Ethics & Public Policy Center

Trump’s Critics Were Wrong. He’s Not a Madman in Foreign Policy.

Published in The Washington Post on May 10, 2019


Time-travel with me back to 2016. Fears were rampant that Donald Trump would not be able to handle an international crisis, that he would react either recklessly or timidly and thereby hurt U.S. security. We’re going through a period of intense global pressure right now, and so far he has proved up to the task.

Take Iran’s recent provocations. U.S. sanctions have started to bite, so the mullahs are saber rattling. But neither threats to ramp up their nuclear program nor credible intelligence that they intended to attack U.S. interests have provoked the president. Instead, the administration is prudently responding via diplomacy (witness Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent unscheduled trip to Baghdad) and by sending a carrier battle group to the Arabian Sea. People might disagree with some of President Trump’s Middle East policy decisions, such as his decision to rescind the Obama administration’s deal with Iran (I think it was the right call because the deal merely subsidized a multiyear delay in Iran’s nuclear weapons program rather than remove that threat entirely), but since then, Trump has conducted measured, thoughtful action.

Ditto with respect to the Venezuelan crisis. Fears were rampant when the United States and its allies recognized interim president Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate ruler that a cowboy invasion was right around the corner. Instead, we have seen the opposite. The application of sanctions and the slow isolation of Venezuela’s government and leadership haven’t toppled the dictator Nicolás Maduro yet. But neither has Trump given in to the temptation to either reverse course or recklessly attack. Again, one can disagree with the strategy but there is no quibbling with the tactics.

Even Rocket Man doesn’t seem to be able to rattle Trump. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered two missile and weapons tests recently in a transparent attempt to coerce Trump back to the bargaining table. Trump hasn’t even bothered to tweet about them. He is neither threatening fire and fury nor fervently seeking a third summit. Instead, he’s doing exactly what he should be doing, waiting for something concrete to emerge through diplomatic channels to justify further high-level engagement.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The mercurial and inexperienced Trump was supposed to be a crazy Captain Queeg, restrained from destroying the United States only by the prudence of the generals he initially surrounded himself with. Remember when we were supposed to rest secure that “the generals” in the administration — H.R. McMaster, John F. Kelly and Jim Mattis — were America’s Avengers keeping danger away through their awesome superpowers? Well, all three are gone, and the country seems to be doing quite fine, thank you very much.

That’s not to say things can’t go south fast. Tensions are likelier to rise throughout the year than to fall, and our major global adversaries, China and Russia, are at least nominally on the other side in each instance. A misstep can quickly escalate into a confrontation that the United States could not then afford to lose.

So far, however, there is no indication that such a confrontation is in the offing. Instead, we have a situation more reminiscent of the 1980s Cold War period, when the United States pursued its interests in a forceful yet prudent manner. President Ronald Reagan was portrayed similarly to Trump as a reckless and perhaps trigger-happy cowboy whose silly nostrums would surely fail or get us into World War III. Instead, Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, avoided major conflicts while simultaneously confronting Soviet power across the globe. The United States did not succeed in every endeavor, but by the end of the decade, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and by 1992, the Soviet Union was no more.

The scorecard looks pretty good 2½ years into the Trump administration. NATO defense spending among our allies is on the rise, largely because of Trump’s bullying. We are sending arms to Ukraine and have not abandoned our allies to the Russian bear. Iran is hurting economically and on the defensive. China faces serious U.S. pushback for the first time in decades, especially through Trump’s tariffs. Throughout the world, the United States is setting the agenda again for the first time in many years.

Yes, tensions are rising, but after more than a decade of declining U.S. global influence under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, that’s probably a good thing. We’re not announcing “Mission Accomplished” when the battle isn’t over or declaring a stalemate in Iraq to be a global victory. We’re not fruitlessly pushing reset buttons, abandoning red lines or getting annoyed when a stern talking-to doesn’t change China’s trade policies or Europe’s defense spending. We’re just doing what we should be doing: prudently pushing U.S. interests forward.

Maybe madman Trump is just in hiding, waiting for a propitious moment to emerge and muck everything up. Or maybe, just maybe, he and his team know what they’re doing.

Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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