Trump’s Reckoning Arrives – David Frum | The Atlantic

Trump’s Reckoning Arrives

The president’s unpredictability once worked to his advantage — but now, it is producing a mounting list of foreign-policy failures.

David Frum | The Atlantic

“Gradually and then suddenly.” That was how one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters described the process of going bankrupt. The phrase applies vividly to the accumulating failures of President Trump’s foreign-policy initiatives.

Donald Trump entered office with more scope for initiative in foreign policy than any of his recent predecessors.

In his campaign for president, Trump had disparaged almost every element of the past 70 years of U.S.A. global leadership:

NATO, free trade, European integration, support for democracy, the Iraq War, the Iran deal, suspicion of Russia, outreach to China.           

Trump’s election jolted almost every government into a frantic effort to understand what to expect. Other countries’ uncertainty enhanced Trump’s relative power —and so, perversely, did Trump’s policy ignorance and obnoxious behavior.

After eight years under the accommodating Barack Obama, the United States of America suddenly turned a menacing face to the world. In the short run, that menace frightened other states into attempted appeasement of this unpredictable new president.

Trump also enjoyed greater material scope: a growing economy, federal finances that were less of a mess than usual, and a lower pace of combat operations than at any time since 9/11.

Through his first months in office, Trump threw his power about as if it were an infinite resource. He growled threats, issued commands, picked quarrels, and played favorites.

And then consequences began to arrive.

When a president speaks, others hear. When he acts, he sets in motion a chain of reactions. When he selects one option, he precludes others.

This is why presidents are surrounded by elaborate staff systems to help them — and oblige them — to think through their words and actions. 

If we impose tariffs on Chinese products, how might they retaliate? What’s our next move after that?

If we want to pressure Iran more tightly than our predecessors, what buy-in will we need from other countries? What will they want in return?

What do we want from North Korea that we can realistically get?

Team Trump does not engage in exercises like this.

Team Trump does not do it because the president does not do it. His idea of foreign policy is to bark orders like an emperor, without thinking very hard about how to enforce compliance or what to do if compliance is not forthcoming.

The administration canceled the Iran deal without first gaining European, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian cooperation for new sanctions.

The result: The U.S.A. has abjured its right to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities without any workable plan to impose global sanctions instead. India and China each trade more with Iran than with the entirety of the European Union — and neither is very vulnerable to U.S.A. pressure.

Trump started a trade war with China without any plan for response to the inevitable Chinese counter-moves.

The result: China pushed back on trade, and Trump blinked and retreated. The whole world saw him blink and retreat. Having yielded to powerful China, Trump is now salving his ego with a plan for new tariffs on cars from Japan, Mexico, and Canada.

He enthusiastically pounced on a possible U.S.A.-North Korea summit in the false belief that such a summit represented a huge concession to the United States of America rather than — correctly — being a huge concession by the United States.

The result: Having ridiculously inflated hopes of North Korean denuclearization, Trump is now engaged in another ridiculously undignified name-calling match with the North Korean dictator, alienating South Korean opinion by bellicose threats of war.

The “bark orders, impose punishments, and bully friends and enemies into surrender to the mighty, imperial me” approach to foreign policy is unlikely enough to work even when applied to relatively weak states like North Korea and Iran. When simultaneously applied to the entire planet, allies and adversaries alike, it produces only rapidly accelerating failure.

In Trump’s case, the reckoning came especially fast, and for three reasons.

First, because he talked so much and tweeted so much, he revealed much more of himself much earlier than other presidents. His ego, his neediness, his impulsiveness, and the strange irregular cycles of his working day — those were all noted and analyzed before any formal action of his presidency.

They were noted not only by leaders, but by electorates — with the result that long before he had decided on what cooperation he wanted from, for example, Australia, his offensive words had limited the ability of Australia’s democratically accountable leaders to cooperate with him.

Second, foreign leaders have concluded that the shortest path to Trump’s heart runs through his wallet. Oil states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have rushed to be helpful to the business interests of Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, seeking an advantage over regional rivals like Qatar.

Authoritarian leaders who could hamper Trump-licensed businesses — like Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines — have exploited their perceived leverage, acting with apparent impunity.

Third, Trump’s highly suspicious dealings with Russia before the election potentially put him at the mercy of countries in a position to embarrass him. “Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Missiles, Halted Cooperation with Mueller Inquiry,” The New York Times reported earlier in May. The Times report presented Ukraine as a kind of supplicant. “In every possible way, we will avoid irritating that top American officials,” a close ally of President Poroshenko told the paper. But Ukraine had already demonstrated it possessed extremely damaging information about the business affairs of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, releasing a ledger of undisclosed payments to him back in the spring of 2016. It’s not quite supplication when the supplicant holds information that the supplicee desperately wishes to keep hidden.

All this is only the beginning. Deficits are rising fast. Military commitments are rising fast. America’s friends are turning their backs fast.

Only 17 percent of South Koreans trust Trump to do the right thing, according to the Pew global survey in 2017, well before the latest chaos. Obama’s trust rating in South Korea bounced between a low of 75 percent and a high of 88 percent over his presidency.

At a time of relatively low military casualties and strong job growth, the president’s popularity at home roughly matches that of George W. Bush’s during the worst months of the Iraq war, 2005–2006, and Barack Obama’s during the most disappointing months of the weak recovery from the recession of 2009.

The president’s options are narrowing even before the midterm elections.

It can only get worse from here for him and — more importantly — for America’s standing in the world under his leadership.


