If there is a present crisis developing in the Persian Gulf between the U.S. and Iran then President Trump has only himself to blame. After more than two years in office the President still has no idea of how to conduct foreign relations and make national security policy. While he can get domestically by bullying people, when it comes to international relations, diplomacy, and national security the consequences of such bumbling can be dangerous.
When this type of inept behavior is conducted on domestic issues—as was done this week in the roll out of the new immigration policy—the President and his staff look foolish and have egg on their faces. When it happens in foreign policy the potential for dire consequences is very scary. When White House staff float security policy initiatives, as occurred this week, and then have them pulled back, the potential for misunderstanding and danger now or in the future is enormous.
The President may believe that personal relationships are important in international relations, but they run a clear second to solid staff work and hard-fought negotiations; with the President only signing the papers and getting the credit. Presidents establish parameters and limits, unlike in real estate where the magnates do the final dealing. If a policy is to be changed or a new initiative is to be declared the President might announce the policy change or innovation, but only after it has been staffed effectively at the highest national security levels.
Consider that President Trump ordered the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Battle Group moved out of the Mediterranean and into the Persian Gulf. He also reportedly supported a proposal that he was preparing to dispatch a military force of as many as 120,000 troops to Iraq in preparation for a possible invasion of Iran. It was proclaimed as well that Trump had ordered all women and children and non-essential U.S. diplomatic personal sent home from Baghdad. In less than 48 hours, the President said that preparations for a force transfer to Iraq was merely a proposal made in a national security meeting not a decision.
There are several very important aspects to these national security activities which need to be examined. Who in the Administration’s national security staff devised these steps and were they approved at the highest level? If not, why not and if so, is the President really calling the shots in foreign policy as he reiterated? If the hawks–National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo–have taken over making policy, then how do they respond when the President challenges these decisions as having not been authorized?
Most important is that the President has no reason to assume that Iran and its backers will dismiss this type of saber rattling as the mutterings of an incompetent. Iran made a bellicose response but took no action—this time. Congressional leaders can get bent out of shape when the Administration speaks out of two sides of its mouth, but foreign leaders might respond aggressively to dramatic and threatening actions. Bouncing around even on tariff increases may be economically irresponsible and jarring to the markets, but they do not present a potential military threat.
On a specific, substantive level the making of foreign policy in any Administration always involves internal discussions and debate. Presidents need to understand the consequences of all options. The winners win, the losers accept the decision, and the policy is implemented. What is unclear in this instance is did the hawks win and did someone then explained to President Trump what he was doing, so he reneged; or did he back down when Iran countered with an aggressive threat? Did Trump see once again that not everyone in the world will roll over on his orders?
What emerged from this episode was significant and consequential in terms of Trump’s foreign policy. The possibility could be that Pompeo and Bolton mis-read the President and others in the Administration. Is Trump really that much war-averse than they are? If Trump does not consider his own responsibility in this episode and only blames others, the tenure of the hawks may be in danger. Finally, it appears that the immediate tension has been stepped back. It may not be so next time.