Carl P. Leubsdorf, Tribune News Service
As a presidential candidate in 2016, Donald Trump promised to pursue an “unpredictable” foreign policy to keep the nation’s enemies off balance. But in recent weeks, his unpredictability seems to be keeping his own administration off balance.
Whether the issue is Venezuela, Korea or Iran, his administration has displayed contradictory positions that have created doubt about its true intent, both abroad and at home. They’ve been marked by barely concealed public dissension between Trump and his third national security adviser, veteran hardliner John Bolton.
“The president is a weapon of mass confusion,” mocked former Obama official Jeremy Bash with some justification this week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
There has been one constant: the failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to produce his desired results in world trouble spots. And with that has come a sense that his bark is worse than his bite, and that he is reluctant to follow up threats with strong actions, lest he become enmeshed in the kind of overseas wars he vowed to end.
The pattern in each case has been roughly similar.
For weeks, Trump and other top US officials denounced Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as a danger to Western Hemisphere security. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo warned “military action is possible” if the socialist leader failed to step down.
But Maduro, bolstered by support from his allies in Russia and Cuba, hasn’t budged, and an ouster attempt fizzled earlier this month. The Washington Post reported that Trump complained his advisers had misled him into thinking how easy this would be and that Bolton wanted to get him “into a war.”
But Trump ruled out any direct US intervention, tweeting that the United States “stands with the GREAT PEOPLE of Venezuela for however long it takes!”
About that time, the focus of administration concerns shifted to Iran. Reports surfaced the administration was increasingly concerned about unspecified threats to US forces in the Middle East, apparently in Iraq and Syria. The New York Times reported the administration was considering sending up to 120,000 troops to the region, and the State Department withdrew “non-emergency” personnel from Iraq. Trump has vacillated between threatening Iran with destruction if it attacks Americans in the region and saying he “hopes” there won’t be a war. “Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything,” he said Monday. “But we have no indication that they will.”
Left unsaid in all this is that Trump has created some of the regional tension by withdrawing from the multi-nation nuclear treaty designed to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and tightening economic sanctions in hopes of forcing the collapse of Iran’s government.
Those pressures have proved no more successful against Iran than similar moves against Venezuela. Once again, it appears the driving force is Bolton, who has long favored attacking Iran. “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran” was the title of a 2015 Bolton op-ed in The New York Times that warned against the nuclear arms deal championed by former President Barack Obama.
The current episode smacks uncomfortably of those warnings against weapons of mass destruction that Bolton and his fellow hawks used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Former CIA Director David Petraeus, in an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” said the difference between Trump’s approach and Bolton’s is that the president is seeking a “regime behavior change” in Iran’s regional efforts and Bolton favors flat-out “regime change.”
The same Trump-Bolton conflict has been evident in Trump’s now stalemated efforts to convince North Korea to scrap its nuclear programme. After months of escalating threats, Trump ignored the inherent hypocrisy in pursuing a deal with one rogue nation while rejecting the one already negotiated with another.
Seizing on signs of interest from Kim Jong Un, he met last July in Singapore with high expectations but without the usual preparations. Afterward, the White House claimed Kim had expressed his “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But little concrete happened, and, after months of showering praise on Kim and hailing their “love affair,” Trump met the North Korean leader again in Hanoi in February. Progress there proved elusive, a result some analysts blamed on the way Bolton devised the specific conditions for any potential agreement.
Still, Trump has continued to talk optimistically, dismissing North Korea’s resumption of short-range missile tests as not violating its pledge to stop nuclear testing and long-range missile tests. Meanwhile, US economic sanctions remain and the state of play between the two countries seems hardly changed -- except perhaps in its decibel level. That situation is pretty clear-cut compared with the impasse between the United States and Iran. In recent weeks, Trump repeatedly vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, threatened destruction while saying he wants to avoid a war, and offered to hold talks, though he unilaterally broke the pact from the last negotiation. No wonder not only US enemies are confused.
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