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The deep confusion of Trump’s foreign policy

In foreign policy, all the president wants to do is win the news cycle.

President Trump and his wife, Melania, greet three freed American prisoners after their arrival from North Korea at Joint Base Andrews on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Donald Trump had an interesting foreign policy week, with lots of action on North Korea and Iran and China. Not all of it was disastrous: North Korea returned three Americans held hostage there as a goodwill gesture before the June 12 summit in Singapore. Hooray!

New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested recently that this success should humble those of us who think about foreign policy for a living: “There is growing reason to believe that Donald Trump understands the thug mind a whole lot better than the people who attended our prestigious Foreign Service academies.”

I teach at one of those prestigious academies, so it is worth asking: Has the foreign policy community underestimated Trump’s ability to run foreign policy relying on only his gut instincts? As an amateur in the world of foreign policy, does he possess strengths that experts do not?

Credit where it’s due: President Trump might possess a few bargaining advantages compared to old foreign policy hands. His complete lack of shame and awkwardness can give him an advantage in one-on-one negotiations.

His most obvious advantage as a confident foreign policy neophyte, however, is not sweating about the worst-case outcome. There are times when foreign policy analysis resembles a hospital’s morbidity and mortality presentations. There are long, involved discussions about what exactly went wrong. Those of us who think long and hard about world politics are keenly aware of the worst-case scenarios. It can breed an understandable risk aversion.

Trump is unburdened by awareness of failure, or really any knowledge at all about world politics. THis has let him do things like ignore expert advice and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and have the rest of us discover that this did not light the region on fire. This was one of many non-disastrous outcomes that has only bolstered the president’s confidence.

But after this weekend, it seems at times like the Trump administration is just as confused as its allies and adversaries. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton made the Sunday talk show rounds, and their messages were not entirely consistent. As nonproliferation expert Kingston Reif noted on Twitter Sunday, Pompeo gave three different, not-entirely-consistent objectives of the Trump-Kim summit. My Post colleagues Carol Morello and Anne Gearan report, Pompeo also hinted at what the United States could offer in return:

The United States is assuring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that his ouster is not part of the agenda for the summit next month between Kim and President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday. …
Pompeo also said that if the summit leads to successful negotiations, the outcome will bring private investment in North Korea. He said it will include helping North Korea expand its energy grid and develop agriculture so it can grow enough food for its people.
“Those are the kinds of things that, if we get what it is the president has demanded — the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea — that the American people will offer in spades,” he said.

What is weird about this is that the Trump administration’s downplaying of regime change in North Korea is the moving in the exact opposite direction of the administration’s Iran policy. As the New York Times’ Mark Landler noted, “the Iran debate lays bare a deeper split on Mr. Trump’s team — between those, like [Secretary of Defense James] Mattis, who want to change the behavior of hostile governments and those, like Mr. Bolton, who want to change the governments themselves.”

Call me an out-of-touch professor at a prestigious international affairs school, but I do not understand why the Trump team is prepared to make an offer to North Korea that looks so similar to the one that his administration abrogated with Iran. Why abandon regime change in Pyongyang but consider reverting back to such an approach in Tehran?

One wonders whether the Trump administration’s foreign policy has less to do with shrewd instincts and everything to do with oppositional thinking. If prior administrations supported negotiations with Iran, then deals with Iran must be wrong, even if there is no Plan B. If prior administrations abstained from summits with North Korea’s leader, then that’s the way to go.

It’s not just that the president’s impulsiveness seems ill-suited for this kind of diplomacy; it’s that this White House lacks the bandwidth to handle all the myriad crises this president has triggered. As Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports:

Multiple officials from foreign governments who deal with the White House have all made the same observation to me recently: this administration is stretched too thin.

Why this matters: There is barely enough top flight talent confirmed across the government to manage the basic day-to-day, let alone the dizzying array of foreign policy battlefronts Trump has opened up — especially when it comes to trade.

Trump has taken on over half a dozen epic fights at the same time, all with overlapping interests and problems….

“Even if you just look at the trade component of this, it is overload in terms of the amount of work that needs to be done, the stakes of things, and the complexity of these negotiations,” said one source close to the White House who has discussed the overcapacity problem with senior officials there.

Maybe this will all work out in the short term, but foreign policy is not only about short-term outcomes. The long run matters as well. But this president does not think in those terms. All he wants to do is win this news cycle.

It is possible to win every news cycle and lose in foreign policy. One only learns that by being an old foreign policy hand. This is the exact thing Trump is not.