At his rally yesterday, President Trump regaled his supporters with the comical image of young Pete Buttigieg trying to conduct foreign policy. “We have a young man, Buttigieg,” Trump mocked, “He’s got a great chance, doesn’t he? He’ll be great, representing us against President Xi of China — that’ll be great. I want to be in that room, I want to watch that one.”
To the president and his supporters, it is self-evident that effective foreign policy conduct is a function of what Trump often calls “central casting,” or a stereotypical set of superficial traits. Trump is a hefty old white man who talks tough and therefore can be trusted on the world stage.
Somewhat paradoxically, though, Trump is not a war hawk. His deepest belief is that he can leverage threatening and sometimes wild rhetoric into bringing adversaries to the bargaining table. During the campaign, Trump promised, “we will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.” But he is proving over and over he cannot attempt to execute, let alone accomplish, his own ideas. Trump quite literally does not know what he is doing on foreign policy.
The Washington Post has an amazing account of the president’s growing dissatisfaction with his own policy on Venezuela. Trump’s position, driven by National Security Adviser John Bolton, revolved around loudly promoting regime change and attacking the left-wing authoritarian Maduro regime. The strategy conveniently dovetailed with the administration’s domestic message of attacking socialism, which it absurdly links to the Democratic party agenda.
The trouble, as the Post reports, is that it isn’t working and Trump distrusts his own advisers. Trump actually admires dictators, especially ones who are willing to shed a lot of blood in order to maintain power. “Trump has said that Maduro is a ‘tough cookie’ and that aides should not have led him to believe that the Venezuelan leader could be ousted last week,” the Post reports. Trump also discussed Venezuela with Vladimir Putin during their long celebratory post-Mueller phone call. Putin, of course, has decidedly un-Bolton-like views on the Venezuela question. And Trump probably trusts Putin more than Bolton — an instinct that in this particular case probably leads to a better policy outcome.
The dark comedy of Trump’s current predicament is thrown into starker relief if we recall the process that led to Bolton’s appointment. Trump initially hesitated to appoint Bolton “in part because of his negative reaction to Mr. Bolton’s walrus-style mustache.” But then the president “was ultimately drawn to Bolton, in part because he was impressed by his many appearances on Fox News.” Central casting giveth, and central casting taketh away.
What about the enormous ideological gap between Trump’s promise to avoid regime change, and Bolton’s manic obsession with toppling regimes all over the planet? The president smoothed it over by getting Bolton to promise he would not start any wars.
Now it turns out that the advisers who love starting wars are in fact trying to start wars. “The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around [Bolton] and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires,” the Post reports, “Trump has said in recent days that Bolton wants to get him ‘into a war’ — a comment that he has made in jest in the past but that now betrays his more serious concerns.”
Somehow, securing a Bolton promise not to start wars did not actually eliminate his deep-seated ideological impulses. Who could have guessed?
Trump also made a comment at his rally about Iran that suggests a similar failure to understand what his own policy actually is. The Obama administration’s nuclear policy deal was based on the premise that preventing a nuclear weapon would take priority over all the other issues dividing the two countries. The U.S. would get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but in return would de-emphasize its conflict in other areas.
Republican Middle East hawks opposed the deal because they didn’t want to make Iran’s nuclear ambitions the entire focus. They want to keep the pressure on all the other bad things Iran was doing.
Getting Trump to cancel the Iran nuclear deal was child’s play. The president automatically believes he could improve on any deal made by anyone in general, and that anything Obama did in particular was bad. Trump was reportedly influenced by images played on loop on Fox News of pallets of cash being delivered to Tehran as part of Obama’s very weak deal.
But when Trump announced his position, the speech he read very clearly endorsed the neoconservative line on Iran. His administration did not want to simply stop Iran’s nuclear program. It wanted to confront a wide range of Iranian behavior. “Our policy is based on a clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world,” he read, “The nuclear deal threw Iran’s dictatorship a political and economic lifeline, providing urgently needed relief from the intense domestic pressure the sanctions had created. It also gave the regime an immediate financial boost and over $100 billion dollars its government could use to fund terrorism.” Trump promised his policy would “counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region” and “place additional sanctions on the regime to block their financing of terror.”
This may not be the smartest policy toward Iran, but it is a policy toward Iran. It is not clear, however, that Trump understands this is the policy he endorsed. At his rally last night, he said he wanted to sit down with the regime. “We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons,” he said, “that’s all we want.”
What he’s describing is not his administration’s stance. It is the Obama administration’s stance. His own administration’s policy has been driven by Bolton, who again is provoking a military conflict that Trump probably does not want to happen. The president, again, seems genuinely confused about what his own policy actually is or why it is heading in a direction he does not seem to support. All he knows is that the idea of having foreign policy run by a president who doesn’t look like Trump would be ridiculous.