In his speech to the General Assembly President Trump stepped on his own rake. He could have used the occasion to dramatize the UN’s own notorious failings, its bureaucratic bloat, habitual recourse to anti-Semitism and long-standing ineffectiveness even where it plays an active role in trying to end or defuse conflicts.
Although Trump articulated sharp yet accurate comments about these defects, he outlined no ideas about overcoming them and spoiled their impact with wild threats against North Korea and Iran that achieved nothing. Alternatively he could have forcefully pointed to the threat of nuclear proliferation and announced a program to reduce the threat. Instead Trump, flinging threats like horseshoes at Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, etc. engaged in language unbefitting a president at the UN.
As Vladimir Putin showed at Munich a decade ago one can be very forceful without personalizing the issue or lowering the rhetoric (as the Russian press pointed out) to the level of a children’s sandbox or kindergarten. The picture of chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE sitting with his hand over his eyes and head bowed articulates, far better than all the subsequent press spin, what was wrong with the speech. And it is hardly surprising that there are now reports emerging that President Trump once again disregarded his staff’s recommendations with regard to this speech.
To be sure, several conservative pundits applauded the tone and even content of the speech, claiming to varying degrees that it set forth a new “Trump Doctrine” or some other intellectual construct. But this too is spin or shows that conservative intellectuals can are no less susceptible than their leftist alter egos are to the siren song of windy but empty rhetoric. No doubt, they will say or already are saying that he really displayed what in the Bush administration neo-cons called moral clarity, and stuck it to North Korea.
Yet here again that is not the case. North Korea and Iran’s behavior is indefensible. However, sticking it to Pyongyang or Tehran is not a policy but a pose. Moral clarity only works when we can genuinely point to our own moral accomplishments. And under Trump, who has looked the other way at neo-Nazis, and is himself the race card, the administration’s moral failure is plainly visible to all. And these statements are revealed for what they are, empty bravado, fake threats made by a bully who has yet to realize that the rulers in Pyongyang or Tehran will not be bullied and have friends that he cannot bully either.
In fact when one reads the speech one finds not some new intellectual construct but a pathetic skein of contradictory impulses, a thing of shreds and patches dressed up in fancy rhetoric but without any idea of what we are trying to accomplish or of what are true interests are other than to look good to the audience back home.
Nothing Trump has said would convince any leader in North Korea or Iran to renounce nuclear weapons. Indeed, quite the opposite for he confirms that he wants to destroy their states. Why they should comply with that request to destroy them, i.e. war, is obviously an unanswerable question. And if the U.S. does not want a war how then does it envisage denuclearizing North Korea, restraining Iran, and equally if not importantly guaranteeing the peace and security of Northeast Asia and the Middle East.
As one who has played these games out, I can tell you that if the U.S. attacks North Korea, it will encounter the People’s Liberation Army. If it attacks Iran it will require a force three times what we sent to Iraq and our expertise on Iran is probably worse than in Iraq. Thus there is no strategy here just an angry rhetoric of grievance. This rhetoric might deceive the easily swayed into thinking that Trump has become more responsible when in fact the opposite is true.
If indeed, some policymakers think that simply insulting and threatening recalcitrant states can induce them to commit suicide (as they see it and rightly so from their perspective) then it behooves lawmakers to explain why the military option will succeed here when it failed against Iraq, a vastly weaker antagonist.
Trump manufactured the heated rhetoric and threats with no strategic end in sight against North Korea, Iran, Venezuela etc. His substitution of impulse for intellect of anger for analysis, and intimidation for implementation will lead neither the U.S., nor the UN, nor the world to more security, quite the opposite.
While conservative intellectuals may enthuse that Trump outlined here a Trump doctrine, the reality is far different. Indeed, as Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee observed in August, Trump "has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability, nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful." As Trump’s UN performance shows, that verdict still stands.
Consequently this speech, far from engendering an improvement in international security and the chances for peace that are in the U.S’s interest has only brought us closer to wars and crises that are not in anybody’s interest.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College.