The White House’s foreign policy is normal. The commander-in-chief isn’t.
- By Max BootMax Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”
Having passed the 100-day mark of his presidency, Donald Trump has not lived up to either the worst fears or the greatest hopes that he had elicited.
His most devoted fans had hoped — and his most fervent critics had feared — that this would be a Breitbart-Stephen Bannon presidency, a populist-nationalist bacchanalia that would result in the deportation of more than 11 million immigrants living illegally in the country, the banning of all Muslim visitors, the pullout of American troops from overseas bases, a deal with Russia to recognize its annexation of Crimea, the imposition of steep tariffs, and a border wall that Mexico would pay for. That hasn’t happened. Nor, needless to say, has Trump imposed a fascist dictatorship; the checks and balances of the Constitution remain alive and well.
But nor, as some of Trump’s more optimistic supporters in the Republican establishment had hoped, has this turned into a Mike Pence-Paul Ryan presidency, with those two conservative paladins pushing through a conservative wish list of legislation while Trump devotes his time to golf. The president has hit the links a record number of times (17 outings so far), but he has hardly excused himself from governance. This presidency has been all Trump, for good and ill.
His policies have largely been conventional Republican ones, but they have been promoted so ham-handedly and surrounded by so much bombastic, boastful, deceitful, and threatening rhetoric that the amount of alarm generated by the administration has been out of all proportion to how little it has actually done. The Associated Press reports: “Of 38 specific promises Trump made in his 100-day ‘contract’ with voters — ‘This is my pledge to you’ — he’s accomplished 10, mostly through executive orders that don’t require legislation, such as withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.” In fact, Trump’s most substantive achievement to date has been the appointment of a superbly qualified conservative to the Supreme Court who could easily have been nominated by a President John Kasich or a President Jeb Bush.
In retrospect, two turning points caused the protean president to water down the 100-proof Bannonism expressed in his apocalyptic “American carnage” inauguration speech. The first was the executive order on immigration, issued on Jan. 27, which was designed to make good on his ill-advised campaign pledge to exclude as many Muslims as possible from the United States. The implementation was a fiasco, with protesters mobbing airports and the courts instantly blocking it. Any hopes that Bannon and his White House confederate, Stephen Miller, might have had of issuing similar executive orders, such as a rumored initiative to use the National Guard to round up immigrants living in the country illegally, were thereby scotched.
The other turning point was the firing on Feb. 13 of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security advisor after he had lied about his pre-inauguration conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn appeared to be favorably disposed toward Russian President Vladimir Putin (and was paid more than $33,000 by a state-funded TV network to attend a Moscow banquet), ill-disposed toward Islam (“Islam is a political ideology,” he said, that “hides behind the notion of it being a religion”), and ready for military confrontations (on Feb. 1, he officially put Iran “on notice”). He might actually have tried to implement the kind of foreign policy that Trump’s ultra-nationalist supporters want. His downfall ushered in a much more thoughtful replacement, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who has succeeded in exiling Bannon from the National Security Council’s Principals Committee and, together with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in pushing Trump toward the center.
But while the administration is becoming more moderate, it still has a long way to go before it is the “fine-tuned machine” that Trump boasts of. That was evident last week. In the frenetic rush to bolster his thin résumé of 100-day achievements, Trump pushed for a vote on legislation to repeal Obamacare that has not even been drafted after the initial version had failed to win enough support to pass the House. Once again Trump showed that he is neither an effective craftsman nor an effective salesman for legislation he does not truly understand. He also unveiled a dramatic tax-cut plan that would explode the deficit and that was not ready for prime time; some of the op-eds written about the plan were longer than the plan itself. Trump even flirted with nullifying NAFTA, America’s most important trade accord, as a 100-day publicity stunt before being talked off the ledge.
The flirtation with terminating NAFTA was typical Trump: His wild talk needlessly alarmed financial markets and America’s close allies Mexico and Canada, but ultimately he recoiled from doing anything too radical. The same has been true in his approach to North Korea: While engaging in saber rattling (“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” Trump told Reuters last week), he has not given any indication that he is likely to take military action anytime soon. In fact, his approach toward North Korea — reaching out to Beijing while pressuring Pyongyang — is only a slightly intensified form of former President Barack Obama’s policy.
The Islamic State is a similar situation: After having made bloodcurdling threats to “bomb the shit” out of the terrorist group, and to “extinguish” it, Trump has largely followed the Obama blueprint in Syria and Iraq, albeit with slightly fewer restrictions on the use of air power. His willingness to use cruise missiles against a Syrian air force base looks increasingly like a one-off event that masks the fact that, just like Obama, he is basically resigned to leaving Bashar al-Assad in power.
The biggest change may be in Trump’s contempt for human rights in foreign policy. Having fulsomely praised Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, he has now extended the love fest to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has set death squads loose to murder supposed drug dealers. To the astonishment of his own aides, Trump has invited Duterte to the White House. But the difference is more symbolic than substantive. Even Obama, who expressed his concern for human rights, did nothing to stop the mass killings in Syria.
The amount of policy continuity is easy to overlook because the current president’s intemperate language is such a contrast to his thoughtful and measured predecessor. Trump called the media the “enemy of the American people.” He attacked the ruling of a “so-called judge” who stayed his immigration order. He accused Obama, with zero evidence, of having stooped so low as to “tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” With an equal lack of evidence, he then accused Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, of having committed a “terrible” crime by supposedly unmasking the identities of Trump aides in wiretap transcripts. He has even disparaged actors Meryl Streep and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just last week, he again insulted a U.S. senator who claims Native American heritage by calling her “Pocahontas.”
Those kinds of histrionics are good for ratings but bad for governance. They make it nearly impossible to achieve any bipartisan agreement, they demean the presidency, and they dent the president’s credibility. The Washington Post reports that Trump has averaged nearly five false or misleading claims a day during his first 100 days. When the president says something in the future, what reason is there for anyone, including America’s enemies, to believe it?
The good news from the first 100 days is that the administration’s cautious actions so far have not lived up to the president’s hyperbolic and incendiary words. If only Trump could curb his rhetoric and improve his execution of policy, his presidency could turn out to be more successful than naysayers (including me) have feared, if less revolutionary than some of his fans had wished. For a start, he could fill more than 5 percent of the top 556 administration posts. That should be at the top of his to-do list for the next 100 days.
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