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.
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.