Playing With Fire

Jewish Light Editorial

For anyone trying to evaluate President Donald Trump’s dizzying changes in U.S. foreign policy, it’s hard to separate the tweets from the chaff.

Depending upon where one stands on the evolving Trump presidency, he is either deliberately attempting to keep both friends and foes abroad off balance and guessing, so that the master dealmaker can get more concessions from his adversaries. Or he is acting like a bull in a china shop, smashing display cases filled with established norms in American diplomacy.

Consider the following major shifts in foreign policy just in recent days:

• In the aftermath of Iran’s test firing of an intermediate range missile, Trump and his national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, said that the regime in Tehran has been “put on notice.”  

Flynn said that the United States would “no longer turn a blind eye” on provocative actions by the leaders in Iran.  Trump later underscored the shift in U.S. policy towards Iran by warning that Iran was “playing with fire.”

To back up those assertions, the USS Cole was directed back into the region.  The Cole has great symbolic significance, since it was the target of a deadly terrorist attack in Yemen in 2000.  The regime in Iran has been harsh in its response to the Trump/Flynn rhetoric, warning that any use of force against Iran would be met with force.

• When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans for another 3,000 Jewish settlements in or near the West Bank, the Trump administration issued a statement that it does not consider the settlements to be “an obstacle to peace,” as previous administrations have, but that new settlements in those areas “might not be helpful.”  

During the presidency of Barack Obama, Israel was often criticized for its expansion of Jewish settlements in areas that could become part of a Palestinian state. The Trump statement could be taken as a possible line in the sand as to how far the new administration will go in its support of Netanyahu. The topic is sure to come up when Netanyahu meets Trump at the White House this month.

• In her first official remarks to the United Nations Security Council, Nikki Haley, the newly minted U.S. ambassador to the U.N., strongly rebuked the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin for its renewed aggression in neighboring Ukraine.  

Trump continues to be criticized by members of his own party for his apparent “bromance” with Putin, whom he seems reluctant to criticize in any way.  Were Haley’s remarks intended to state new U.S. policy towards Russia, or was she a “rogue” spokesperson taking it upon herself to harden the United States stance regarding Russia?

The White House insists that Haley’s remarks were cleared in advance by the State Department and do not conflict with Trump’s overall policies towards Russia.

These seemingly inconsistent actions inevitably lead to a good question: What in the world is going on? 

Is Trump trying to divert attention away from the disastrous rollout of his travel ban to the United Statesd from seven nations with Muslim majority populations — a plan that met immediate opposition in federal court?

Was Trump acting “presidential” when he branded one of the judges who blocked his plan, U.S. District Judge James Robart, a “so-called judge”? 

Are these the actions of a naive new administration without a coherent foreign policy set of core principles?  Or is Trump trying, in his own clumsy way, to dazzle the world with unpredictable footwork?

The answer should become clearer as the administration settles in, but only if there is some coherent rationale that can tie all of these actions together. Otherwise, sooner rather than later, the question has to be asked: Will the real Trump foreign policy please stand up?  

In a nuclear age, Iran is not the only nation that has to worry about playing with fire. The United States can’t afford it either.