Column: Erratic foreign policy shows President Trump unbound

Coffins of Gen. Qassem Suleimani and others killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone strike are carried on a truck surrounded by mourners.
(Associated Press)

President Trump’s foreign policy is looking dangerously erratic — and that’s being charitable.

He threatens to bomb Iranian cultural sites, but aides say he still wants to negotiate with the mullahs in Tehran.

He’s announced several times that he’s withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan, only to reverse himself and leave the troops in place.

He demands that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un dismantle his nuclear weapons, then says it doesn’t really matter that Kim has continued to build more.

No wonder allies and adversaries alike can’t figure out what our red lines are.


Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general killed by a U.S. drone strike last week, had been plotting against American interests in the Middle East for decades, including the first three years of the Trump administration — but no president gave the order to take him out until last week.

There were several versions of how and why Trump ordered Suleimani’s death, with slightly different details. But the stories agreed on one thing: the president was especially angry that an Iraqi militia apparently directed by Suleimani had staged violent protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Trump publicly compared the protests to the 2012 attack by armed militants on the U.S. mission and CIA post in Benghazi, Libya, leaving four Americans dead.

“The Anti-Benghazi!” Trump crowed on Twitter after the Baghdad incident ended without casualties.

There’s an underlying consistency in Trump’s goals, even if his messages are contradictory and his methods chaotic.

He wants to withdraw U.S. troops from the Middle East — but only if he can portray the exit as a victory march.

He wants to make deals with American’s adversaries, including Iran and North Korea — but only if he can claim the deal was an unalloyed win for the United States.

He believes applying “maximum pressure” will force his adversaries to back down — whether the adversary is China on trade or Iran in the Middle East’s proxy wars. So far, the tactic hasn’t worked.

“Trump arrived in the White House with a set of strong visceral beliefs, but no idea how to convert them into policy,” says Thomas Wright, a foreign policy scholar at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

In his first months in office, Trump relied mostly on generals to guide him through the unfamiliar terrain of foreign policy: retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis as secretary of Defense, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security advisor and a former oil executive, Rex Tillerson, as secretary of State.

The so-called “axis of adults” managed to restrain Trump — convincing him not to withdraw from NATO, not to scrap trade pacts with South Korea and other countries, and at least for a while, not to tear up the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran — even though that had been one of Trump’s clearest campaign promises.

Not surprisingly, Trump bridled under those restraints. He really did want trade wars, because he believed they were “good, and easy to win.” He really wanted to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. He really wanted to get out of NATO, or at least renegotiate the terms of the alliance.

So in 2018, the president cut his shackles. He fired Tillerson, then McMaster. He announced he was pulling out of the Iran deal. He launched trade wars against China and Canada, among other countries. At year’s end, he said he was withdrawing U.S. troops immediately from Syria, an abrupt decision that prompted Mattis to resign.

Trump appointed successors to the generals who seemed more in tune with his instincts: Michael R. Pompeo at State, John N. Bolton as national security advisor, Mark Esper at Defense.

But Bolton later resigned after he tangled with Trump over the North Korea negotiations and the president’s desire to pull out of Syria.

The result is Trump Unbound.

In 2019, he began seeking big, dramatic deals to provide showy success stories for his 2020 reelection campaign: an ambitious trade agreement with China, another nuclear agreement with Iran and a deal with Taliban rebels in Afghanistan to allow U.S. forces to withdraw.

But the deals were harder to land than he expected — or, at least, harder than Trump claimed they would be.

He repeatedly promised that a big trade pact with China was coming. “They want to make a deal very badly,” he said in September. It still hasn’t happened; a modest, interim deal was announced in December.

His slow-motion nuclear talks with North Korea are at an impasse. Last week, Kim Jong Un said he no longer felt bound by his self-imposed halt on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

And Trump spent much of the year seeking vainly for a way to open negotiations with Iran. But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stonily rebuffed every overture. “I do not consider Trump as a person worth exchanging any message with,” he said.

Now, with Iran’s missile attacks on two bases used by U.S. forces in Iraq, we are at risk of full-scale war with Iran.

The result, Wright told me, is that Trump faces “a reckoning. Now he has to deal with the consequences of his choices in North Korea and Iran.”

Trump says he wants to de-escalate the conflict with Tehran, and his record suggests that his desire is genuine.

“He doesn’t want a major war,” Wright said. “He’ll try to get back to the deal-making side. He’ll try to put the genie back in the bottle.”

And what if Trump wins a second term?

Then the restraint on his actions imposed by voters would disappear. Trump could pursue the goals he’s believed in for decades: an end to multilateral trade agreements, withdrawal of U.S. troops from overseas, an exit from NATO — a modern version of isolationism.

That’s when we and the world will learn what Trump Unbound is really like.