U.S. President Donald Trump has been harshly criticized for his foreign policy, or, as many believe, the absence of one. His "America First" has led to the withdrawal from key treaties and agreements as well from "endless wars" and a certain downgrading of and even contempt for allies. The recent decision to abandon the Kurds in Syria provoked tidal waves of bipartisan condemnation.
But let's be fair. Not since George H.W. Bush has America had a president who understood or had sufficient knowledge of foreign policy to be judged competent. Senior advisers are meant to provide the expertise that elected officials lack. Yet that only works if presidents heed that advice. There is no evidence that Trump listens to anyone. And when presidents do listen, catastrophes such as the 2003 Iraq invasion can result.
One principal reason why both Democratic and Republic administrations get foreign policy wrong is an endemic flaw in thinking. Consistent lack of sufficient knowledge and understanding of those to whom foreign policy is directed leads to several wrong assumptions and flaws in that thinking.
First, too common is the assumption that everyone tends to think the way Americans do or should. Second is the corollary that America's perception of rationality has universal application to all or most actors. Third, while Americans try to avoid mirror imaging and transposing our values and interests onto others, we fail more than we succeed.
While "war" does not encompass all foreign policy, it is a metric of success or failure. No matter the competence of our military, America's recent record in war has been dismal. The only kinetic war in nine decades we won was the most important: World War II. Korea was at best a draw.
We lost in Vietnam. Grenada, the 78-day bombing of Kosovo, Panama and even Desert Storm, which was a spectacular tactical victory, were campaigns. Afghanistan and Iraq have been outright and very costly failures that have made the region less safe, stable and secure.
Fortunately, the Cold War was won bloodlessly. While we never fully understood the Soviet Union, allies, a powerful economy and a bipartisan commitment to deterring and defending against Moscow and the Warsaw Pact outlasted that adversary, which disintegrated in 1991.
Unfortunately, these foundations for success have been eroded. And knowledge and understanding of foreign policy ingredients have reached a nadir under this president.
Disregard for NATO, withdrawals from Afghanistan and now Syria question American long-term commitment and staying power (although Trump has sent more troops to Saudi Arabia). At some stage, China's economy will eclipse America's. And American politics have become so partisan, bitter and divided, nothing stops any more at the water's edge.
Trump's removal of 1,000 or so American troops from Syria is not a zero-sum success for Vladimir Putin and Russia; Bashar al-Assad and Syria; Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey; the ayatollahs and Iran; and of course the Islamic State, nor a complete and stunning defeat for us, no matter how badly handled. However, that is not how this withdrawal will be viewed here and abroad. And the situation in Syria is far more complex with many downsides for all the major powers engaged not the least of which will be further genocides committed against the Kurds.
While Trump's Syria order has been incompetent at best, had there been a real decision-making process in the White House, the United States could have engineered a withdrawal over time that could have protected the Kurds; limited Assad's, Russia's and Iran's influence; and not catalyzed a near universal reaction over American betrayal and rejection of the U.S. commitment to friends and allies.
This president operates on instinct. His personality is infected with narcissism, insecurity and refusal to listen to advice. However, in this case, the absence of presidential knowledge and understanding was the primary cause of this damaging decision.
Given that past administrations often failed to exercise sufficient knowledge and understanding in foreign policy, the question is whether that history will continue or the idiosyncratic behavior of this presidency is unique. My guess is that this history will repeat.
If this American characteristic does not change and future presidents do not correct or avoid this flaw in foreign policy thinking, then we should heed the caustic advice of President John F. Kennedy. JFK tartly observed, "The only thing worse than being an enemy of the United States was being a friend or ally."
Still, pursuit of knowledge and understanding must be the goal. Yet, will we do that? If not, future Vietnams, Iraqs and Syrias may be unavoidable.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.