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Trump to Focus on North Korea, China, and Iran at G20

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Trump campaigned on the notion that he would be an inscrutable commander in chief who would keep enemies off balance. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said in a foreign policy speech during the 2016 campaign.

Certainly he’s bellicose. In a Tuesday morning tweet, he threatened Iran with “obliteration.” Yet he’s largely drawn from a predictable set of tools to deter and punish adversaries: economic—not military—warfare.When Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week, Trump said he would not “stand for it.”  But after preparing a military strike against Iranian targets, he abruptly pulled back. Instead, he levied yet another round of sanctions on Iran, targeting the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Are the sanctions working?  Since withdrawing from the nuclear deal last year, Trump has imposed round after round of sanctions on Iran—including one meant to drive oil exports, the lifeblood of Iran’s economy, to zero. There’s little evidence that the sanctions have cowed Iran’s leadership. Iran’s behavior, if anything, has grown  more belligerent on Trump’s watch– and further sanctions could squeeze the country to the point where it feels compelled to escalate tensions even further, experts said. After Trump signed an executive order approving the latest round of sanctions, Iranian officials said they would not agree to negotiations with the U.S.

“There’s a pattern where his (Trump’s) rhetoric is far tougher than his actions, where he’s much more willing to threaten the use of force than to actually use it,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official under President George W. Bush, told me. “Sanctions and tariffs have become the instruments of this administration. We see very little in the way of diplomacy and very little in the way of military force. In almost every situation, we see economic instruments.”

Underpinning Trump’s foreign policy is a vow that, when threatened, the U.S. won’t bluff.  He ridiculed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for letting the Syrian regime mount a chemical attack in 2013 with impunity, even though Obama once called the use of such weapons an unacceptable “red line.”

“Our friends and enemies must know that if I draw a line in the sand, I will enforce that line in the sand, believe me,” Trump said in the same 2016 foreign policy speech. Trump has drawn plenty of red lines in the past few weeks, only to erase and re-position them when it suits him. Talking to reporters last week about the downed drone, he suggested that his red line for a military counter-attack would be American casualties. Had the aircraft been manned, he said, “It would have made a big difference, let me tell you.”

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