If the past week has made anything clear, it is that President Trump is a bad strategist. Consider three issues bedeviling his administration: Iran, health care and North Korea.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts covered Iran last week, but to sum up: Trump continues to insist that the United States would be better off walking away from the Iran deal even though his Cabinet disagrees. If he does go ahead and abrogate the Iran deal, he will get no support from the P5+1 and undercut the United States’ ability to conduct financial statecraft. So that’s bad. There are real reasons to be concerned about Iran’s influence in the region. The problem is, there’s no evidence that Trump knows what to do to counter Iran.
On health care, the Senate’s inability to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was pretty significant. Trump did not do much to help on that front besides have his interior secretary threaten Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). After the failed vote, Trump has done little but browbeat GOP senators via Twitter. And his budget director told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that it is official White House policy that the Senate should not vote on anything else until it passes a health-care bill. Given that Congress needs to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling, that’s a really boneheaded strategy.
Finally, North Korea continues to launch missiles at a faster rate than Netflix introduces new programming. Each time North Korea has done this, the Trump administration has said very loudly that it will not say anything else on the subject … and then Trump tweets something. This week, the president has done little beyond symbolic military moves to respond. Oh, wait, I forgot about the tweets:
I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017
…they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017
Iran, health care and North Korea are all policy conundrums, with hard trade-offs and difficult choices to make. What is fascinating, however, is that in all three areas the Trump administration’s strategy seems to be little more than bluster and self-defeating gambits.
What the heck is going on? It’s time for some game theory!
No, really, its’s time for some actual game theory. The first rudimentary lesson in game theory is the notion of backward induction:
Backward induction is the process of reasoning backward in time, from the end of a problem or situation, to determine a sequence of optimal actions. It proceeds by first considering the last time a decision might be made and choosing what to do in any situation at that time. Using this information, one can then determine what to do at the second-to-last time of decision. This process continues backward until one has determined the best action for every possible situation.
To do backward induction properly, a strategic actor needs to be aware of the preferences and payoffs of all the other actors in the game. And what is striking about Trump’s approach to governing is how he does not seem to consider what anyone else wants or values. Trump is convinced that the other members of the P5+1 prefer ending the Iran deal when they in fact do not. He is convinced that Republican members of Congress prefer any other outcome to the Obamacare status quo (to be fair to Trump, GOP members of Congress did leave that impression from 2010 to 2016). And on North Korea, Trump is convinced that Chinese preferences are similar to U.S. preferences, which is not true at all.
Indeed, the Trump team’s thinking on foreign policy strategy is so blinkered that they do not just believe problems like Iran or North Korea can be fixed, but fixed pretty quickly:
The "Administration wants to do North Korea & Iran in Year 1, to go into 2018 with national security capital" 2/x
— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) July 30, 2017
It would seem that Trump’s strategic choices — maybe “impulses” is the better word — are suboptimal at best and disastrous at worse. So many of his choices boomerang badly.
Trump has chosen some semi-capable Cabinet officials and staffers. One of them is starting as his chief of staff today. Surely they will help him make better decisions, yes?
I fear they will not. As Vox’s Dara Lind points out, the president has such a fragile ego that his staff will not provide him with the critical feedback he needs:
The most powerful man in the free world is simply unwilling to hear bad news.
This is one of the biggest reasons the information he gets from staff is so limited — reports indicate that to keep him in a good mood, staffers deliberately pad packets of press clips with positive coverage. But even dissent that manages to get through to him might go unheard or rejected — it could even ruin his mood and cloud his decision-making for the rest of the day.
That defeats the whole purpose of telling the president bad news in confidence. It makes leaking the obvious choice.
I would go even further than Lind. Even if Trump receives critical feedback from his new chief of staff, it is far from obvious that he will listen. Press reports suggest that his advisers disagreed with him on Iran, but he is plowing ahead anyway. Indeed, the very fact that he is president makes him predisposed not to listen to others on strategy or tactics. Consider how many polls, pundits, and “experts” thought his election chances were doomed — and yet he won. Consider how many economists predicted financial catastrophe if he became president — and yet markets have soared. Consider how many obituaries were written about the House’s health-care bill when it was yanked on the first try — and yet it eventually passed.
Trump has repeatedly defied expert predictions, which enables him to ignore his advisers when they tell him that something cannot be done. Indeed, from reading “The Devil’s Bargain,” I know that one way to goad Trump into doing something is to tell him that it cannot be done.
There have been enough examples for Trump to continue to think he can defy the odds. He came very close on the Senate health-care bill as well. This only fuels his conviction that he can browbeat friends and rivals into submission.
To Trump’s supporters, this kind of conviction is a feature, not a bug. One American Greatness blogger looked at the past week of political fiascoes for Trump and… celebrated:
Trump is slaying sacred cows and, in the words of American Greatness Senior Editor Julie Ponzi, he is killing the gods of the city and no one knows what to do. The only thing anybody knows is that the things we are seeing have never been done before and Donald Trump is refusing to follow any of the proper conventions (if he even knows what they are . . . tsk tsk)….
Think of the glory of it all. This is the fight we have been waiting for. This is the turmoil we need.
The president is making common sense policy decisions that don’t need the backing of long reports authored by “experts” (backing that he wouldn’t have received, by the way). It is almost as if he thinks the people should rule, not supposed expertise. Kind of neat, huh? This will undoubtedly result in pushback from bureaucrats and “experts,” and timid culture warriors who apparently enjoy self-emasculation or have realized (incorrectly) that they have more to gain from maintaining the status quo.
I would suggest that: a) the people do not seem as fond of Trump as the this writer thinks; b) celebrating “disruption” is the last refuge of the political charlatan; and c) this all sounds great right up to the moment when it turns out the expert is right and the president’s “common sense” is grounded in self-aggrandizing delusion rather than reality.
The most important thing is that this is not how game theory works. Like, at all.