One promise no one can accuse Donald Trump of breaking is his vow to be unpredictable on the world stage.
Wednesday afternoon, he flipped positions on five issues: NATO (once irrelevant, now not), China (currency manipulator, now not), Export-Import Bank (bad, now good), and low-interest rates and Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen (both bad, now good). That’s not counting last week’s head-spinning shift on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (Trump said we should stay out of a war that’s killed more than 400,000 people; last week he rained missiles on Assad the baby-killing “butcher,” days after Trump’s top officials said ousting Assad wasn’t a priority).
Trump promised “America First” — he’d be tough on trade, stop free riders, befriend Russia to fight Islamic terrorism, but not be the world’s policeman.
He said he’d keep enemies guessing rather than telegraph secret plans. “I alone can fix it,” he assured us — meaning everything — and boasted he knew “more about ISIS than the generals.”
Well, he hired those generals, but he kept his promise to be unpredictable. His foreign policy is consistently inconsistent.
One can only conclude that’s because there’s no guiding principle. In the campaign, Trump’s hard-bargain approach to trade and allies sounded transactional. Now it’s clear there was no strategy: He just didn’t know what he didn’t know.
Here’s a taste of the president’s own words from a Fox Business interview about a dinner with the Chinese president when he targeted Syria: “We had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen, and President Xi was enjoying it. . . . I said we’ve just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq and I wanted you to know this. And he was eating his cake. And he was silent.”
So many things to digest. For starters, it was Syria, not Iraq.
The Trump Doctrine turns out to be Let’s-Eat-Chocolate-Cake-at-Mar-a-Lago-while-we-fire-missiles-at-some-country-in-the-Middle-East-as-we-learn-on-the-job.
This is the same man who vehemently opposed striking Assad when he gassed civilians in 2011, killing more children than last week. What changed? Maybe he looked more closely at horrifying images this time. We’re told his daughter Ivanka appealed to him and he was moved.
Likewise, Trump met NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Wednesday. Standing next to the 6-foot-2-inch Norwegian, Trump was asked about NATO. “I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete,” he said, without a hint of irony.
In a Wall Street Journal interview, Trump changed his tune on China, whom he had vilified as America’s top threat. He said he hit it off with Xi Jinping: “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy. I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea, Trump said. “But it’s not what you would think.”
Actually everybody who knows something about North Korea knew that. It reminded me of an incredulous Trump on Obamacare in February: “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” No, everybody knew that. What’s amazing is how arrogant Trump was about his superior knowledge — and how profound his ignorance turned out to be.
One problem is that more than half of the jobs in the leadership of the State Department — whose budget Trump wants to slash by a third — are empty or filled by acting officials, rather than appointees he has not yet named. There’s a reason presidents rely on experts: They know things.
What we have now isn’t foreign policy by principle or preparation or even quick study. It’s based on whom Trump meets and likes and who influences him – and what feels instinctively right.
But here’s the thing: A strategy, by definition, needs discipline, and he of the twitchy Twitter finger is the very definition of ill discipline. Trump likes to be unpredictable, but friends and foes rely on predictability to avoid miscalculation.
Trump desperately wants to be the greatest — he often refers to himself as “one of the great presidents of our history.” Well, you don’t get great by winging it. Someone in the Trump family, for the sake of the world: Read him some intelligent articles and get him to listen to actual experts who know verified facts.
Until then, Trump has no idea what he doesn’t know, and the world’s being yanked on a bumpy ride along his very steep learning curve.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in a Washington columnist and the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.