“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” Mr. Tillerson said as his plane stopped to refuel in Guam, the very island that North Korea threatened to target. He added, “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”
It is understandable that Tillerson wants to back away from the alarming rhetoric that the president used earlier this week, but this points to the key problem with the rhetoric and reminds us of the slapdash, dysfunctional way that this administration conducts its foreign policy. If Americans should “have no concerns about this particular rhetoric,” neither should North Korea, and so Trump’s threat was meaningless bluster that should never have been uttered in public. The U.S. shouldn’t make threats that it isn’t prepared to carry out, but threatening to attack North Korea is a deranged thing to do in any case, so there is no excuse for what Trump did. The trouble here isn’t just that Trump made an irresponsible and dangerous threat that he would have to be out of his mind to follow through on, but he still doesn’t grasp why he shouldn’t have done it:
For his part, Mr. Trump seemed pleased with the uproar caused by his remarks, and was in good spirits on Wednesday.
Unfortunately, Tillerson’s reassurances con’t carry as much weight when we know that the president didn’t coordinate this statement with anyone else, and none of his national security officials expected him to say anything like this. We have seen how Tillerson and Trump repeatedly contradict one another on various issues, so it is never clear when we should take Tillerson’s statements as a reliable guide to what U.S. policy is at any given moment.
When foreign governments already doubt Tillerson speaks for the president, it hardly helps when he has to minimize or dismiss the content of what the president says because the president’s statements are so irresponsible and inflammatory. Tillerson reinterpreted Trump’s obvious threat of attack to mean that “the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the U.S. unquestionable ability to defend itself . . . and its allies,” but in order to believe that you have to ignore everything Trump said, and that is what Tillerson is asking us to do.
This is part of a worrisome pattern with how U.S. foreign policy is run now: administration officials aren’t kept in the loop, the president doesn’t consult with them ahead of time, and he throws rhetorical bombs that then force them to clean up the mess that he creates. Maybe it will be a random insult directed at an ally, maybe it will be a reckless threat against an adversary, or maybe it will be an unnecessary intervention in a foreign crisis. None of these is desirable, but the bigger problem is that Trump is making it all up on his own off the cuff without any advance warning to the rest of the government or preparation for the likely consequences. That would be bad enough if Trump actually knew something about any of the things he is talking about, but his impulsiveness is matched only by his remarkable lack of understanding of the foreign policy issues in question.