The Trump Doctrine
Luck is the residue of design, they say. Might it also be the residue of frightening and confusing foreign adversaries?
Donald Trump’s relatively crisis-free presidency in foreign affairs has created a sense, perhaps an accurate one, that he cowed enemies into not challenging the U.S.
As Sen. Tom Cotton has pointed out, Kabul didn’t collapse on Trump’s watch, Russia didn’t invade Ukraine and Hamas didn’t launch a historic terror attack on Israel.
Now this may have just been good fortune. Four years isn’t a large sample size. But the argument that adversaries feared him, and therefore acted with a measure of restraint, is quite intuitive.
No one is going to mistake Trump for Cardinal Richelieu or Henry Kissinger. His view of the world was highly personal and reflected a few obsessions, especially the notion that we were getting ripped off by foreigners. His trade war with China was a waste of time, and his commitment to NATO was genuinely in doubt.
Yet, despite the feeling of chaos created by his constant shoot-from-the-hip bombast, things basically stayed on the rails.
The fact that Trump was erratic and took perceived slights so seriously made it difficult to know how he would react to any given provocation. It was personal unpredictability elevated to the level of game theory.
Maybe he was just blustering. Maybe he was ready to take it further. But who would want to find out?
In other words, Trump spoke loudly and carried a stick of indeterminate size, and this was perhaps as good as carrying a big stick.
It’s worth noting, though, that he followed through on his promise to bomb ISIS into near-oblivion, and when given the chance to hit a committed enemy of the United States, the notorious Iranian operative Qasem Soleimani, he targeted him for killing despite the considerable risks.
The New York Times reported at the time: “After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.
“By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.”
If U.S. officials were stunned, how must anyone around the world with American blood on his hands have felt? And wouldn’t it have made adversaries think twice about doing anything to set the president to “fuming”?
In an interview with Bret Baier back in June, Trump made vague reference to a threat he issued to Vladimir Putin about a prospective invasion of Ukraine that supposedly stayed Putin’s hand. Who knows the accuracy of this? But Trump characterized Putin as believing his threat only about 10%, and that gets at what was probably a key element of the Trump deterrent effect — a nagging sense that he might not be bluffing, even if it seemed likely he was.
We saw this dynamic out in public regarding immigration policy south of the border. Trump rattled the cage of the countries he needed cooperation from until he got it.
He threatened to close the border with Mexico. “If they don’t stop them,” Trump said of illegal immigrants, “we are closing the border. We’ll close it. And we’ll keep it closed for a long time. I’m not playing games.” Actually, he was play- continued from page
ing games, but effective ones.
He really did cut off aid to Northern Triangle countries, before restoring it once he had what he wanted.
In short, when Trump says that Hamas wouldn’t have done this on his watch, many Republicans, and perhaps independents in a general election, will tend to believe him.
To his credit, Biden has said the appropriate things in the wake of the Hamas attack, but sentiments go only so far. A more important question is whether the right people fear President Biden as they appeared to be scared of his predecessor.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.