the word, however, Mrs. Clinton may have been on to something.

Nobody knows where a loose cannon will fire next — but it can’t be ignored, and if it manages to score a direct hit, the consequences can be catastrophic for the enemy.

If that’s not the “Trump doctrine,” it’s certainly a fair description of how the Putins and Assads of the world view him. And that’s a good thing.

Buck Sexton is a political commentator, national security analyst and host of "The Buck Sexton Show.” He is a former CIA officer in the Counterterrorism Center, appears frequently on Fox News Channel and CNN and has been a guest radio show host for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Follow Buck on Twitter @BuckSexton.