Paul Sonne: 'Trump looks like the bully who is secretly scared to get in a fight'
President Donald Trump ran for office vowing to extricate the United States from entanglements abroad. But his administration now finds itself juggling three national security crises overseas - with Iran, Venezuela and North Korea - while confronting China over a possible trade war.
The situation, partly a function of uncontrollable events, is also the result of Trump's 'go big or go home' approach to foreign affairs, which has led his administration to apply "maximum pressure" to multiple nations simultaneously, rather than prioritise one over the other or take incremental steps.
The maximalist tactics at times have raised the prospect of big breakthroughs, ones that Trump hopes to take to the campaign trail for his re-election, particularly when it comes to North Korea. At the same time, it has brought what former policymakers describe as a greater risk of crises and miscalculations, as well as possible distractions from the primary goal of the administration's national security strategy: countering Russia and China.
"The president's apparent tendency to brinkmanship brings with it a degree of danger - and it's even more dangerous when it's combined with a pattern of bluffing," said James Dobbins, a former top diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation.
Whether Trump is willing to pursue military action, which he and his aides have referenced in public remarks, is a looming question. He has long been a vocal skeptic of American military force abroad and at times has expressed concern about the more hawkish impulses of his national security adviser, John Bolton.
Strategy experts cite the risk of overextending US rhetoric in conflicts with possible military outcomes if the president isn't willing to back words with actions. "It's kind of like the not terribly capable bully, who likes pushing people around and teasing them, but when push comes to shove, is nervous to actually get into a bar fight," said Mara Karlin, a former Pentagon strategist during the Obama administration and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Trump administration officials dispute that the president is engaging in any reckless brinkmanship. They point out that Trump and his top advisers primarily voice Washington's desire for peaceful resolutions to the confrontations in North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, and note that he has reinvigorated the diplomatic track with Pyongyang, brokering the suspension of menacing intercontinental ballistic missile tests. This past week, Trump extended an olive branch to Iran, saying "I'd like to see them call me," even as his top aides lambasted the country and the US military said it would respond to any attack on US interests with force.
"The administration continues to leverage diplomacy, pursue economic pressure, and enforce existing laws to deter malign actors seeking to threaten stability and security," a senior administration official said in a statement.
"The United States, though, remains prepared to respond to any threats against America or our allies." The possibility that Trump's resolve could be tested has increased in recent days. (© Washington Post)