Watching the clown show that has been President Trump’s foreign policy lately, you wonder whether there’s any coherent logic embedded in his erratic, internally conflicting statements about Iran, North Korea and other issues. And of course, there is:
It’s the politics, stupid.
Trump is already in full campaign mode. In his quest for reelection, he doesn’t want to be seen to fail in anything. He wants to sound tough (popular) so long as it doesn’t get him into a war (unpopular).
Trump is polishing his résumé, claiming success for North Korea diplomatic negotiations that have gone nowhere. If that means contradicting national security adviser John Bolton and pretending that Pyongyang’s recent ballistic tests didn’t violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, fine, no problem. Just don’t call it a failure.
“My people think it could have been a violation,” Trump said Monday. “I view it differently.” As for Chairman Kim Jong Un, Trump is treating him almost as a campaign surrogate. “He knows that with nuclear [weapons] . . . only bad can happen. He understands. He is a very smart man. He gets it.”
Trump may hope to wheedle one more summit meeting with Kim in this election season, so he can get another of those glossy photo opportunities with the flags and bunting. And maybe this time, a marching band!
The Trump political calculus is especially obvious with Iran. He blew up the Iran nuclear agreement last year on specious grounds and then declared what amounted to economic war against Tehran, with genuinely crippling sanctions. Iran mobilized its forces, the Pentagon countered with its own mobilization, and suddenly the Iran showdown looked as though it might be heading for war.
But hold on! Middle East wars are unpopular. Voters might get upset. So Trump quickly dialed back the implications of his own policy. “We’re not looking for regime change,” Trump said Monday. “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.” (Hey, wait a minute: Wasn’t that the successful achievement of the 2015 agreement that Trump trashed?)
Trump now seems convinced he’s found those elusive Iranian moderates, folks who are just itching to negotiate with the United States. “I do believe that Iran would like to talk, and if they’d like to talk, we’ll talk also,” Trump said Monday. “Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me.”
Message to the president: Don’t count on any photo ops with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And you need to sort out the awkward problem of having labeled as “terrorists” the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the leaders of which may be the only people who could actually make a deal about curbing Iranian regional meddling. But it’s politics. Anything’s possible.
Obviously, it’s good that Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran, and it’s probably good he doesn’t share Bolton’s enthusiasm for regime change. What makes your head spin is the way Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relentlessly attack President Barack Obama’s approach (which, to recall, was tough economic sanctions, followed by negotiations) and then seek to emulate it.
Pompeo appointed a talented team of special envoys for Syria, North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, and they’ve done careful groundwork. What must those emissaries think as Trump’s foreign policy bounces from tweet to tweet?
“Everything is now seen in terms of the 2020 election,” says one prominent Republican. The theme, he argues, is: “Don’t rock the boat. . . . Calm it down. . . . War is a loser.”
Trump enters the 2020 cycle as the incumbent, but with a strange chip on his shoulder. He’s seeking next year the popular mandate he thinks was stolen from him by the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to tilt the outcome in his favor. One Republican says he has heard that Trump ruminates about revenge: “Our policies are resisted at home and abroad. But when we are reelected, they know they have to deal with us.”
Trump loves the WWE version of professional wrestling, promoted by his pal Vince McMahon. Everyone knows these bouts are fake, but fans love the scripted spectacle of Good Guy vs. Bad Guy, even though it’s phony.
Trump’s approach to governing may be more WWE than GOP. It’s a daily carnival, where rules and referees are irrelevant.
A recent visitor to Beijing described how Chinese leaders are viewing the antics of this most unpredictable president. “In meetings, the Chinese were calm and confident,” this former U.S. senior official said. Their attitude was: “If you Americans want a trade war, fine.”
Why are the Chinese seemingly so unperturbed? Perhaps because they know that every day Trump is president, the United States’ power and prestige are diminished. Maybe they should jump aboard the 2020 bandwagon, too.