Foreign leaders and local interlocutors, a.k.a. pundits, might as well take a vacation for the next few minutes until President Trump’s next foreign policy “strategy” surfaces from deep within his amygdala.
For to presume a strategy when Trump toys with potentially lethal nations — threatening to tear apart the nuclear agreement with Iran or putting North Korea on notice that doom may befall it any moment — is to imagine that a toddler has given grave consideration to the gravitational aspects of toppling his brother’s Lego edifice.
Theories, nevertheless, abound as the world wonders, no doubt with fear and loathing, what the president of the United States is going to say or do next. It does seem at times that Trump won’t be satisfied unless and until he has managed to prompt a nuclear confrontation with some nation — or two.
One theory goes that by talking tough, Trump is alerting the world that the United States is no longer the weak sister, if I may use an old expression, it had become under President Barack Obama. The world will tremble at the thought of engaging the United States except to please her, goes such thinking.
Let me clarify: Trump is rattling his borrowed saber because that’s what he does. The bully in chief no longer has to file lawsuits to try to evict widows from their homes for monetary gain. Now he has a military — the world’s most powerful, to be precise — and can decide over chocolate cake to fire missiles at Syria.
Another extant theory concerns the contradictions within his administration. While U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley talks tough on Russia, Trump protects his benign bromance with President Vladimir Putin. This surely has nothing to do with a recent Reuters report that a Russian government think tank came up with a plan to influence the 2016 election.
One at least finds solace in Trump’s recent conclusion that NATO does, in fact, matter. But what happened to the candidate who criticized opponent Hillary Clinton for being too hawkish, and who said we can’t fight two wars at once? How about World War III?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, pounds Iran with one fist, saying it’s not complying with the nuclear agreement fashioned by his predecessor, John F. Kerry. With the other, he pens a letter to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) saying that Iran is in full compliance. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, rather than quaking, tweeted Friday: “We’ll see if US prepared to live up to letter of #JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] let alone spirit. So far, it has defied both. Should I use my highlighter again?”
This isn’t to make light of the Iran agreement, about which Trump may be right. It was a lousy deal. But it apparently was the only one possible in July 2015 after months of negotiations among Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — plus Germany and the European Union. What, pray tell, does Trump think will happen if the United States unilaterally shreds the deal?
So, at last count, Trump had North Korea threatening a “super-mighty pre-emptive strike,” Russia sending equipment to the North Korean border and China making military preparations just in case. Meanwhile, Iran, which exerts power in nearly every pit of Barbary, chuckles.
Good cop, bad cop may be useful in reducing a prisoner to confession, but the contradictory messages emanating from Washington serve mostly to confuse — and not in a good way. Trump, by conveying to allies and non-allies that he’s likely to do anything at any moment, is telegraphing not strength but instability and impulsivity. The overarching sense is that no one is in charge, or at least no one not wearing a water-squirting boutonniere.
To countless Americans, it feels as though Trump is making the world a less safe place, explaining in part Gallup’s recent report that at nearly 100 days, Trump has the lowest approval rating of any president since the poll began in 1953. Rather than a master strategist, he’s a human grab bag of tactics wandering erratically everywhere in search of someone or something to conquer. The notion that he has a plan that he is just not sharing would be edifying if evidence to the contrary weren’t so convincing.
For now, it seems equally likely that Trump discovered his foreign policy strategy in a Chinese fortune cookie left behind at Mar-a-Lago by a visitor. The amygdala would have signaled Trump’s head to nod in agreement upon reading the message: “Soon you will be emperor of the world.”