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Why Trump’s Bellicose Rhetoric Matters

We know that Trump is impulsive, has terrible judgment, and doesn't think through the consequences of his decisions, so we can't assume that his threats are just so much hot air.
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Andrew Bacevich has stopped taking Trump’s statements seriously:

The bottom line is that Trump has changed the atmospherics of policy, very much for the worse. As for substantive change, it has been much less consequential than the hysterical press commentary would suggest.

I take Prof. Bacevich’s point, and I agree with much of what he says in this piece. It is tempting to discount everything that Trump says as vacuous ranting, but when it comes to threats of military action we cannot afford to assume that he is always bluffing. The alarming thing about Trump’s unhinged, all-caps threat against Iran last week was that it was such an irrational overreaction to generic Iranian warnings to our government not to attack them. Only someone looking to pick a fight would have reacted so angrily over nothing. One of the common reactions to Trump’s threat was to laugh it off as a diversion from his other problems, but launching a diversionary war would be extremely effective in changing the subject.

When Trump was threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea, his National Security Advisor at that time was very seriously arguing in favor of preventive war. It was appropriate to take that rhetoric seriously, and it was because it was taken seriously in Seoul that the South Korean government worked so hard to defuse the standoff. McMaster is gone now, replaced by the even more fanatical Bolton, but Trump’s inclination to listen to such horrible advice has not changed.

It is often asserted without proof that Trump is averse to military intervention, but his record in office shows no such aversion. He reportedly latched onto the idea of invading Venezuela for a while until the concerted opposition of everyone else in the administration and the governments of the region dissuaded him from pursuing that course of action. Trump escalated the war on ISIS and the war in Afghanistan, and he increased U.S. support for the war on Yemen. He has twice ordered illegal attacks on the Syrian government. His current National Security Advisor has repeatedly called for attacking Iran, and his Secretary of State has argued for the same thing in the past. The president is surrounded by hard-line advisers and he is being encouraged by reckless regional clients to be more aggressive against Iran, and his administration has for all intents and purposes made regime change the goal of their policy. We know that Trump is impulsive, has terrible judgment, and doesn’t think through the consequences of his decisions, so we can’t assume that his threats are just so much hot air. It is not a stretch to imagine that a generally hawkish president already obsessed with and hostile to Iran would follow through on his bellicose rhetoric one day.