IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Administration adopts a 'Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' foreign policy

For a month, Trump administration officials have adopted a foreign policy built around asking the world to ignore the president.
US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on February 17, 2017 in North Charleston, South Carolina. 
On his first full day as president, Donald Trump delivered a speech at CIA headquarters, where he lamented the fact Americans did not take Iraqi oil after the 2003 invasion. "The old expression, to the victor belong the spoils," the new president said, adding, "We should've kept the oil. But, okay, maybe we'll have another chance."A few days later, in an interview with ABC News, Trump said, four times, "We should have taken the oil." Asked about the "maybe we'll have another chance" comment, Trump added, "[W]e'll see what happens. I mean, we're gonna see what happens."Nearly a month later, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Baghdad this morning, declaring, "We're not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil."I call this part of the "Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' approach to foreign policy, which follows an increasingly familiar pattern: the president makes a ridiculous comment, which creates international alarm, which leads to leading members of the Trump administration trying to reassure global observers that there's simply no reason to take the leader of the free world's claims seriously.As Politico noted over the weekend, this happens with alarming regularity.

Even though the administration is less than a month old, both [Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] and [Defense Secretary James Mattis] have been in perpetual cleanup mode, making calls to leaders around the world with far less drama and unpredictability than Trump's own calls and traveling to assuage the anxieties of key allies in Asia and Europe. Both have spent much of their first weeks in office in other countries, reassuring allies about Trump's ad hoc approach to foreign policy that is being driven largely by the president's son-in-law.

It's not just Tillerson and Mattis. Last week, literally the day after Trump dismissed a possible two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the exact opposite, insisting, "We absolutely support a two-state solution."And then there's Vice President Mike Pence, whose vision of foreign policy appears to be wholly at odds with his boss', even as he tries to argue that the two are on the same page.The Washington Post reported today on Pence's trip to Europe, where he was eager to "reassure worried allies this weekend that, yes, despite what his boss may say, the United States remains committed to the security of Europe and to the historic transatlantic partnership."

Although the vice president repeatedly stressed that he was speaking on behalf of President Trump, the two men indeed seemed as though they were separated by an ocean.Pence offered bland mollifications, forced to calm and cajole European countries that, in the post-Cold War order, until recently never had cause to question the support of the United States.

This even extends beyond the executive branch: after Trump insulted Australia and its prime minister for no particular reason, it fell to a bipartisan group of U.S. senators to reach out to our ally, assuring Australian officials that our relationship is sound, and that the president's rhetoric is better left ignored.Even Donald Trump is telling the world not to listen to Donald Trump: after chest-thumping recently about his willingness to abandon the "One China" policy unless Beijing gives him some kind of reward, the president recently abandoned his own posturing. It wasn't just an embarrassing fiasco for the political amateur; it was also a reminder that Trump's stated commitments are often meaningless when it comes to international affairs.Or put another way, the president is himself on board with the "Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' approach to foreign policy.Harvard's Jon Finer wrote a good piece the other day about the White House simply not having a foreign policy. "[W]e are experiencing," Finer wrote, "an unprecedented degree of policy incoherence on virtually every major issue the country faces."There's more than one explanation for this. It doesn't help, for example, that key posts throughout the State Department remain empty, because the president hasn't nominated enough people to staff the offices. It makes matters worse that Trump has a Secretary of State, whom he doesn't appear to speak with (when the president chose a new direction on U.S. policy towards Israel, Tillerson learned about the shift by watching it live on television).But at its core, this is a dynamic created by an incompetent president who simply has no idea what he's doing, surrounded by officials who routinely have to spend time telling the world to ignore their boss' unsettling nonsense.The dirty little secret of the "Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' approach to foreign policy is that it's not a sustainable foreign policy at all.