It’s folly to assume that a president driven by personal vanity, impulse, neediness and the desire to please his isolationist, protectionist Fox News cheerleaders even has a foreign policy. Any Talmudic exercise trying to reconcile contradictions and tease out the meaning of intentional vague phrases in the NSS is frankly a waste of time, telling us nothing about how the president operates.
As The Post wrote on Trump’s speech rolling out the NSS: “Nothing he said was particularly surprising. The speech, like so many Trump addresses, hinged on a recitation of his triumphs, real and imagined. He appealed to his right-wing, nationalist base, growled about the need to strengthen borders and cast America as a protagonist ‘engaged in a new era of competition.'” The disconnect between reality and a pretty policy book did not go unnoticed:
“The bottom line is that the president is the policymaker equivalent of the Tasmanian Devil,” wrote Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security. “His advisers seriously deliberate on important options, only to have Trump enter and turn everything wildly upside down. The idea that in this environment an administration can put out a comprehensive national strategy that will have any impact whatsoever is pure fantasy.”
So what can we learn about Trump’s foreign policy? Better to put down the NSS and consider former director of national intelligence James B. Clapper’s admonition, provided in an interview with CNN:
JIM SCIUTTO: You heard the president’s speech today. He calls out Russia and China, describes them as rival powers, rival powers to the U.S., but also says he wants to build a great partnership with them and had all of these friendly stuff to say about his phone calls with Vladimir Putin this week. Is that a contradictory message?CLAPPER: Well, it is to me. I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president.SCIUTTO: You’re saying that Russia is handling President Trump as an asset?CLAPPER: That seems to be — that’s the appearance to me. So, you know, we’ve shared intelligence with the Russians for a long time. We’ve always done that. Although in my experience with them has been pretty much of a one-way street, where we provide them intelligence and we don’t get much back. And oddly enough, my first exposure to that was in the early ’90s when I served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and we were trying to engage the Russians on all places of North Korea, and didn’t get much back from them.So, I think what we did is the right thing, certainly when people’s lives are at risk that we do have a duty to warn. So the intelligence community, CIA did the right thing here and I thought in a rather theatric gesture of the phone call to thank President Trump for something that kind of goes on below the radar and is not all that visible.SCIUTTO: I just want to be clear here, you say Russia is treating the president of the United States as an asset?CLAPPER: Well, I’m saying this figuratively. I think, you have to remember Putin’s background. He’s a KGB officer. That’s what they do. They recruit assets. And I think some of that experience and instincts of Putin has come into play here in his managing of a pretty important account for him, if I could use that term, with our president.SCIUTTO: There’s been talk that not just Russia but other foreign leaders, the Chinese for instance, have a sense that your way to Donald Trump’s heart is through flattery, pomp and circumstance, we saw that even with the French president, greeting him with a military honors, but these compliments for instance about where the American economy is from the Russian president. Are you saying that — is that what you’re saying here?CLAPPER: Yes. I think clearly, I mean, he said that during the campaign.
Whatever the derivation of Trump’s Putin-love (financial dependence, fear of blackmail, delight in praise, envy of thuggish leaders), he might as well be a paid asset. Putin could not be getting much more than he is already (delayed implementation of sanctions, handing him Syria on a silver platter, exemption from human rights heckling, parroting Russian denials about election interference).
So if you want to know what the president is going to do, keep in mind three simple rules: First, he’ll do what Putin and other thuggish leaders will praise him for doing. Second, he’ll recite ludicrously overblown rhetoric, talking as he imagines tough leaders should talk (one part comic book lingo, one part Cold War communist bluster) without any concern for how his words will be perceived or whether he will be called upon to carry through on his blather. Third, he has no patience for long-term strategy (what to do about Iranian and Russian domination of Syria), diplomatic spadework (to reach agreement with allies on a joint approach to Iran) or nuance. (He might actually think he ended the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by “decertifying” it.) If that sounds terrifying, you’re paying attention to the right information, not to a glossy policy handbook that will gather dust on a mid-level aide’s bookshelf.
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