WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is succeeding wildly at one thing: sowing utter confusion about its foreign policy.
Perhaps “foreign policy” is the wrong term. “International lurchings” might be more apt. Allies and adversaries alike are having to learn which pronouncements to take seriously, which to ignore and which are likely to be countermanded by presidential tweet.
Trump announces he has accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, whose nuclear arms and ballistic missiles have provoked a dangerous crisis. No groundwork for such a meeting has been laid, so the president dispatches an envoy on a secret mission to Pyongyang -- not a diplomat but CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Trump couldn’t send his secretary of state since, at the moment, he doesn’t have one. Pompeo is his nominee for the job.
On Wednesday, the president says he really, truly intends to go through with the meeting -- unless it seems the encounter will not be productive, in which case he won’t meet with Kim after all. If there is a meeting but it doesn’t seem sufficiently “fruitful,” Trump says, “I will respectfully leave the meeting and we’ll continue what we’re doing or whatever it is that we’ll continue, but something will happen.”
Got that? “Something will happen.” The possible outcomes range from hurt feelings to nuclear war.
On another front, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley went on television Sunday to deliver what sounded like a clear message: There will be new sanctions against Russia.
That makes sense. The Russians interfered with our election, according to intelligence officials. Moscow continues to support and defend the Syrian butcher Bashar Assad, who recently used chemical weapons again against civilians. And our British allies accuse the Russians of using a powerful nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian intelligence officer living in England.
So Haley’s announcement of new sanctions was appropriate. But there won’t be any. That news came from, of all people, Trump’s new chief economic adviser, former television pundit Larry Kudlow. Pressed into duty on the foreign affairs front, Kudlow told reporters that Haley “got ahead of the curve” and that “there might have been some momentary confusion.”
Haley was not amused. Her retort was memorable: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
The rest of us do, though. Asked Wednesday to clarify the policy, Trump went on a rant about how no one has ever been as tough on Russia as he has -- a laughable claim -- and then waxed poetic (for Trump) about how nice it would be if the United States and Russia could just be friends.
The question was finally settled when Russian officials said they have been assured by the administration that there will be no new sanctions. If the Russkies are the most reliable source of information, maybe we should ask them who’ll win the 2020 election.
If the aim of foreign policy were to keep everybody guessing, Trump would be a smashing success. But that is no proper goal for the leader of the free world. Rhetorically, at least, the United States used to stand for freedom, democracy and human rights throughout the world. Now, apparently, we have an administration that sees foreign relations as a zero-sum game in which others must lose so that we may win.
But the Trump administration doesn’t even seem capable of deciding what winning looks like. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. As critics predicted, China took advantage of that decision to launch a major initiative to dominate trade in Asia. Last week, Trump reportedly ordered officials to look into rejoining the TPP. This week, the White House said no, we’re staying out.
Trump sent 2,000 U.S. troops into Syria to help drive out the Islamic State -- despite his campaign pledge not to get involved in such wars -- and had considerable success. But recently, according to widespread reports, he has been demanding an immediate withdrawal, which military officials say would leave behind a chaotic, blood-soaked breeding ground for terrorism. Who knows what the president will ultimately decide?
The Trump administration sees no reason to criticize authoritarian leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and, of course, Vladimir Putin in Russia. By contrast, the president is chilly toward staunch allies who do not go out of their way to flatter him, such as Angela Merkel of Germany.
To brief Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his meeting this week with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, I’d have told him one thing: Whatever you do, don’t beat him at golf.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.