Trump's Iran threats part of a troubling — and ineffective — foreign policy pattern

More than two years into his presidency, Trump has made a lot of tough speeches but scored no significant wins on foreign policy. Here's why.
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President Donald Trump pauses while speaking at the Cameron LNG Export Facility on May 14, 2019, in Hackberry, Louisiana.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images
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By Frida Ghitis

President Donald Trump is a busy man, but he found time on Sunday to threaten Iran, tweeting, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” It was an aggressive if somewhat baffling missive from the president, who appears at times disturbingly unconcerned by the prospect of another very complicated, very expensive and very bloody conflict overseas, only to turn around and claim he does not want a war.

In recent weeks, Trump has escalated tensions between the United States and its adversaries on a number of fronts, from Venezuela to Iran to China. Regardless of which one of Trump’s advisers gets the credit or the blame, the president is the one responsible for America’s relationships with both its allies and its adversaries.

While Trump’s recent actions are concerning, they also are part of a distinct foreign policy pattern that has emerged over the past two years: tough talk with no plan if and when the rhetoric fails.

To be sure, the conflicts Trump’s White House are facing are not imaginary. China does cheat on trade; Venezuela has suffered under an abhorrent regime; Iran’s regime is murderous and destabilizing; North Korea’s nuclear program is a menace. Trump is right in trying to address all of these problems. And Americans — and indeed, the world — should hope he can find a peaceful path to solving them. But what we’ve seen so far is not encouraging.

Time and again the adversary has failed to capitulate, a scenario Trump has no response for. The U.S. is left looking inept.

Time and again, Trump has made tough demands that electrify his supporters, then dramatic moves that raise expectations (or fears) regarding what could come next. Time and again, however, the adversary has failed to capitulate, a scenario Trump has no response for. The U.S. is left looking inept, while experts wonder why he would needlessly raise the global temperature. The mixed messages also make U.S. objectives appear muddled, a golden opportunity for enemies or political operators with clear goals willing to exploit or manipulate the diplomatic confusion.

In each case, Trump’s gut and confidence in his ability to intimidate seem to be the primary driver of his decisions, not the team of diplomats and experienced analysts at his disposal. And so, more than two years in, Trump has whipped up a lot of activity but scored no significant wins on foreign policy.

And his one major accomplishment — dislodging ISIS from Syria— was a continuation of the previous administration’s plan.

It didn’t used to be this way. Early on in his presidency, the world trembled at Trump’s words. When Trump thundered against North Korea, warning Pyongyang that its threats would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” people believed him. But it was all an act. Before long, the explosive rhetoric dissolved into rosy platitudes as the president gushed about Kim Jung Un, the North Korean dictator, claiming the two had fallen in love.

It would all count as brilliant statesmanship if Trump could point to some progress in achieving America’s goals. But achievements are elusive. North Korea has not only failed to dismantle any of its nuclear program it is currently making advances in nuclear and missile technology. Indeed, after North Korea carried out several test-firings of a new missile earlier in May, Trump dismissed the tests as “very standard stuff,” an assessment not shared by national security experts. Trump has become an apologist for Kim.

Recent escalation in the conflict with Iran follows a similar pattern. Trump has been raging against the nuclear deal negotiated with Iran by the Obama administration since before he was elected president. Once in office, he promptly pulled the U.S. out of the six-country agreement. In the past few weeks, however, the U.S. ratcheted up sanctions and has even gone so far as to deploy Navy forces to the region when intelligence reports suggested Iran was preparing to attack U.S. interests or U.S. allies.

No one, including Iran, appears quite clear of what Washington’s objective is. Is it regime change, a renegotiated deal, a taming of Iran’s destabilizing behavior?

No one, including Iran, appears quite clear of what Washington’s objective is. Is it regime change, a renegotiated deal, a taming of Iran’s destabilizing behavior?

Such confusion makes the situation more dangerous. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a moment of Trumpian-style bluster, warned that if any of Iran’s proxy militias carried out an attack, “We will hold the Iranian leadership direct accountable.” But then, when the attacks did allegedly happen, against oil tankers in the Gulf and apparently against oil installations in Saudi Arabia, Trump retreated. He let it be known that he’s not happy with the hawkishness he hears from national security adviser John Bolton, and that he told Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan he does not want to go to war.

The Trump administration drew a red line and backed away when Iran crossed it.

Not wanting war is not a bad thing, but when you show all your cards too early deterrence becomes less effective, while the risk of an unwanted escalation or an accidental misreading of cues makes possible the outbreak of war.

Venezuela and China further illustrate failures on foreign policy. In Venezuela, Trump — partly for domestic political reasons — has rightly sided with the opposition in Venezuela in wanting the disastrous Maduro regime to restore democracy. A U.S. military intervention would be a massive mistake, and few people expect it to happen. But the mere threat gave Russia an excuse to bolster its military presence in support of Maduro.

Trump’s tough talk, the threats and hints of military intervention, achieved little. More significant progress in Venezuela came after the U.S defied its own pattern and helped build international support for the opposition, a move that gave more legitimacy and moral power to the pro-democracy opposition.

China is an even tougher problem. Trump’s verbal bravado and dramatic imposition of trade sanctions has so far failed to crack Beijing’s resolve. Does Trump have a next move? Unlike economic sanctions against North Korea, Venezuela and Iran, the trade war with China also takes a toll on Americans, making the waiting game a costly one.

Again, we hope the U.S. will succeed in peacefully eliminating the threat posed by Iran and North Korea, making China a fair competitor, and helping Venezuela return to democracy. But so far, Trump’s prized deal-making skills have raised risks, but garnered few results.