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Trump’s Foreign Policy Incoherence

The administration is reliably belligerent, but otherwise it is unreliable.

Jon Finer faults Trump for his foreign policy incoherence:

What is different is that right now not only is there no discernible doctrine guiding President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the United States currently has no real foreign policy at all. By that I mean not that the policies are objectionable, or that the Trump team is struggling with the learning curve each new administration faces at the outset, as it reviews its predecessors’ approach and settles on its own. Rather, I mean that we are experiencing an unprecedented degree of policy incoherence on virtually every major issue the country faces.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Paul Wasserman make a similar complaint in an op-ed this morning, and urge Trump to provide “a bold statement of his vision, including his determination to provide America’s leadership in the effort to shape a more stable world.” I don’t deny that Trump’s foreign policy is unusually incoherent even for a novice, and I don’t fault these people for wishing that it were not so, but there is no reason to think that this is going to change in the years to come. For one thing, articulating a coherent foreign policy vision of the sort that Brzezinski and Wasserman want seems to hold no interest for Trump or his closest advisers. They are asking for something more than a bumper sticker-level of thought from an undisciplined president who doesn’t understand these issues very well, and they simply won’t ever get it.

For one thing, Trump claims to prize being unpredictable, and he bluffs his way out of tough questions by saying that he doesn’t want to let our adversaries know what the U.S. is going to do. He seems to think this is a clever use of ambiguity, but it is not. As we are seeing, it creates needless confusion and misunderstanding. That requires his VP and Cabinet officials to spend their time putting out fires that he started for no apparent reason. Mattis and Pence feel compelled to “reassure” allies that have been put off by Trump’s rhetoric, and Mattis tells the Iraqis that the U.S. is not, in fact, going to seize their oil despite Trump’s frequent references to doing just that. Trump’s dismissive remarks about a two-state solution prompt an affirmation of the same from his U.N. ambassador. Trump blundered into questioning support for the “one China” policy before conceding that he still supports it. All of this is made worse by administration dysfunction and the lack of coordination with Cabinet members. Any one of these episodes might be unimportant on its own, but together they form a pattern in which the president says whatever happens to come into his head and the administration is stuck either defending or walking back the random thing that he said. So we don’t need Trump to give a new foreign policy speech, since that would probably just muddy the waters even more.

Trump’s incoherence on foreign policy was one of the few things we could be sure to expect from his administration. His positions have ranged from one extreme to the other. He has expressed support for forcible regime change in the past, and then as a candidate he expressed his supposed hostility to the very concept of regime change. He claims to want to “get along” with Russia, but he mocks the “reset” and criticizes New START in the same terms as a typical Russia hawk. On some issues, he can stake out opposing, irreconcilable positions in the course of the same interview or even the same paragraph. The only reliable constants have been Trump’s conviction that the U.S. is always and everywhere being ripped off in bad deals, an abiding hostility toward Muslims here and abroad, and an almost cartoonish enthusiasm for Israel. On everything else, he tends to follow the lead of his advisers, who are hard-liners on the issues they care most about. Insofar as his advisers have a more coherent view of the world than he does, it tends to be one that exaggerates foreign threats and commits the U.S. to more aggressive policies almost everywhere. In practice, that means that the administration is reliably belligerent but otherwise unreliable, which is a truly awful combination.



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