President Trump is questioning his administration’s aggressive strategy in Venezuela following the failure of a U.S.-backed effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro, complaining he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman with a young opposition figure, according to administration officials and White House advisers.
The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around national security adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.
It’s odd that Trump doesn’t understand why his own policy is so aggressive; he and his vice president have issued numerous blustery pronouncements and threats. Perhaps Bolton’s mistake was in taking Trump’s commitment to the opposition too seriously. Alternatively, Trump may have been duped by an overly optimistic national security adviser who had no plan B if Maduro didn’t give up.
Then there are then the trade negotiations with China. What seemed like a narrowing of differences now appears to be a potential collapse of talks, with Trump threatening that higher tariffs will be imposed Friday. The Wall Street Journal reports, “The new hard line taken by China in trade talks—surprising the White House and threatening to derail negotiations—came after Beijing interpreted recent statements and actions by President Trump as a sign the U.S. was ready to make concessions, said people familiar with the thinking of the Chinese side.” Apparently Trump’s weakness or apparent weakness — the sort of negotiating behavior he’d scorned in “The Art of the Deal,” a fictional account of his career — has brought us to the brink of an even more dangerous trade war.
As with Venezuela, Trump would like to blame others (even Democrats, somehow), but his own attempts to flatter Chinese President Xi Jinping and his attacks on the head of the Federal Reserve seem responsible for China’s about-face:
Trump’s hectoring of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to cut interest rates was seen in Beijing as evidence that the president thought the U.S. economy was more fragile than he claimed.
Beijing was further encouraged by Trump’s frequent claim of friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and by Trump’s praise for Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for pledging to buy more U.S. soybeans.
That brings us to North Korea, which after two ill-advised summits has resumed missile testing and failed to demonstrate it is serious about denuclearization, no matter how many times Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tries to spin the results.
Some common themes characterize these and other foreign policy flubs.
First, Trump imagines all foreign leaders are narcissistic patsies like he is. He tries to flatter those immune to flattery. He ignores egregious human rights behavior in North Korea and China for fear of poisoning a personal relationship that exists only in his head. Strongmen, as a result, see him as gullible and weak.
That leads to Trump’s second major failing: He gives too much away for free without any demand for reciprocity, thereby emboldening opponents. He gives Kim Jong Un passive PR wins. He lets China’s ZTE off the hook and slow-walks sanctions against China. He gives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman a free pass on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, with no promise of any changed behavior domestically or in Yemen.
Third, Trump and his advisers set unrealistic goals, reinforce them with exaggerated rhetoric and then lack a backup plan. Whether it is Venezuela or Iran, he envisions regime change but lacks a viable road to achieving such a dramatic result. As a result, friends and foes no longer take him seriously.
Fourth, he mistakes gestures for policy. Pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a.k.a. the Iran deal, doesn’t make us safer. Pulling out of the Paris accord doesn’t create an alternative plan for fighting climate change. Agreeing to move our embassy to Jerusalem doesn’t bring us an inch closer to a deal, even an intermediary one, between Israel and the Palestinians. The administration and Trump in particular never seem to be prepared to answer the logical question “And then what?” In fact, these are moves for domestic policy consumption and without an overarching strategy to achieve desired results. In addition, they fray relationships with allies who are essential to our long-term interests.
Finally, under two secretaries, the State Department has been hollowed out and left with absent or “acting” officials, in addition to facing massive proposed budget cuts, which Congress has fortunately rejected. A demoralized, disrespected State Department bleeding away officials with decades of experience is no way to beef up American influence and stature.
In sum, Trump has gotten by in life with lies, bluster and secrecy (e.g., keeping his tax returns under wraps). He hires flunkies, not experts in their field who might challenge his views. The results aren’t pretty. Moreover, unlike his financial foul-ups, Trump’s foreign policy mistakes will have real, long-term consequences for American security and prosperity.