“It Is Evident There Is No Policy”: Trump Governs By Vacuous Platitude

Well, say what you will about WaPo’s Jennifer Rubin, but she’ll certainly tell you what she thinks.

And what she thinks about the Trump administration’s “complete absence of a plan for anything” (to quote Will Ferrell’s George Bush) can’t be described as laudatory.

Yesterday, I said the following about Trump’s characteristically over-wrought comments about tax reform that appeared in the AP and moved markets on Friday afternoon:

“Bigly,” “tremendous,” “terrific people,” “phenomenal tax cuts,” “very powerful armada,” “big league,” and other bullshit platitudes.

That’s what this administration lives on, and by extension, so does this market.

So admittedly, I was pleased when a reader referred me to a piece penned by the above-mentioned Jennifer Rubin called “Foreign policy via empty platitude.”

What’s really interesting to watch is the extent to which Sean Spicer is frustrated when the press corps quizzes him on the superlatives the President uses. Witness last week’s bungled attempt to explain why when Trump said “we’re sending an armada, very powerful” to North Korea, what he actually meant was “there are some ships in Singapore.”

To be sure, I don’t think Sean Spicer is incredulous that reporters would ask the questions they’re asking. I think he’s frustrated that the President continues to make hyperbolic statements and vacuous promises that are flat-out indefensible. Hence this tweet from Friday:

That’s not to say Spicer hasn’t stumbled into some cringe-worthy gaffes of his own making, it’s just that he seems irritated that he’s being shoved out to defend the indefensible.

Well with all of that in mind, I present the aforementioned piece from Rubin with no further comment.

Via WaPo

Trying to discern where the administration stands on a variety of national security issues is nearly impossible so long as the president sees no need for coherence and treats foreign policy as a series of discrete public-relations exercises, unrelated to other actions and messages we send to foes and allies. He equates “winning” with a good news cycle, without much regard for what foreign policy objectives we are pursuing.

Well-intentioned Cabinet officials can boast about “good meetings” or a “successful trip,” but we do not know what was achieved or how this administration measures success. We fear this administration has fallen into the trap of tallying inputs (meetings had, trips made) without regard to results.

Vice President Pence is king of the empty platitude, the content-free chest thump. He proclaims, “The United States of America will always seek peace but under President Trump, the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready.” Terrific! But what — other than sending (not directly, mind you) a convoy of ships in the direction of North Korea — does that entail? Do we really intend to use military force if the Chinese do not keep North Korea under control? Are we in favor of unification of the Korean peninsula? Regime change? Pence seemed to equivocate on whether we are pursuing negotiations with North Korea. My colleague Josh Rogin reported:

When Vice President Pence spoke at the Korean demilitarized zone on Monday, he said that the United States sought to solve the North Korean crisis “through peaceable means and negotiations,” after increasing pressure on the Pyongyang regime. But in an interview with me on Wednesday afternoon, he adopted a harder line: The Trump administration, he said, demands that North Korea abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs without any promise of direct negotiations with the United States.

It is not that a well-formed policy remains under wraps. It is evident that there is no policy beyond a few talking points.

The same holds true in Syria. While Republicans in Congress, administration spinners and the president himself declare we have turned the page, we again are at a loss to figure out what page we are now on. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, seems to suggest that we would use force again for humanitarian purposes, but others sound as though nothing has changed. Haley excoriates Russia’s role in supporting Bashar al-Assad, but the president never makes that association.

On Iran, a “review” is underway. Right now the administration is caught in a bind. Some conservative foreign policy experts believe that Iran is not complying fully with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but the administration is not prepared to pull the plug. As a result, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a decidedly mixed message after certifying that Tehran is in compliance with the JCPOA. He had this exchange with Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday:

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, by your own letter to the Speaker of the House, Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. If you break out of that deal, won’t that send a signal to North Korea and other rogue nations that the U.S. can’t be trusted to keep its end of the bargain? And Iran is already being sanctioned for its terrorism, for its missile (inaudible) by the U.S. Is another option — one that many Republicans on the Hill have suggested — to increase those sanctions to punish Iran for those behaviors?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Andrea, I think it’s important in any conversation on the JCPOA — and I think this was one of the mistakes in how that agreement was put together, is that it completely ignored all of the other serious threats that Iran poses, and I just went through a few of those with you. And that’s why our view is that we have to look at Iran in a very comprehensive way in terms of the threat it poses in all areas, of the region and the world, and the JCPOA is just one element of that. And so we are going to review completely the JCPOA itself. As I said, it really does not achieve the objective. It is another example of buying off a power who has nuclear ambitions; we buy them off for a short period of time and then someone has to deal with it later. We just don’t —

QUESTION: So should we break out of it?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We just don’t see that that’s a prudent way to be dealing with Iran, certainly not in the context of all of their other disruptive activities.