More »

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  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On May 25, 2018 at 1:22 pm

    Excellent analysis by David Frum. The world is watching, listening, and taking note.

  • Clyde Duncan  On May 26, 2018 at 3:00 pm

    North Korea Wants to End up Like Pakistan, NOT Libya

    A poor country made enormous sacrifices to get nuclear weapons — and has them still.

    Dominic Tierney | The Atlantic

    When Donald Trump canceled his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — before hinting that it might happen anyway after all, as the South Koreans moved into damage-control mode on Saturday with an impromptu summit of their own — it followed days of discussion over a historical parallel: LIBYA.

    U.S. National-Security Adviser John Bolton said the basis for a deal with North Korea was the “Libya model” from 2003 to 2004, when Muammar Qaddafi essentially handed over his entire nuclear program to the United States of America.

    For North Korea, however, this allusion to Libya looked “awfully sinister” because, in 2011, less than a decade after Libya appeased the West, the United States and its allies joined with local rebels to topple Qaddafi’s regime.

    For Pyongyang, Libya is not the only warning from history about the perils of disarmament.

    In 2003, Iraq claimed to have abandoned its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and even allowed inspectors back into the country, but nevertheless endured a U.S. invasion and regime change.

    In 2015, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, but in 2018 Trump tore up the deal.

    So are there any models of “rogue” regimes with nuclear programs that might appeal to North Korea? The answer is YES.

    But, unfortunately, it’s a state that kept its nuclear deterrent intact: PAKISTAN.

    If Pyongyang is weighing up two possible futures — Libya vs. Pakistan — it’s not much of a choice.

    Pakistan began to seriously pursue nuclear weapons in the 1970s, motivated by a desire to deter its more powerful rival India, as well as match India’s nuclear capability.

    The Pakistani politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who later became prime minister, claimed, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves — even go hungry — but we will get one of our own.”

    In 1998, on a clear and bright day in the Chagai district, Pakistan carried out a series of nuclear tests. Pakistan’s chief scientific officer said “All praise be to Allah” and pushed the button, causing the mountain to shake in a vast explosion.

    In 2016, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimated that Pakistan had 130 to 140 warheads and predicted that it would nearly double its arsenal by 2025.

    Islamabad could deliver nuclear weapons by medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, F-16 fighters, and tactical systems for short-range use on the battlefield.

    We can be confident that North Korea is paying close attention to Islamabad’s experience. After all, the two countries share important similarities. They both face an enduring rivalry with a far more powerful democratic state that used to be part of the same country – India and South Korea.

    Furthermore, both North Korea and Pakistan have, at times, flouted international norms.

    In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan never signed the treaty. For decades, North Korea and Pakistan have been informal allies, trading conventional weapons and supporting Iran in the Iran-Iraq War.

    Another reason that Pyongyang is certain to consider the Pakistan model is that the two states have cooperated on nuclear development.

    In 2006, the Congressional Research Service reported that Pyongyang gave missile technology to Islamabad, and Pakistan transferred nuclear technology to North Korea, through the network of the Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan.

    During the 1990s, when North Korea suffered a famine that killed perhaps 500,000 people, and North Koreans literally ate grass and leaves, Pyongyang continued to prioritize military development and received key data from Pakistan on uranium enrichment. Pakistan is even suspected of having carried out a nuclear test for North Korea.

    From North Korea’s perspective, the Pakistan model must look compelling.

    First of all, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have successfully deterred India. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of humiliating military defeats for Pakistan, including the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, when Pakistan lost 56,000 square miles of territory, which became the new state of Bangladesh.

    Nuclear weapons have essentially removed the possibility of a large-scale Indian invasion.

    In 1987, President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq told his Indian counterpart, “If your forces cross our borders by an inch, we are going to annihilate your cities.”

    In 1999, Pakistani troops crossed into Indian-controlled Kashmir, triggering the Kargil Crisis and military hostilities. Crucially, India avoided escalation, kept the war limited, and declined to enter Pakistani territory.

    One study concluded “the principal source of Indian restraint was Pakistan’s overt possession of a nuclear arsenal.”

    In addition, Pakistan’s nuclear capability led the West to handle the country with kid gloves.

    The United States provided millions of dollars of material assistance to guard Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, including helicopters and nuclear detection equipment. Pakistan’s nuclear capability is also one reason why Washington continued to provide billions of dollars in military and economic aid, even though Islamabad supported the Taliban insurgency that battled U.S.A. troops in Afghanistan.

    Meanwhile, Pakistan gained prestige as the only Muslim-majority country with nuclear weapons. The Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the nuclear program as “Pakistan’s finest hour.” The nuclear program is also domestically popular. The nuclear tests in 1998 that shook mountains led to jubilant street celebrations.

    Of course, all of this came at a cost. The money poured into Pakistan’s nuclear program could have been spent on health or education. The nuclear tests in 1998 were condemned around the world. After refusing to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Pakistan faces restrictions on importing civilian nuclear technology. Nuclear weapons may deter India, but they also risk accidents and even escalation to nuclear war.

    But for North Korea, the balance sheet still favors the Pakistan model:

    A poor country that ate grass to build a nuclear deterrent, seeks to be accepted as a recognized nuclear power, supports denuclearization in principle but only as part of a broader international disarmament effort, successfully deters a more powerful rival, and gains domestic prestige and international status.

    Saddam and Qaddafi made their choices and paid with their lives – they’re both dead. North Korea wants to follow a different path – the Pakistan Model.

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