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The Strangely Dovish Donald Trump

Posted by hkarner - 8. Juli 2019

Date: 07-07-2019
Source: The Wall Street Journal

As he befriends Kim Jong Un and balks at striking Iran, an erratic president keeps everyone guessing?

Is President Donald Trump, deep down, a peacenik?

Even to ask the question a couple of years ago would have been to invite derision. In his first six months in office, much of the world thought that he was the very model of the trigger-crazy American gunslinger, tipping us all into nuclear armageddon. As the old Cold War joke in Europe used to go, the president was going to make up for the fact that America had been late for the first two world wars by being really early for the third.

Mr. Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea. He pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, warning darkly that the U.S. wouldn’t tolerate a nuclear-armed Tehran. He bombed Syria a few months after taking office. There were repeated rumors out of the White House for much of the past year that the U.S. was preparing to invade Venezuela. He declared trade wars on half the planet.

And now what? There is still a lot of bellicose twittery, but consider the substance.
Last week, Mr. Trump took further historic steps, literally, toward an utterly improbable detente with North Korea. Last month, he demurred when presented with a limited and justifiable retaliatory strike against Iran for shooting down a U.S. reconnaissance drone over the Gulf because, he said, he was concerned about disproportionate loss of life. While he continues to pursue a trade war with China, he seems, if anything, to be happier when—as at last week’s G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan—he is de-escalating tensions with Xi Jinping.

Critics say that Mr. Trump, for all his martial rhetoric, tends to become all squishy when he gets up close and personal with U.S. adversaries, while he thinks nothing of taking shots at unthreatening targets like Angela Merkel or the mayor of London.

Perhaps. It is early days, of course. The Middle East remains a powder keg. Hot spots flare up all the time.

Still, Mr. Trump has not only launched fewer military interventions than any of his recent predecessors at this stage of their presidencies but has repeatedly sought a reduction in America’s military presence in the greater Middle East.

Trump seems to listen more to the advice of the isolationist Tucker Carlson than to that of the hawkish John Bolton.

There are several ways to read this. First, Mr. Trump seems to be genuinely trying to tilt the U.S. security posture away from the ready projection of force that has been a defining feature of both Democratic and Republican presidencies since the end of the Cold War. Mr. Trump has repeatedly made clear that he wants nothing to do with either the neoconservative nation-building or the liberal interventionism that have dominated foreign-policy thinking for the past 30 years—under an initially hesitant Bill Clinton, an incautious George W. Bush and a reluctant but increasingly engaged Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump seems to listen these days more to the advice of the isolationist Tucker Carlson than to that of the hawkish John Bolton, his national security adviser. On this, he is surely closer to the wishes of the majority of the American people, who are tired of endless, fruitless foreign wars and wary of another quagmire.

Second, there is a “Nixon goes to China” quality at work. The president seems to have intuited that the more people think you are going to do one thing, the easier it is to do the opposite. North Korea is the perfect example. The critics have a point: So far, the Pyongyang gambit hasn’t yielded much from North Korea. But it is hard to argue that the peninsula isn’t safer now than it seemed a few years ago.

Democrats, understandably, complained this week that if President Obama had embraced Kim Jong Un, backed off a retaliatory military strike against Iran and gotten all cozy with the Chinese president—all in the space of two weeks—he would have been denounced as a traitor by Republicans. But life and politics don’t always reward consistency.

Third, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that—for good or ill, by design or otherwise—we are simply witnessing a radically unpredictable and even erratic presidency. American strategy these days may best be characterized as something of a random walk.

Traveling in Asia and Europe last month, I spoke to U.S. allies and strategic competitors alike about Trumpian foreign policy. They differed on many topics, but the one thing they all agreed on was that we really don’t know what the president is going to do next.

Constructive ambiguity or strategic confusion? Who knows? It just might be effective. But it does give us a new and quite literal take on that famous observation of a 19th-century French general: “It is magnificent, but it is not war: It is madness.”

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