August 20, 2019

Predicting the Unpredictable President

“Gerard Baker, editor-at-large at the Wall Street Journal (no reflexively anti-Trump publication) recently wrote a piece decrying Donald Trump and his foreign policy as a fount of erratic unpredictability. This essay will give the counter view. The record shows that Trump, including his foreign policy, is actually one of the most predictable and consistent presidents of modern times.

Baker’s argument focuses on examples such as Trump’s tough talk about North Korea coupled with his recent friendly visit there, or Trump’s sanctions on Iran coupled with his recent refusal to make a military strike. Baker writes: “(W)e 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.” Baker concludes his essay ominously, quoting the nineteenth century French observation, “It is magnificent, but it is not war: It is madness.”

Baker’s view, however, is belied by the facts. There is a clear set of Trump administration foreign policy goals, and a clear and consistent style to achieve them. The goals — such as pushing back on China’s rise as a competitive great power, or defusing the North Korea nuclear threat — have been described again and again by West Wing policy officials. I explained many of them in a previous In This Corner column. Regarding the recent tensions with Iran, here too, Trump has been consistent. The Obama Iran deal is viewed as one that only temporarily slowed nuclear arms development, and failed to address (or in fact, made worse) the issues of ICBM development, the export of revolutionary terrorism throughout the region, and the imprisonment of innocent persons. Trump wants all four issues resolved together. You may agree or disagree with his various policy goals, but the strategic goals are consistent and clear.”

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