‘We’re courting danger’: Trump suffers foreign policy setbacks in Iran, North Korea

WASHINGTON – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is deriding President Donald Trump as foolish for trying to oust him. Kim Jong Un is testing Trump’s “love” – and his resolve – in the North Korea negotiations. And Iran’s leaders are finding new ways to threaten the U.S. and to defy the president’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

In short, Trump’s foreign policy agenda is hitting the diplomatic rocks, with potentially disastrous results.

Some say it’s by design – Trump doesn’t mind sowing chaos and confusion, and he has. Others say it’s a result of misguided policies and contradictory, undisciplined decision-making inside the White House.

Either way, the president has suffered a series of stunning foreign policy setbacks this week, raising fresh questions about his approach to military engagement and international affairs.

“What you see is a mismatch between means and ends across the board – whether it’s in Venezuela, whether it’s in North Korea, whether it’s in Iran – where the end’s always extremely ambitious and the diplomatic means tend to be quite de minimis,” said Robert Malley, a senior White House adviser on the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region in the Obama administration. “We’re courting danger where there’s no reason to.”

Jon B. Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, said the series of foreign policy crises that have come to a head in recent days seem part of Trump’s design.

“The president is a lot more comfortable with chaos than any president in recent memory,” Alterman said. “The president doesn’t see uncertainty and disorder as a liability. He sees it as an asset.”

So escalating tensions in Iran and the stalemate in Venezuela, he said, are not necessarily an aberration but a feature of Trump’s sometimes erratic and contradictory approach to world affairs.

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: Alex Brandon, AP)

The result has been on full display in recent days:

  • On Tuesday, the Pentagon rushed B-52 bombers and a carrier strike group to the Middle East in response to intercepted intelligence indicating Iran or its proxies in the region might be preparing attacks on American military troops and facilities. A day later, Iran’s president declared his country would pull back on its compliance with a sweeping, multilateral nuclear agreement aimed at preventing Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
  • On Thursday, North Korea tested a suspected short-range missile, the second time in less than a week that Kim’s regime has taken that kind of provocative step.
  • On Friday, Trump roiled markets and sowed confusion when he deleted and then reposted a Twitter thread in which he said Chinese trade talks were progressing in “a very congenial manner” and that there is “no need to rush” a new agreement – right after his administration imposed new U.S. tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods because the two sides were unable to reach a new trade deal.
  • Last week, top Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, touted the possibility of U.S. military action in Venezuela as a U.S.-backed uprising led by opposition leader Juan Guaido fizzled and Maduro mocked the failed effort as “foolishness by coup mongers” in the Trump White House.

For his part, Trump says he is cleaning up “the mess” left behind by predecessors, from bad trade deals across the globe to protracted military conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan.

“We have made a decisive break from the failed foreign policy establishment that sacrificed our sovereignty, surrendered our jobs and tied us down to endless foreign wars,” Trump said during a political rally Wednesday in Florida.

Democrats scoff at Trump’s efforts to blame his foreign policy troubles on previous presidents.  

“Everything the president has touched internationally has gone to crap,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said at a national security forum on Friday sponsored by former Obama administration officials. 

“We have split our alliances,” said Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have engaged in a trade war that’s cost Americans money. We have allowed Iran to restart their nuclear program. We have made no substantial progress in North Korea. The Middle East is more chaotic, not less chaotic. There’s still 20,000 members of ISIS who are getting ready to regroup.”

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the fundamental problem with Trump’s approach to foreign policy is that he sets sky-high goals, but is unwilling or unable to deliver on them. 

“The president has articulated wildly ambitious goals that he almost certainly is going to fail to meet,” he said. 

For example, Trump says he wants North Korea to give up its entire nuclear arsenal, and to do it quickly. He wants Iran’s regime to collapse or to radically alter its behavior across the Middle East. He wants fundamental changes in China trade policy. 

All these are long shots, at best, Haass said.

“In all three of those cases he will have to compromise, or he will fail,” said Haass, author of the book “A World In Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.”

Others echoed that assessment but said Trump has exacerbated that disconnect with contradictory positions coming from within the White House. 

Take the current crisis in Venezuela, where Trump had forcefully backed Guaido’s bid to oust Maduro, a socialist leader who had helped drive his country to the brink of economic collapse. Trump’s position has been driven by hawks inside his administration, including Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. 

After Maduro’s uprising floundered last week, Bolton and Pompeo went to the Pentagon to talk to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan about possible U.S. military options. But such intervention would run directly counter to Trump’s own instincts, and his campaign promises, to steer clear of military interventions. 

Trump’s advisers seem “more willing to bandy about the threat of the use of military force, whereas he is far less inclined to do so,” Malley said. That split between Trump and his advisers creates one layer of confusion, Malley said, and a second one comes from “a tug of war within (Trump’s) own mind.”

While Trump says he wants to avoid messy military entanglements, he also wants “to project a sense not just of power but of a willingness to go the brink and to court confrontation,” Malley said.

That has fed a sense of failure or stalemate in places like Venezuela, he added, where Bolton predicted Maduro’s ouster was just a matter of time. And it’s created whiplash on North Korea, where Trump went from threatening Kim with “fire and fury” to declaring that they “fell in love.”

Alterman said economic pressure, like the sanctions that Trump has slapped on the Maduro government, almost never lead to regime change or a popular revolt against an authoritarian leader. But Trump doesn’t seem to really want to take the next step of military intervention in places like Venezuela.

The same is true with Iran, he said, where Trump has set himself up for failure by outlining a policy that shoots for the stars – complete transformation of the Iranian regime, or what Alterman called “self-regime change.” But the president is relying on economic pressure and bellicose rhetoric to achieve that, which Alterman said will almost certainly not work. 

Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, argues that Trump’s approach to Iran has borne fruit. Exhibit A, Hook says, is that Iran appears to be cutting back its financial support for militant groups in Syria and Lebanon. 

But he and others concede that Iran is not close to reopening talks with the U.S. on a broader agreement that would curb its ballistic missile program or halt its support for terrorism. And just days after the Pentagon rushed its bombers to the region in response to an Iranian threat, Trump told supporters he would like to sit-down with Iran’s president and negotiate. 

“I hope to be able at some point … to sit down and work out a fair deal,” he said during Wednesday’s rally in Florida. “We’re not looking to hurt anybody … We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons.” 

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