Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Trump is Wile E. Coyote

March 8, 2018 at 8:11 PM

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)


“Beep beep” was the subject line of an email message I received a few weeks ago from former CIA analyst Robert Carlin, as Kim Jong Un was accelerating his diplomatic charm offensive. “So typical,” wrote Carlin in his brief text. “The North Koreans as Road Runner, the U.S. as Wile E. Coyote.”

Carlin makes a point that applies to many foreign policy problems around the world. When it comes to global diplomacy, America under President Trump has become something of a hapless cartoon villain, detonating bombs on itself and running into walls — while our nimbler adversaries dart away in a blur of dust.

“Heavy-handed” is one word for Trump’s foreign policy. “Unsuccessful” is another. His strategy, if you can call it that, has been to disrupt America’s traditional economic and security relationships and commitments. He must imagine that this gives him new leverage, but mostly the result has been a series of self-inflicted wounds.

Trade is the most obvious example of Trump’s clumsiness. While our economic competitors in China move to seize the commanding heights of technology, in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and robotics, Trump is trying to protect jobs in steel, coal and other industries that have been in decline for nearly 50 years. He seems determined to transform the United States into a lagging indicator, rather than a leading one.

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Trade tariffs will hurt more American workers than they will help, say Post opinion writers Molly Roberts, Megan McArdle, Ruth Marcus and Charles Lane on the weekly Opinions roundtable, "It's Only Thursday." (The Washington Post)

In the Korea drama, a slow-footed America will soon be paired with the diplomatic speedster. Certainly, Thursday night’s announcement of Trump-Kim direct talks is promising, and perhaps evidence that the president’s braggadocio and belligerence have produced results. But what I see is a North Korea that has become a nuclear-weapons state and now, from a position of strength, wants negotiations with America.

Trump thinks Kim is “sincere” in his offer to discuss denuclearization, but few colleagues share that hope. We’ll probably be chasing Kim around a negotiating table for a while, which is better than “duck and cover.” But as Carlin says, “Beep beep.”

Trump’s most untidy mess is the Middle East. He proclaims his willingness to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal. But strangely, he’s leaving the heavy lifting to European allies, which are drafting tougher provisions on Iranian ballistic missiles, on inspections of Iranian military sites and on the “sunset” of the agreement. Oh yes, they’re also lobbying Congress to support these moves.

A tougher agreement would be better, certainly, but to achieve it, Trump seems willing to risk having no agreement, which would be much worse. Here, as in other areas, he engages in the diplomatic version of “magical thinking,” imagining that by wishing something to be true, he can make it so.

Trump’s Syria policy is so puzzling that some senior officials don’t even try to explain it. U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces control about one-third of the country, but they’ve become so mistrustful of America’s commitment that they’re walking away from the final, cleanup phase of the war against the Islamic State. U.S. Special Operations forces are risking their lives on the ground, while their commanders wait for policy guidance.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Trump probably botched his hopes of the “ultimate deal” by breaking long- ­standing U.S. policy and ordering a quick transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. This dissuaded Palestinians from joining his peace process and, perhaps more important, it made it impossible for Trump’s new best friends in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to openly support negotiations when Jerusalem was off the table.

Trump rightly values his close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But rather than counseling MBS to choose his reform battles carefully, so that he will succeed, the White House lets him fight, Trump-style, on every front. That’s unwise.

