It was about 4:30 p.m. on June 18 when a Syrian warplane first attacked rebels supported by the U.S., pushing them out of a town on the road to Raqqa, the Islamic State capital. Syria is aligned with Russia, and so a U.S. officer picked up a hotline and warned the Russian officer on the other end. When, about two hours later, a Syrian jet returned and bombed the same rebels, it was shot out of the sky by an American F/A-18 Super Hornet.
It was the first air-to-air kill by a U.S. pilot in 18 years, and it happened so quickly that no President could have been brought into the decisionmaking loop. But the striking thing about Donald Trump’s tenure as Commander in Chief is that he wants no part of it anyway. Both in Syria and Afghanistan–where thousands more U.S. troops are about to be deployed in what is already the longest war in American history–Trump says he’s leaving things up to “the generals.”
“The lieutenants, the captains, their majors, their colonels–they’re professionals,” Trump told TIME on May 11. “They love doing it. They know every inch of the territory, right? I say, Why am I telling them? So I authorized the generals to do the fighting.”
A great deal is going on in both of America’s wars. The Islamic State in June took Afghanistan’s Tora Bora from the Taliban, which nonetheless holds more territory than at any other time since the 2001 U.S. invasion.
In Syria the locus of fighting has shifted deep into the desert as Russia and Iran–sponsors of Syrian President Bashar Assad–confront the U.S.-led coalition in a war zone of extraordinary complexity. In June, U.S. warplanes struck militias and drones operated by Iran, which seeks a land bridge from Tehran to Damascus. Russia says it’s hanging up the hotline and will target any coalition aircraft west of the Euphrates.
After five months in office, Trump has still not articulated a strategy for the conflicts. That’s a greater cause for concern than how he chooses to delegate to a military for which he remains ultimately responsible, says Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who served on the National Security Council of President George W. Bush. Trump has left it to Defense Secretary James Mattis to decide whether to add up to 5,000 troops to the 8,800 already in Afghanistan. “They haven’t figured out what their strategy is going to be, so there’s a cart-before-the-horse aspect,” says Feaver.
President Obama personally culled the kill list for drone strikes and monitored troop levels down to the single digits. Trump’s relative distance could be evidence of executive function, distraction–there’s that special counsel investigation–or lack of interest. “Delegation can work when he knows what he’s delegating,” says former Obama NSC official Loren DeJonge Schulman. “Trump hasn’t told us much, except he trusts the military. He hasn’t quite finished the sentence: To do what?”
It would help if there were experts in place. For all the attention to White House staffing, strategies actually flow from interagency consultations. But 1,100 senior positions remain vacant across the Executive Branch, and the State Department is operating with a skeleton staff.
Meanwhile, in the absence of declared intent, events open themselves to interpretation. Civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes have spiked in Syria and Iraq. Does the responsibility rest with Trump, who on the campaign trail vowed to “bomb the sh-t out of ISIS”? Or should critics look to “Mad Dog” Mattis, whose 2004 assault on Fallujah was marred by the civilian death count?
The world is a complex place, not least because of some 800 U.S. bases dotted around it. It’s impossible for one person to keep track of it all. (The U.S. Africa Command alone has almost 100 special operations going on on any given day.) But someone does have to make sense of it. In April the Air Force dropped its first-ever MOAB, an 11-ton munition, onto an ISIS tunnel complex. The commanders who ordered it intended it to be a purely tactical strike. Yet it was widely viewed as strategic–a message to North Korea, which Trump had been railing against when he learned the “mother of all bombs” had been dropped.
“I don’t know if this sends a message,” Trump said afterward. “It doesn’t make any difference if it does or not.”
This appears in the July 03, 2017 issue of TIME.