The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s tough talk can’t hide the incoherence of his foreign policy

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On Monday, President Trump delivered what his administration billed as a landmark address on national security, outlining once more the tenets of his “America First” doctrine. 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.”

“We are declaring America is in the game and America is going to win,” Trump said, offering up a vintage bromide. He included many of his greatest (and tangentially foreign-policy-related) hits: references to his “principled realism,” how the “forgotten man” in America was no longer forgotten, the dangers of supposedly unchecked immigration, and the wondrous success of the stock market since Trump came to power.

Noah Rothman, a conservative commentator, described the address as “a slightly downbeat stump speech from the 2016 campaign trail.”

The speech also came on the same day the White House released its National Security Strategy, a lengthy document that is meant to serve, as my colleague Anne Gearan put it, as “a kind of mission statement that guides policymaking” throughout the federal government. It has been a feature of American governance since President Ronald Reagan issued the first NSS in 1987, though Trump officials unsurprisingly claim that this is the fastest any administration has put out such a document.

For all his bravura and tub-thumping patriotism, the dissonance between Trump's words and his administration's now-stated policy was impossible to ignore. Rothman argued that the written document displayed “a relatively conventional Republican approach to foreign affairs,” a phrase that describes neither Trump's remarks — both on Monday and in general — nor the experience of the past year, which has been marked by erratic presidential behavior and mixed messaging.

The confusion may be understandable in one sense: On Monday evening, a White House official admitted that it was unlikely Trump had read the entirety of the 70-page strategy document.

Everyone from analysts to lawmakers, generals and foreign governments now has to pick through a number of contradictions, which include (but are certainly not limited to) the following issues:

• The NSS named both China and Russia as countries that “are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” But Trump, in his speech, was conspicuously silent on Russian interference in the U.S. election, and he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for thanking him over the weekend after Russia successfully foiled a terrorist attack using intelligence provided by the CIA.

President Trump spoke Dec. 18 on what his administration has done and what he plans to do to protect national security. Here are key moments from his speech. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/The Washington Post)

The situation is “illustrative of what a good case officer” Putin is, said former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. to CNN. “He knows how to handle an asset, and that's what he is doing with the president.”

• The NSS harps on “American values” — a theme dear to Trump, who champions a much different vision of American identity and culture than his predecessors. “There can be no moral equivalency between nations that uphold the rule of law, empower women, and respect individual rights and those that brutalize and suppress their people,” declared the NSS. “Through our words and deeds, America demonstrates a positive alternative to political and religious despotism.”

Of course, much of Trump's politicking in 2017 has seen the White House cozy up to political despots and tone down the nation's traditional messaging on democracy and human rights.

• The new strategy declares that the United States “must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment.” Meanwhile, Trump is seeking drastic cuts to the State Department, the agency driving U.S. diplomacy, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has endured a difficult year in office that might be followed by his exit next month.

• When discussing the threat of Islamist extremism, the NSS document largely eschews the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in favor of “jihadist terror.” That's a term both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama frequently used — for which they earned Trump's angry derision throughout the election campaign in 2016.

There are other signs that no one quite knows who is driving U.S. foreign policy or setting the official line. During his speech, for instance, Trump patted himself on the back for extricating the United States from the Paris climate accord — effectively making his country an international pariah — and refusing to certify Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal forged with the United States and other world powers. But the latest defense authorization bill, signed just last week by Trump, identified climate change as a “direct threat to the national security of the United States.” And as European leaders seek to keep the deal with Iran intact, Congress called Trump's bluff last week and chose not to snap sanctions back on Tehran — passing the buck back to the president.

“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.”

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