Jan. 19, 2019 | President Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House before departing for Dover Air Force Base to see the return of the remains of the four Americans who were killed in Syria. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Jan. 19, 2019 | Trump salutes as a U.S. Navy team at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware moves the remains of Scott A. Wirtz. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Jan. 19, 2019 | Trump delivers remarks on the crisis on the Southern border and the partial government shutdown from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Jan. 14, 2019 | President Trump speaks to Coach Dabo Swinney, left, as he welcomes Clemson, the college football national champion, to the White House. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Jan. 14, 2019 | Trump talks to the media about the table full of fast food in the State Dining Room of the White House for the Clemson reception. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Jan. 14, 2019 | President Trump stops to talk to reporters as he departs from the South Lawn at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Jan. 11, 2019 | President Trump holds up a photo of a “typical standard wall design” as he speaks during a roundtable discussion on border security and community safety in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Jan. 10, 2019 | Trump, right, salutes a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter, with agents aboard, as it flies over the Rio Grande during his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border near Mission, Tex. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Jan. 9, 2019 | Trump holds a signing ceremony for anti-human-trafficking legislation in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Jan. 9, 2019 | Trump, left, with Vice President Pence, speak to journalists before going into the Senate policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on the 19th day of the partial government shutdown. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Jan. 8, 2019 | President Trump speaks on television from the Oval Office during a national address on border security on the 18th day of the partial government shutdown. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Jan. 4, 2019 | Trump, with Vice President Pence, second from left; Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen; House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), second from right; and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), speaks in the White House Rose Garden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Jan. 3, 2019 | Reporters are reflected on an exit sign in the White House press briefing room as Trump, with members of the National Border Patrol Council, talks about border security on the 13th day of the partial government shutdown. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Jan, 2, 2019 | Trump leads a meeting of his Cabinet with a poster featuring himself spread out on the conference table at the White House. At left is David Bernhardt, acting interior secretary, and Patrick Shanahan, acting defense secretary. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Dec. 27, 2018 | Trump greets members of the military during a stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Dec. 26, 2018 | Trump speaks at a hanger rally at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Dec. 25, 2018 | Trump makes a video call to service members from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard on Christmas. (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg News/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Dec. 24, 2018 | Trump and first lady Melania Trump speak on the phone with children as they track Santa Claus with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) on Christmas Eve in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)
Dec. 21, 2018 | Trump, with Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), by his side, participates in a signing ceremony for the First Step Act and the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in the Oval Office at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 20, 2018 | Trump arrives to speak during a signing ceremony for the farm bill in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 18, 2018 | Trump, center, watches as a mother shows a photo of her slain son at a White House roundtable on a report from the Federal Commission on School Safety. Trump is flanked by Andrew Pollack, the father of a shooting victim of the Parkland, Fla., massacre; and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 18, 2018 | Trump signs the “supporting our veterans during their transition from uniformed service to civilian life"executive order in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 15, 2018 | Trump pauses in the rain among holiday wreaths on graves at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. during Wreaths Across America Day. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Dec. 13, 2018 | Trump, second from right, participates in a meeting with governors-elect in the Cabinet Room at White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 12, 2018 | Trump shakes hands with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) during a signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House for an executive order establishing the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 11, 2018 | Trump, center right, debates with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), left, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), right, as Vice President Pence listens during their meeting in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 11, 2018 | Trump participates in a signing ceremony for H.R. 390, the “Iraq and Syria genocide relief and accountability act of 2018” in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 8, 2018 | Trump tosses the coin before the Army-Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Dec. 6, 2018 | Trump and the first lady greet visitors during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 5, 2018 | Trump and first lady Melania Trump, along with the Obamas, Clintons and Carters, attend the funeral for former president George H.W. Bush at Washington National Cathedral. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Dec. 3, 2018 | The president and the first lady view Bush’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Dec. 1, 2018 | Trump meets with China’s president, Xi Jinping, at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Nov. 30, 2018 | From left, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sign the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement before the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. (Martin Mejia/AP)
