The Memo: Trump’s unpredictability brings risks and rewards

Greg Nash

President Trump’s unpredictability is raising the stakes on the world stage. 

The White House and other Trump backers argue that his flexibility can wrong-foot adversaries. But critics say it holds big risks, especially when it comes to volatile nations such as North Korea.

{mosads}Trump’s conduct of foreign policy has been under its first prolonged scrutiny in recent weeks, with a U.S. missile strike in Syria, the use of a huge bomb in Afghanistan and intensifying tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The North Korean regime suffered an embarrassment over the weekend when a missile failed soon after launch. But there is persistent speculation that Kim Jong Un’s government could be on the brink of a sixth nuclear test. 

Trump has praised the virtues of unpredictability directly. 

“We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable,” he said during a major foreign policy address as a candidate one year ago. “We are totally predictable. We tell them everything. We send troops, we tell them. We are sending something else, we have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.” 

White House press secretary Sean Spicer argued on Monday that clear statements of policy only help enemies. 

Spicer told reporters that Trump “holds his cards close to the vest, and you’re not going to see him telegraphing how he’s going to respond to any military or other situation going forward. That’s just something that he believes has not served us well in the past.”

He also jabbed at the Obama administration’s contrasting foreign policy actions, albeit in the context of Syria rather than North Korea.  

“Drawing red lines hasn’t really worked in the past,” Spicer said. 

Former President Obama famously declared in 2012 that any chemical attack against civilians by Syrian President Bashar Assad would constitute the crossing of a “red line” for the United States. The following year, Assad used such weapons to catastrophic effect. There was no direct military reprisal from Washington.

Vice President Pence also criticized the Obama approach during his visit Monday to the demilitarized zone that separates North Korea from South Korea, telling CNN that the Trump administration was going to “abandon the failed policy of strategic patience.”  

Defenders of Trump’s approach argue that Obama’s example shows how a more deliberative approach to foreign policy can backfire. 

“In any battle, if your opponent is predictable, it is an advantage [because] you know how they will react,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist.

“It could at least be argued that North Korea and Syria are not able to understand what Trump is capable of doing.”

But others caution there are dangers in taking such an approach on risky and complicated issues. 

“In the right sober, thoughtful hands, [unpredictability] can be helpful — but you’re playing with dynamite,” said Peter Wehner, a Republican who worked in the administrations of the last three GOP presidents before Trump. 

A recent chemical weapons attack in Syria came soon after both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley had indicated the U.S. was no longer placing as high a priority as previously on the removal of Assad.

The White House soon swung back to a position that was more assertive in terms of the need for Assad to leave, with Trump ordering a strike in response to the chemical attack.

That’s the kind of shift that disconcerts some critics, even in Republican circles. 

“I think unpredictability is an asset in military strategic planning, but I think foreign policy has to have very clear objectives so that both allies and aggressors alike can know where the United States stands,” said Republican strategist Rick Tyler.

Wehner noted that, in the early 1970s, President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had sought to win concessions from hostile forces by essentially suggesting that Nixon was capable of anything.

“But of course Nixon himself was not a madman. He was a very sober and prudent foreign policy figure. He and Kissinger together knew how to use that to their advantage,” Wehner added. “Given who Donald Trump is, I’m worried about playing the unpredictability guard too promiscuously.”

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, asserted that “‘in North Korea, you are dealing with a leader who is truly unpredictable.”  

“It is very hard to game out how they are going to react,” Zelizer said. “They might respond to the unpredictability of Trump by engaging him in that kind of rhetoric and that kind of behavior — and that would be extraordinarily dangerous.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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