OPINION | Trump's strategic incoherence is a recipe for war
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As Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHouse passes legislation to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet With salami-slicing and swarming tactics, China's aggression continues MORE embarks on his first trip to Southeast Asia, locals there can be forgiven for their confusion regarding what the Trump administration's policies actually are toward key regional flashpoints, like North Korea and the South China Sea.

On grave issues of war and peace, especially when nuclear weapons are involved, clarity and consistency is critical for a great power to reduce the risk of miscalculation or misunderstanding. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is frightfully incoherent, even as hysteria and war fever surrounds the debate over North Korea. Is the policy deterrence, preemption or regime change?

Witness the dizzying array of contradictory statements:

Exhibit A: On Aug. 1, Tillerson articulated a clear, sensible policy: “We do not see a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula,” he promised. “We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel. And we’re trying to convey that to the North Koreans.


“We are not your enemy. We’re not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them.”


Exhibit B: Yet, at the same time, Vice President Mike Pence, speaking during a trip to Eastern Europe on Aug. 2, rejected the notion of holding direct talks with North Korea, saying the right strategy doesn’t involve “engaging North Korea directly.” He stressed economic and diplomatic pressure, and emphasized that “all options are on the table,” including military action.

Exhibit C: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on the "Today" show that President Trump told him, ”There will be a war with North Korea over the missile program if they continue to try hit America.”

Exhibit D: Yet, our "tweeter in chief" himself has called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “smart cookie” and said that under the right conditions, he would be “honored to meet with him.”

Exhibit E: Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Aspen Institute forum that it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean nuclear capability, and he suggested that the clock was ticking and that the administration is giving diplomacy only “a few more months.”

Exhibit F: United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley chimed in after North Korea’s second intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test that “the time for talk is over.” 

Exhibit G: CIA Director Mike Pompeo, also at the Aspen forum, recklessly, as reported in the press, said that the administration is developing “a range of options” and that he was “hopeful” that the U.S. could “find a way to separate that regime from their nuclear weapons.” This implies regime change — directly contradicting Secretary Tillerson’s effort to articulate an authoritative policy.

What’s going on here? Obviously, part of the problem is Trump’s incessant, impulsive tweeting. He seems desperate for instant gratification: If China hasn’t solved the North Korea problem three days after President Xi Jinping promised, he is very disappointed.

Similar statements abound on issues in the South China Sea, from Tillerson’s implied threats of blockade of China-occupied disputed territory (later "clarified") to Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE suggesting an adherence to diplomacy, saying in February, “At this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”

But North Korea is the No. 1 Asia policy issue that will dominate the regional security for this week. The current frenzied Washington political climate was spun up by a flawed, leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report that North Korea would have an operational ICBM by 2018. Video footage of a July 28 missile launch, its re-entry vehicle burning, breaking up and landing in Japanese waters, suggests Pyongyang’s putative ICBM is still far from being ready for primetime.

But the larger problem is a lack of a disciplined interagency policy process. On major policy issues, there is a need for a "point person" — someone senior in charge who reports to the president.

The fact that there are still some 350 Senate-confirmable positions for which Trump has not announced nominees is no small factor. There is, for example, no new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, no new assistant secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, no undersecretary for policy; the list goes on. It is these senior advisers who are key to formulating and managing policy, day to day, week to week.

One wonders if the war fever might have been tempered if key policy managers were in place. But in any case, this is no way to run a railroad. This strategic incoherence is becoming a hallmark of Trump foreign policy. Do we honor Article 5 of our NATO commitment to defend allies or not? Is China our partner, or not? Do we end NAFTA or update it?

President Trump has a point that unpredictability can be useful. But capricious, erratic and fundamentally contradictory public policy views can lead to catastrophic, unintended consequences.

Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior adviser to the assistant secretary of East Asia and the Pacific (1989-93), counselor to the undersecretary of State for global affairs from (2001-04) as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from (2004-08) and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group (2008-12) Follow him on Twitter @RManning4

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