Despite concerns about Iran chiseling away at the deal, Tillerson’s certification essentially gives Iran the same passing grade as the Obama administration did. What comes next is anyone’s guess.

It is not surprising that an administration lacking so much staffing below the secretary level and headed by a president with such limited understanding of the world should appear to be improvising simply to get through interviews and hearings. Sooner rather than later, the Trump team will need actual objectives and policies aimed at obtaining them. In the meantime, we risk having no settled policy when an adversary calls our bluff.


3 thoughts on ““It Is Evident There Is No Policy”: Trump Governs By Vacuous Platitude

  1. > Sooner rather than later, the Trump team will need actual objectives and policies aimed at obtaining them. In the meantime, we risk having no settled policy when an adversary calls our bluff.

    As an engineering consultant, when I came onboard with a new client I discovered quite often that the stated objectives of a program had been implemented within a culture that worked at cross-purposes toward the stated goals. More precisely, expediency (usually) over time had introduced processes and procedures that were objectives in and of themselves. The result was often that not only were many of the participants unaware of the goal, those that were aware were typically unsure how their activities dovetailed into those objectives. The objective is to complete a task, not assure that the task accomplishes the goal. For simple example, running the vacuum over the carpet is not the objective, cleaning the carpet is the objective.

    Now, if I was solicited, it means that management understood they had a problem and needed assistance to solve it, and invariably the first question I was asked was “What is the recovery plan?”. The first thing I had to do was to get rid of the “First 100 days” expectation. The interview process was at best just an indication of how management thought things were working, which was invariably wrong (or else they would be able to solve it without my help – it was never just a “need more manpower” bolt on effort as often thought). The interview process and walk through (transition period) just revealed the tip of the iceberg.

    In politics, the executive is changed and the new guy is expected to hit the ground running. If he (or she, I’ll use the masculine term to represent the role, irrespective of actual gender), is a previously-embedded manager, the culture is understood, and it’s rare to see any fundamental change – things are done as they are done, with alterations and improvements around the edges… worst case, polishing the turd.

    But if the executive is changed and the new guy comes from a completely different high-performance culture, it’s going to take time to understand what is actually going on – you just don’t step in and start drawing up new organization charts, rearranging offices and reallocating or replacing leadership and management. You do that and you might as well just shut the company down for a few months – you’ll lose less money and customer good will that way.

    So you have to keep operations going so that approach doesn’t work. and the upshot is that the first six to twelve months while the culture is being understood and an effective alteration approach is developed it is going to look like “there’s no settled policies or procedures” to rely on. Nothing changes all at once, certainly nothing as huge, bureaucratic and convoluted as the Federal Government executive branch, never mind the other branches.

    To the uninitiated, this lack of settlement looks bad. It’s not – it means that an “off-the-cuff” hastily-concocted “recovery plan” has not been thrust upon the organization (or abandoned). But the new executive DOES have different objectives, or at least different approaches to achieve them, and he will face resistance, even sabotage – change is typically the hardest thing to accept, particularly where the status quo was working to the “oppositions” benefit. It’s not unusual for the executive to be forced to launch a few missiles, drop a bomb or two, and buy time (and credibility) to make the changes that may not yet be fully understood.

    In this context, nothing I see Trump actually doing gives me alarm (yet) – I recognize both the monumental task facing him, and the criticisms that tell me he’s basically on-track. Folks may not like his superlatives – he’s definitely not a “speak softly and carry a big stick” guy that we’ve been taught to highly value, but it works to his (and our) advantage to be considered unpredictable and even feared at this point. Particularly so by our traditional advisories. They all know we still have the loudest bark and the hardest bite in the neighborhood, and “calling our bluff” is ignorant. And we certainly shouldn’t be alarmed by their bluffs. Nobody wants our undivided, hostile attention. Nobody.

    Over time, a new culture will be implemented (assuming the concerted effort by the statists to derail the changes Trump was elected to implement ultimately fail), and I’m quite sure as national and international metamorphous is completed the narrative will be that “while it was shaky at first, his learning on the job was ultimately successful”. Once those new policies and procedures are in place and we accept it as the new normal, I’m sure everyone will look back and say he settled down a lot.

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