Sunday, November 19, 2017
Opinion

Krauthammer: Can Trump exploit the old "Madman Theory"?

RECOMMENDED READING


WASHINGTON

At the heart of Donald Trump's foreign policy team lies a glaring contradiction. On the one hand, it is composed of men of experience, judgment and traditionalism. Meaning, they are all very much within the parameters of mainstream American internationalism as practiced since 1945.

Practically every member of the team — the heads of State, Homeland Security, the CIA, and most especially Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster — could fit in a Cabinet put together by, say, Hillary Clinton.

The commander in chief, on the other hand, is quite the opposite — inexperienced, untraditional, unbounded. His pronouncements on everything from the "one China" policy to the two-state (Arab-Israeli) solution, from NATO obsolescence to the ravages of free trade, continue to confound and, as we say today, disrupt.

The obvious question is: Can this arrangement possibly work? The answer thus far, surprisingly, is: perhaps.

The sample size is tiny but take, for example, the German excursion. Trump dispatched his grown-ups — Vice President Pence, Defense Secretary Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — to various international confabs in Germany to reassure allies with the usual pieties about America's commitment to European security. They did drop a few hints to Trump's loud complaints about allied parasitism, in particular shirking their share of the defense burden.

Within days, Germany announced a 20,000-man expansion of its military. Smaller European countries are likely to take note of the new setup. It's classic good cop, bad cop: The secretaries represent foreign policy continuity. But their boss preaches America First. Message: Shape up.

John Hannah of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies suggests that the push-pull effect might work on foes as well as friends. Last Saturday, China announced a cutoff of all coal imports from North Korea for the rest of 2017. Constituting more than one-third of all North Korean exports, this is a major blow to its economy.

True, part of the reason could be Chinese ire at the brazen assassination of Kim Jong Un's half-brother, who had been under Chinese protection. Nonetheless, the boycott was declared just days after a provocative North Korean missile launch — and shortly into the term of a new American president who has shown that he can be erratic and quite disdainful of Chinese sensibilities.

His wavering on the "one China" policy took Beijing by surprise. Trump also strongly denounced Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and conducted an ostentatious love-in with Japan's prime minister, something guaranteed to rankle the Chinese. Beijing's boycott of Pyongyang is many things, among them a nod to Washington.

This suggests that the peculiar and discordant makeup of the U.S. national security team — traditionalist lieutenants, disruptive boss — might reproduce the old Nixonian "Madman Theory." That's when adversaries tread carefully because they suspect the U.S. president of being unpredictable, occasionally reckless and potentially crazy dangerous. Henry Kissinger, with Nixon's collaboration, tried more than once to exploit this perception to pressure adversaries.

Trump's people have already shown a delicate touch in dealing with his bouts of loopiness. Trump has gone on for years about how we should have taken Iraq's oil for ourselves. Sunday in Baghdad, Mattis wryly backed off, telling his hosts that "All of us in America have generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I am sure we will continue to do so in the future."

Yet sometimes an off-center comment can have its uses. Take Trump's casual dismissal of a U.S. commitment to a two-state solution in the Middle East. The next day, U.S. policy was brought back in line by his own U.N. ambassador.

But this diversion might prove salutary. It's a message to the Palestinians that their decades of rejectionism may not continue to pay off with an inexorable march toward statehood — that there may actually be a price to pay for making no concessions and simply waiting for the United States to deliver them a Palestinian state.

To be sure, a two-track, two-policy, two-reality foreign policy is risky, unsettling and has the potential to go totally off the rails. This is not how you would draw it up in advance. It's unstable and confusing.

But the experience of the first month suggests that, with prudence and luck, it can yield the occasional benefit — that the combination of radical rhetoric and conventional policy may induce better behavior both in friend and foe.

Alas, there is also a worst-case scenario. It needs no elaboration.

© 2017 Washington Post Writers Group

Comments

Editorial: Good for Tampa council member Frank Reddick to appeal for community help to solve Seminole Heights killings

As the sole black member of the Tampa City Council, Frank Reddick was moved Thursday to make a special appeal for help in solving four recent murders in the racially mixed neighborhood of Southeast Seminole Heights. "I’m pleading to my brothers. You ...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: It’s time to renew community’s commitment to Tampa Theatre

Editorial: It’s time to renew community’s commitment to Tampa Theatre

New attention to downtown Tampa as a place to live, work and play is transforming the area at a dizzying pace. Credit goes to recent projects, both public and private, such as the Tampa River Walk, new residential towers, a University of South Florid...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

The Rays definitely like Ybor City, and Ybor City seems to like the Rays. So what could possibly come between this match made in baseball stadium heaven? Hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds) of millions of dollars. Rays owner Stu Sternberg told Times...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Wage hike for contractors’ labor misguided

Editorial: Wage hike for contractors’ labor misguided

St. Petersburg City Council members are poised to raise the minimum wage for contractors who do business with the city, a well-intended but misguided ordinance that should be reconsidered. The hourly minimum wage undoubtedly needs to rise — for every...
Published: 11/16/17

Editorial: Make workplaces welcoming, not just free of harassment

A federal trial began last week in the sex discrimination case that a former firefighter lodged against the city of Tampa. Tanja Vidovic describes a locker-room culture at Tampa Fire Rescue that created a two-tier system — one for men, another for wo...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Kriseman’s new term

Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Kriseman’s new term

Barely a week after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to unite the city following a bitter and divisive campaign, his administration has fired an employee who dared to criticize him. It seems Kriseman’s own mantra of "moving St. Pete forwar...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/16/17
Editorial: USF’s billion-dollar moment

Editorial: USF’s billion-dollar moment

The University of South Florida recently surpassed its $1 billion fundraising goal, continuing a current trend of exceeding expectations. At 61 years old — barely middle age among higher education institutions — USF has grown up quickly. It now boast...
Published: 11/14/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits

Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits

American military members hurt in service to their country should not have to wait a lifetime for the benefits they deserve. But that’s a reality of the disability process at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which hasn’t made payi...
Published: 11/14/17

Editorial: Deputies’ rescue reflects best in law enforcement

The bravery two Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies showed a week ago is a credit to them and reflects the professionalism of the office.Deputies Benjamin Thompson and Trent Migues responded at dusk Nov. 11 after 82-year-old Leona Evans of Webster...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/17/17

Another voice: An untrustworthy deal with Russia

President Donald Trump’s latest defense of Russian leader Vladimir Putin included — along with a bow to his denials of meddling in the U.S. election — an appeal to pragmatism. "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,"...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/14/17