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Politics

Trump battles series of foreign policy setbacks after some risky bets

Donald Trump
President Trump in the Oval Office on Friday, the day he spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press )

President Trump’s unconventional foreign policy appeared in disarray amid a series of setbacks around the globe and mounting signs that the president and his advisors were on the verge of losing several risky policy bets.

The evidence came in one hot spot after another, from North Korea to Venezuela, with pushback on multiple strategic fronts that left the White House scrambling.

Although Trump has conducted two splashy summits with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, on Friday Kim personally oversaw what appeared to be a short-range missile launch. Analysts called the missile launch, its first since 2017, a sign of Kim’s impatience now that the talks have stalled.

In Venezuela, a U.S.-backed military uprising aimed at overthrowing the leftist president, Nicolas Maduro, fizzled out in hours Tuesday when few soldiers joined the attempted putsch. White House aides offered an array of excuses, blaming Russians and duplicitous military officers.

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On Sunday, an unexpected Trump tweet threatening to increase tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of imports from China rattled stock markets and signaled fresh trouble for trade talks with Beijing, a priority for the White House. Prospects for a deal, which had seemed possible this week, clearly dimmed.

And two months after Trump tweeted that Islamic State “is now being badly beaten at every level,” the group’s elusive leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, appeared on a videotape — for the first time in five years — and claimed his followers had carried out the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka that killed nearly 300 people.

Faced with those challenges and others, the president and his advisors offered mixed messages, apologizing for and explaining away actions by Russia and North Korea while taking a harder line toward Venezuela, Iran and China.

“There seems to be no coherent, consistent policy that the president follows. He tends to lurch from a position … it’s hard to follow,” said Nicholas Burns, a veteran former diplomat who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to NATO.

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Trump’s phone call Friday to Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted a rift in the White House. After the call, Trump appeared to defend Russia’s role in Venezuela, seeming to contradict his national security advisor, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who had both blamed the Kremlin for interfering there.

The policy setbacks have intensified the spotlight on Bolton, one of the most polarizing figures in Trump’s inner circle.

“The president is so dead set against military engagement anywhere, and Bolton is so dead set on military engagement, it has left the administration speaking without one voice and overall being sort of feckless,” said Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to four countries.

Bolton has been the driving force behind White House efforts to oust Maduro’s socialist government in Venezuela, which picked up steam in January when Trump recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president.

Trump and his advisors insisted that by ramping up pressure on Maduro, sanctioning his government and top aides and choking off oil revenue, the Venezuelan military would defect and Maduro would fall. More than 50 countries also recognized Guaido.

But Maduro is still in power after Guaido’s messy coup attempt last week. And the White House is scurrying to determine its next steps and to keep its fragile coalition from fraying. Bolton claimed last week that Cuba had 20,000 to 25,000 troops backing Maduro, an assessment contradicted by the CIA, which has concluded that Cuba’s involvement is far smaller.

“What we have seen in the Trump administration’s policy on Venezuela shows the limits of wishful thinking,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental research and advocacy group.

“They have been completely unwilling to revise Plan A and instead are doubling down” on a policy that appears to be failing, Ramsey said. “They think that if they saber-rattle hard enough, something will shake loose.”

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A longtime Iran hawk, Bolton abruptly announced Sunday that the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike force and additional bombers were being moved to the Middle East “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

Such a statement typically comes from the Pentagon or the president, and only after making the public aware of the need for ratcheting up tensions. Bolton does not have statutory command over military forces.

The move came after intelligence reports indicated Iran and its proxy forces were making possible preparations to attack U.S. forces in the region, a senior Defense official said Monday. The intelligence was not specific but suggested possible targeting of U.S. troops in Syria or Iraq or on Navy vessels in the region, the official added.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan tweeted that he had approved the deployments, calling it a “prudent repositioning of assets in response to indications of a credible threat by Iranian regime forces.”

It will take several days for the Abraham Lincoln, which is in the Mediterranean Sea, to transit the Suez Canal and reach the Arabian Sea. It is not known if the carrier strike group, which includes a cruiser and three destroyers, will enter the Persian Gulf.

Pentagon officials have yet to decide how many bombers to send, an official said. The U.S. already maintains extensive forces at military bases and on ships in the region, including an amphibious assault ship with roughly 4,500 sailors and Marines aboard that docked last week in the United Arab Emirates.

At least for now, the military deployment diverted attention from White House frustrations with North Korea. Trump downplayed Friday’s missile launch, tweeting that Kim “knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”

Pompeo told Fox News Sunday that U.S. officials have “high confidence they they were not intermediate-range missiles, that they were not long-range missiles or intercontinental missiles.… We still have every intention to negotiate with North Korea to get them to denuclearize.”

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Critics said that analysis sows distrust with Japan, South Korea and other allies that depend on American security guarantees.

“The point was made that because these weren’t intercontinental ballistic missiles the U.S. really shouldn’t care,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank. “It’s really one-dimensional foreign policy. They can’t think beyond that.”

Trump has even had difficulty persuading his own advisors to go along with some of his decisions.

In Syria, Trump declared Islamic State defeated last December and put out a hastily shot video announcing that U.S. troops were leaving. U.S. officials said Trump had ordered a complete withdrawal of the roughly 4,000 U.S. troops within 30 days. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that troops had already started leaving.

But the U.S. withdrawal has unfolded slowly after pushback from the Pentagon. Today an unknown number of U.S. troops remain in a U.S.-defended enclave in northeast Syria, and administration officials have decided to keep at least 400 soldiers there indefinitely.

Trump’s dealings with China have been mostly over trade. He imposed tariffs that brought Beijing to the table, but pulled back from several harsher threats and deadlines while touting his personal relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

For months Trump suggested a great China deal was at hand, saying Xi would come to the U.S. to clinch the accord. An announcement seemed possible after a final session of talks this week in Washington.

But Trump threatened to raise tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods after his top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, returned from Beijing last week and reported that the Chinese were reneging on previous commitments. An angry Trump responded by reviving a previous plan to ratchet up punitive tariffs from the current 10% to 25%, saying the higher duties would take effect on Friday.

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, who has pushed for a softer line on China, agreed that Beijing had backpedaled, but on Monday he held out hopes that a deal still could come together. Mnuchin said that Xi’s special economic envoy and leader of the Chinese delegation, Vice Premier Liu He, would arrive in Washington on Thursday.

That would still give the two sides an opportunity to avert the step-up in tariffs, which would be a significant escalation of the trade conflict. However, it wasn’t clear if the Chinese were prepared to meet the U.S. demands.

“Nobody likes to negotiate with a gun held to their head, so I think it’s a dilemma” for Beijing, said Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the nonpartisan Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Trump’s handling of China trade has been like much of the rest of his foreign policy — prone to unilateral and inconsistent actions that at times have undermined other policies and priorities. Diplomats say it reflects the lack of traditional interagency review and coordination. Instead, most policy decisions come from the White House and often solely from the president.

“The big problem I have with Trump is that there’s very little long-term strategy and he never aligns with allies,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk assessment firm. “On top of that, you’ve got Trump, who personally barely sees from tweet to tweet.”

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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