Nov. 30, 2018 | World leaders gather for a group photo at the start of the G-20 summit at the Costa Salguero Center in Buenos Aires. (Ricardo Mazalan/AP)
Nov. 30, 2018 | Trump and first lady Melania Trump, center left, and White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, right, are welcomed by Argentina's president, Mauricio Macri, left, and his wife, Juliana Awada, upon arriving at the Colon Theater for a gala in Buenos Aires. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Nov. 29, 2018 | Trump stops to talk with reporters about his former personal attorney Michael Cohen as he walks to Marine One on the White House South Lawn to depart for the G-20 summit in Argentina. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Nov. 27, 2018 | Trump speaks during an interview with Washington Post reporters in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Nov. 26, 2018 | During a rally in Biloxi, Miss., Trump encourages voters to support Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) in a runoff race against Democrat Mike Espy. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Nov. 22, 2018 | Trump talks with troops via teleconference from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Nov. 22, 2018 | Trump is presented with a challenge coin as he meets with members of the U.S. Coast Guard stationed at United States Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet in Riviera Beach, Fla., (Susan Walsh/AP)
Nov. 22, 2018 | Trump and first lady Melania Trump sit with their family as they have Thanksgiving Day dinner at their Mar-a-Lago estate. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Nov. 20, 2018 | Trump pardons the turkey named Peas in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Nov. 19, 2018 | Trump and first lady Melania Trump view the arrival of the White House Christmas tree. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Nov. 17, 2018 | Trump, center, tours the charred wreckage of the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park in Paradise, Calif., with Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, left, FEMA head William “Brock” Long, third from right, Gov. Jerry Brown and Mayor Jody Jones, right. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Nov. 13, 2018 | Trump, left, participates in the Diwali ceremonial lighting of the Diya at the White House. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Nov. 11, 2018 | Trump visits the American Cemetery of Suresnes, outside Paris, as part of Veterans Day and the marking the 100th anniversary of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice ending World War I. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Nov. 10, 2018 | Trump shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Trump is joining other world leaders at centennial commemorations in Paris to mark the end of World War I. (Christophe Petit Tesson/AP)
Nov. 4, 2018 | Trump arrives for a campaign rally at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Nov. 4, 2018 | Trump arrives to attend a campaign rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Nov. 2, 2018 | Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally at Huntington Tri-State Airport in Huntington, W.Va. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Nov. 1, 2018 | Trump discusses at the White House illegal immigration and asylum in the context of a migrant caravan headed toward the southern border. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Oct. 31, 2018 | Ivanka Trump, right, and White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow, center, listen as the president speaks during the “Our Pledge to America’s Workers” event in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Oct. 30, 2018 | Trump and first lady Melania Trump place stones and flowers on a memorial as they pay their respects to the shooting victims at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Oct. 27, 2018 | Trump speaks at the National FFA Organization convention in Indianapolis. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Oct. 27, 2018 | Trump arrives for a rally at Southern Illinois Airport in Murphysboro, Ill. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Oct. 26, 2018 | Trump greets supporters after speaking during the 2018 Young Black Leadership Summit in the East Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Oct. 24, 2018 | Trump and the first lady arrive in the East Room of the White House to speak on the opioid crisis. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Oct. 15, 2018 | Trump and first lady Melania Trump tour damage from Hurricane Michael with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), right, in Lynn Haven, Fla. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Oct. 13, 2018 | American pastor Andrew Brunson kneels while praying with Trump in the Oval Office. Brunson returned to the United States after he was freed from nearly two years of detention in Turkey. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Oct. 11, 2018 | Trump meets with rapper Kanye West in the Oval Office. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Oct. 10, 2018 | Trump signs the Know the Lowest Price Act and the Patient Right to Know Drug Prices Act in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Oct. 9, 2018 | Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, shakes hands with Trump in the Oval Office after she announced she will step down at the end of the year. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Sept. 25, 2018 | Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Richard Drew/AP)
