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Trump Administration Incoherence Could Lead to War

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Among members of the nation security elite, it’s become de rigueur to bemoan Donald Trump’s “neo-isolationism” and its alleged threat to the liberal international order. That line finds its popular counterpoint among Resistance liberals, who echo Hillary Clinton’s famous complaint that Trump is Putin’s “puppet.” It’s hard to reconcile either accusation with the fact that Trump’s national security team is overwhelmingly staffed with hawks like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, eager militarists who cannot in any way be called isolationists. Under their direction, America has become the bully-boy of the world stage, trying to badger and humiliate all potential rivals, including Russia. The isolationist label doesn’t describe any actual policy, although it does have some relevance to political theatre: Trump keeps saying he opposes the “endless wars” he inherited and seems very eager to chum up foreign leaders, even going so far as to effuse about how he and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un “fell in love.”

In truth, the real key to Trump’s foreign policy is neither neo-isolationism nor subservience to Vladimir Putin but rather belligerent incoherence. As befits the man who styles himself the master of The Art of the Deal, Trump has an excessive faith in his own ability to glad-hand his way through thorny disputes with other power players. But Pompeo and Bolton have their own agenda, which boils down to shoring up American global hegemony by maximum aggression. The combination of Trump’s desire to be a wheeler dealer on the world stage and the Pompeo/Bolton penchant for throwing America’s weight around has produced a foreign policy that is singularly confused, with a constant sending of mixed signals which could easily provoke conflict.

If Trump headed a normal administration, one could imagine a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic. Certainly, that is the game Dwight Eisenhower played, letting his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles scare the world with talk of massive retaliation while Ike pursued arms control. Eisenhower’s vice-president took the hint: Richard Nixon developed his own good-cop/bad-cop routine, spreading rumors that he was a bomb-happy madman so that foreign adversaries were eager to talk to the seemingly more reasonable Henry Kissinger.

But if Trump hoped to use  Bolton and Pompeo as pit bulls to scare other nations to the negotiation table, he quickly discovered that he doesn’t seem to have any way of controlling these wild animals. With his own tendency towards reckless rhetoric and painfully evident lack of policy knowledge, Trump lacks the skill to convincingly present himself as the reasonable alternative to anything.

Does it even make sense to look for a devious design underwriting Trump’s foreign policy? Isn’t it more likely that the chaos we see on the surface is all there is? That in fact Trump is no mastermind, but a man of inchoate and barely articulate impulses?

Instead he’s ended up with a foreign policy that is a hodge-podge of conflicting goals that are constantly undercutting each other. This incoherent foreign policy keeps sending mixed messages to the world, which greatly increase the risk of accidental war. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a rival power, confronted by the contrast between Trump’s eagerness to talk and Bolton/Pompeo’s bluster, decides to test American resolve, leading to escalation and armed conflict.

In fact, such a scenario seems to be unfolding right now. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Brett H. McGurk, a former diplomat under George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump who currently teaches at Stanford, laid out the radical confusion of America’s Iran policy where “the administration cannot seem to agree on an objective.” As McGurk notes, while Pompeo keeps piling up unreasonable demands on Iran and Bolton darkly hints at regime change, Trump “has repeatedly asked Iran to call him directly and reportedly passed through the Swiss a private White House phone number.”

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