WASHINGTON ― The new sheriff in town had a message for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on Monday: “Gotta behave.”
What did President Donald Trump’s warning, issued during his first White House Easter Egg Roll, mean, exactly, coming after a weekend in which the rogue nation tested another ballistic missile?
That’s what the world is still trying to figure out.
Three months into Trump’s term, the United States has ramped up bombing campaigns in Syria and Yemen, used a gigantic non-nuclear bomb on an actual target for the first time, and fired dozens of cruise missiles in response to a chemical weapons attack ― giving the impression of an unleashed military.
And yet, for all of his bluster, the new president has taken foreign policy positions not terribly different from the consensus positions of the past few administrations.
Despite campaign vows to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran, move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and perhaps pull out of NATO because it was obsolete, Trump has done none of those things ― aggressive tweets notwithstanding. The dissonance has left foreign policy observers scratching their heads.
“I think he’s just settling in to the idea that he is commander in chief, and likes being the tough guy in the room,” said Eliot Cohen, a top State Department official under President George W. Bush and a participant on his National Security Council. “He has not been tested yet.”
Vice President Mike Pence perhaps illustrated the “talk tough but act more or less the same” approach most clearly during his visit to South Korea over the weekend. At the Demilitarized Zone marking the border with North Korea, Pence declared: “The era of strategic patience is over.” In those remarks, though, Pence also said the United States would pursue its goals “through peaceable means, through negotiations. But all options are on the table as we continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of South Korea.”
That latter part suggests a continuation of the policy under former President Barack Obama, whose administration used similar language in regard to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Susan Thornton, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for the region, made that message clear during a conference call Monday afternoon. “We are definitely not seeking conflict or regime change,” she said, adding that the administration had decided “to maximize pressure, economic pressure on the North Korean regime to try to get it to make tangible steps to roll back their illegal programs.”
Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and the NSC spokesman under Obama, said Trump’s suggestion that it was his own idea to bring China in as a partner is absurd.
“The Obama administration worked around the clock to forge a coalition to address North Korea,” Price said. “And yes, the most important player there is China. And that’s why the Obama administration cultivated the relationship with Beijing, treating it as the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world.”
Indeed, distilling Trump’s foreign policy into a distinct and readily explained synopsis is proving a challenge, even for those whose job it is to do exactly that.
When asked about a “Trump Doctrine,” his NSC spokesman, Michael Anton, responded to Politico with a jumble of words that appeared to suggest there really isn’t one.
“I don’t know if there’s a way you can state it, the way you could state in one sentence the Truman Doctrine or the Reagan Doctrine, or some famous doctrines of the past. His doctrine, I think, it’s still emerging, it’s still coming together, but the outlines of it were clear in the campaign,” Anton said. “It was: There’s an approach to the use of force, there’s an approach to putting American interests first, an approach to putting especially the interest of American workers and the American economy first in trade negotiations.”
Anton did not respond to a Huffington Post request for an interview. But in the Politico interview, he went on to add: “All these things, I think, have a coherence that unites them, and the NSC with our interagency partners are currently in the beginning stages of working on a document that’s required by Congress, called the National Security Strategy, that when that is eventually published ― probably in the fall ― will be the Trump doctrine, but it won’t be a sentence. It’ll be ― I don’t know how many pages, but a number of ― a couple dozen pages that explain this in some detail.”
In some areas, Trump has clearly given the military freer rein to pursue long-standing objectives without worrying as much about civilian deaths or negative publicity. American forces, for example, have stepped up airstrikes in Yemen compared to what had been taking place under Obama.
The country received a good deal of attention as the site of a botched commando raid that took the life of a Navy SEAL and dozens of civilians barely a week into Trump’s presidency. Less prominent has been increased American help for Saudi Arabia in its war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, as well as the intensified air campaign against the group AQAP, or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In eastern Afghanistan, the Air Force dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on a series of tunnels they said were being used by the Islamic State group ― the first time the weapon has been used in combat even though it has been available for 15 years.
And in Syria, Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against an airfield under the control of dictator Bashar Assad after U.S. intelligence determined it was used to launch a sarin gas attack on civilians ― an action that Republicans, including Trump, warned Obama not to take in 2013 after Assad used chemical weapons then.
To Cohen, though, those incidents of military force do not by themselves offer either Americans or other countries a clear idea of future actions.
“I would stress that this is no big deal yet. The 59 cruise missile salvo was a safe, minimal response to an egregious crime,” Cohen said. “The real test will be altogether more complex and difficult, and we have no idea how he will react to that.”
And in foreign affairs, particularly when it could involve military force, clear statements of principle are critical, said Price.
“We’ve seen how this has devolved, with little explanation, little compunction on the part of the administration to explain to the American people what it is they’re doing and what they will be doing in the future when it comes to the use of force,” Price said.