Sept. 19, 2018 | Trump, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), left, and volunteers hand out food for storm victims at Temple Baptist Church in New Bern, N.C. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Sept. 11, 2018 | The Trumps look at the site of a new memorial in Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Sept. 5, 2018 | Trump shakes hands with Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, emir of Kuwait, in the Oval Office. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Sept. 5, 2018 | Trump pauses to listen to a question from a reporter regarding the New York Times’ anonymous op-ed after a meeting with sheriffs from across the country in the East Room of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Aug 24, 2018 | Trump visits with children at a hospital in Columbus, Ohio. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Aug. 22, 2018 | Trump presents Valerie Nessel, widow of Air Force Technical Sgt. John Chapman, with the posthumous Medal of Honor for her husband during a ceremony at the White House. Chapman died in Afghanistan in March 2002 at the battle of Takur Ghar. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Aug. 21, 2018 | Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Aug. 20, 2018 | Trump greets Border Patrol agent Adrian Anzaldua during an event in the East Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Aug. 11, 2018 | Trump stands with members of Bikers for Trump and other supporters after saying the Pledge of Allegiance outside the clubhouse of Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
July 16, 2018 | Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
July 13, 2018 | Trump and Queen Elizabeth II inspect the Guard of Honor at Windsor Castle in England. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
July 11, 2018 | Front, from left: Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas attend the opening ceremony of the NATO summit. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
July 9, 2018 | Trump stands with Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh and his family during a ceremony to announce Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
June 22, 2018 | Trump listens to victims’ families speak during an immigration event with “angel families” at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
June 19, 2018 | Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcome King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
June 9, 2018 | German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, French President Emmanuel Macron, third from left, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center right, and other world leaders speak with Trump during the second day of the G-7 summit. (Jesco Denze/German government/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
May 30, 2018 | Trump starts a race for children at the White House sports and fitness day event on the South Lawn. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
May 24, 2018 | Trump signs a pardon for Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
May 15, 2018 | Trump waves as he arrives with Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, at the 37th annual National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service at the Capitol. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
May 10, 2018 | Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, Americans who had been detained in North Korea for more than a year, walk with Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
May 2, 2018 | Trump pats Mike Pompeo on the arm after he was sworn in as the new secretary of state as Pompeo’s son Nick, left, and wife, Susan, look on during a ceremony at the State Department. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
May 1, 2018 | Trump thanks Capt. Tammie Jo Shults as he welcomes crew members and passengers of Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 that landed in Philadelphia after an engine exploded at 30,000 feet. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
April 23, 2018 | Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, along with first lady Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron, plant a tree on the South Lawn of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
April 2, 2018 | Trump, with first lady Melania Trump and the Easter Bunny by his side, speaks during the 2018 White House Easter Egg Roll. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
March 14, 2018 | Trump talks to reporters during a tour of fighter aircraft at the Boeing factory in St. Louis. (Evan Vucci/AP)
March 13, 2018 | Trump speaks in front of a wall prototype as Rodney Scott, a Border Patrol sector chief, listens. (Evan Vucci/AP)
March 12, 2018 | The Houston Astros’ Josh Reddick presents Trump with a jersey during a ceremony honoring the World Series champions at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Feb. 21, 2018 | Samuel Zeif, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, left, weeps after recounting his story of the shooting incident at his high school as other students, teachers and Trump listens. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Feb. 16, 2018 | Trump accompanied by first lady Melania Trump and Igor Nichiporenko, waves to reporters while visiting with medical staff at Broward Health North in Pompano Beach, Fla., following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Jan. 23, 2018 | Trump signs trade actions in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: A look at the president’s visits, speeches and meetings with dignitaries.

Meanwhile, as Trump’s bond with Gulf monarchies deepens, America’s traditional alliances with Europe are fraying. At a conference here sponsored by the German Marshall Fund (of which I’m a trustee), Bruce Stokes presented a Pew Research Center survey showing that transatlantic leaders believe U.S. relations with Europe are even worse than they feared a year ago — with 60 percent seeing discord on economic issues, 84 percent on diplomacy and 66 percent on security.

As for Russia and China, the United States’ two great power rivals, what strategy has Trump adopted? With Moscow, he has mostly sat on his hands; with Beijing, he’s been the biggest cheerleader for “president for life” Xi Jinping. He accompanies these weak policies with his usual tough talk.

Like Wile E. Coyote, Trump doesn’t seem to understand why the dynamite stick keeps blowing up in his hand.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more here:

David Ignatius: America ignores Russia at its peril

Eugene Robinson: What happens when you replace the president with a clown?

Max Boot: After the State of the Union, Trump’s foreign policy is still a mystery

Eugene Robinson: Mr. Trump: They’re laughing at you, not with you

Jennifer Rubin: A year of Trump foreign policy: More is broken than the State Department

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column.

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