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 theater: 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 that 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 hodgepodge 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.”
Last week Japanese Prime Mininster Shinzo Abe visited Iran. There’s reason to think he was acting as a back channel for Trump, carrying a message about the need to renew negotiations. But Abe’s mission was undercut by hard-liners on both sides of the conflict. Just days before Abe left, Bolton announced that the United States was ramping up sanctions against Iran. This insured that whatever message Abe carried would be rejected. This breakdown of Trump’s attempted back channel is the backdrop to the subsequent and still murky affair with the United States government accusing Iran of attacking a Japanese tanker.
As McGurk elaborated on Twitter, “Trump has made clear he does not want a military confrontation and hopes to drawdown from the Middle East. On Iran, this means a policy that appears to be executed without the full buy-in from the president or at least his personal consideration of downside risks. On multiple fronts now, the national security team is pursuing maximalist policy aims backed by a minimalist president.”
Imagine how the Trump administration’s antics look in Tehran: On the one hand Bolton is threatening the destruction of the regime, and on the other hand Trump is trying to play footsy under the table. Such behavior is likely to provoke skittishness, paranoia, and lashing out, all of which would, of course, feed into the argument of American hawks pushing for a preemptive attack.
Another source of incoherence is that Trump’s underlings have no compunction in carrying out policies that are completely at odds with the president’s stated preferences. On Saturday, The New York Times reported that the American government was ramping up its cyber-war capabilities against Russia by developing malware targeting Russia’s power grid.
According to the newspaper, Trump had not been informed of key details about the plan: “Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction—and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.”
Trump responded angrily to the report, tweeting out that the Times was guilty of “treason” and also that the story was “Fake News.” This whole sorry saga only serves to reinforce the view, likely held not just in Moscow but all over the world, that American foreign policy is a shambolic mess.
Trump is too disengaged and ill-informed to counteract the hawkishness of Pompeo/Bolton. Nor are there powerful countervailing forces in his administration that could thwart the hawks. Since James Mattis resigned in December, the United States has had no secretary of defense. On Tuesday, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan withdrew from consideration, citing a desire to avoid publicizing stories of domestic abuse involving family members. There is no one now in the Pentagon who can act as a brake to the ultra-aggressive agenda Bolton and Pompeo are pushing.
It’s difficult to overstate the dangers of the current moment. Bolton and Pompeo are antagonizing all of America’s rivals—and even some of its allies. Trump is so ignorant about how diplomacy works that he thinks he can tamp down these provocations through personal diplomacy. But the hawks have repeatedly displayed cunning in undermining Trump’s back channels and diplomatic initiatives.
The proper constitutional solution, of course, is congressional oversight. But both major parties are reluctant to challenge the Trump administration on foreign policy. The Republicans are too complicit and the Democrats too feckless. The obsessive focus among Trump critics on either his alleged isolationism or his supposed subservience to Putin has prevented the development of a more realistic oppositional analysis, one that focuses on the dangers of mixed messages. Perhaps members of both parties prefer Bolton and Pompeo to run wild rather than risked being labeled Trump-style neo-isolationists. It’s entirely possible that the United States could stumble into one or more wars through a reckless administration and a weak-kneed political elite.