100 days of foreign policy confusion and incoherence

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President Trump speaks at the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday.

As the 100-day mark of the Trump presidency approached this weekend a debate raged over whether that was a fair metric to judge by.

The answer is "yes." Trump himself pushed that timeline (only to deny its importance when his accomplishments failed to live up to his overblown promises).

Moreover, 100 days is sufficient to observe how this president operates when it comes to making foreign policy. We've seen a deeply dysfunctional process with an erratic leader at the hub.

Trump can't seem to shed his reality-TV persona and grasp that a president's words have an impact worldwide. He still tries to tackle foreign issues the way he closed real estate deals - using threats and bravado to subdue opponents, while friends and family help close the transaction.

This M.O. isn't working. Instead of admiring Trump's "art of the deal," many foreign leaders are concluding his skills are limited to the "art of the bluff."

Trump's performance suffers from his disinterest in a coherent foreign policy process. The appointments of James Mattis at Defense and H.R. McMaster to head the National Security Council rightly raised hopes. (Rex Tillerson at State has proved more problematic.) But in the end, foreign policy depends on the man in the White House. The grown-ups on Trump's team can't compensate for an impulsive president who refuses to stop tweeting and constantly reverses himself.

Indeed, friends and foes are already catching on to Trump's mode of foreign operations. Rather than hail him as a tough operator, they view his flip-flops as proof he doesn't know what he is doing.

Take China. Trump came on strong, promising to label Beijing a currency manipulator and slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. In December, he famously tweeted there was no need to follow the "One China" policy on Taiwan if Beijing didn't fall in line on trade.

Had Trump accepted briefings he might have learned that China wouldn't bargain over this formula for Taiwan's status. Instead, he had to publicly back down and accept the "One China" trope, because Chinese President Xi Jinping wouldn't take his phone calls until he did. This was viewed in China as a kowtow.

Moreover, only when Xi visited Mar-a-Lago on April 6-7 did Trump appear to grasp that his threats might impede Chinese cooperation on North Korea. A week after calling China a "world champion" currency manipulator, Trump reversed course, asking, "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korea problem?"

China's state-controlled media have interpreted Trump's flip-flops as proof he is ill-informed and malleable. They noted Trump's statement that he only recognized the complexity of the North Korean issue after speaking with the Chinese leader. "After listening for 10 minutes [to Xi], I realized it's not so easy," Trump stated, seemingly unaware these words made him look like an amateur praising a pro.

Was Trump briefed before Xi's visit? Did he listen? Does he understand even now how differently China views the North Korean nuclear threat than we do? We don't know.

We do know that Trump's constant stream of contradictory tweets and remarks - on everything from the Mideast to NATO — projects incoherence. He often issues broadsides without consulting his team, blindsiding cabinet members. Just last week he threatened to terminate the NAFTA deal with Mexico. But he'd never informed his Commerce or Agriculture secretaries on this, sending them scurrying to the White House to warn of the harsh consequences for U.S. farmers. After that, he announced he'd changed his mind. (He also backtracked on funding the infamous wall.)

After 100 days of Trump's threats toward friends as well as foes, foreign leaders are beginning to get his number. Many now dismiss his words as bluster. (And no, a missile strike on Syria doesn't convince them otherwise.)

Things aren't likely to improve unless the frenetic president finally accepts a defined process for foreign policy-making that he can't impulsively contradict at 2 a.m.

That light hasn't yet dawned. Hundreds of key posts at the Pentagon and State Department remain unfilled and the pace of nominations lags well behind that of previous presidents. Tillerson's and Mattis' first choices for deputy were turned down by the White House for foolish political reasons. (Unfortunately, Tillerson seems to share his boss' taste for operating solo, and displays no urgency in filling the many vacancies at State. He has also acceded to Trump’s drastic cuts in the department’s budget and personnel.)

This lack of expertise affects the administration's ability to formulate long-range strategies in which to embed tactical decisions.

But Trump appears more comfy with a family firm than the niceties of process. He sent his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, around the world on several ill-defined missions and dispatched his daughter Ivanka to Germany. He named the Trump Organization's chief counsel, Jason Greenblatt, as the special emissary for international negotiations.

This approach leaves foreign capitals bewildered as to who is making foreign policy. One European envoy tells me his country still doesn't know whom to talk to about policy issues. A Chinese official told me that Kushner is the man his ambassador tries to see; this filial approach is more appropriate to Chinese-style governance than to democracy in America.

Moreover, a hot-tempered president with uncontrollable fingers and lips is a danger to the country. Unlike more worldly leaders, North Korea's paranoid Kim Jong Un may take Trump's threatening tweets seriously and react aggressively.

Trump's first 100 days of foreign dealings make me think of a doughnut. A fat rim of family and cabinet chiefs but a big hole in the center. That's no way to run a country as important as the United States.

trubin@phillynews.com

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