Trump's failing 'Big Man Doctrine'

Trump US Saudi Arabia
President Trump talks with Saudi King Salman at the Arab Islamic American Summit last month.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia just elevated his somewhat reckless 31-year-old son, Prince Mohammed, to become crown prince, and the White House is thrilled.

The prince has bonded with first son-in-law Jared Kushner, hosting him and Ivanka Trump for dinner at his home when the pair traveled with the president to Saudi Arabia. The closeness of these two “princes” syncs perfectly with the emerging Trump Doctrine of foreign policy.

Call it the “Big Man Doctrine.”

Based on his performance over five months, President Trump clearly believes communing with autocrats (or having Kushner act as surrogate) is the key to a great deal. Autocrats are easier to deal with than democratic leaders beholden to parliaments. And the thought of going mano a mano with friendly tyrants has a familiar ring to a man convinced he is the master of the deal.

Only one problem: Based on Trump’s experience so far with the Saudi royal family, with Xi Jinping of China, and with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Big Man Doctrine has been a big bust.

Let’s start with the Saudis. Yes, the president, and his family, got a royal reception and signed big arms deals. And yes, the Saudis put on a show of pulling together Sunni Arab states into a sort of Arab NATO that would stand tall against ISIS and Iran.

But, by lining up 100 percent behind the Saudi king who treated them so grandly, Trump and Kushner have embroiled the United States in a big mess.

The Arab NATO has already proved to be a mirage. Saudi royalty have launched a personal vendetta and blockade against one member, Qatar. Never mind that Qatar hosts the biggest U.S. air base in the region, which is the headquarters for U.S. Central Command. And Kushner’s buddy, Prince Mohammed, seems eager to drag an unwitting Trump further into a losing Saudi war in Yemen and, if possible, into attacking Iran.

Yet the Big Man Doctrine gives Trump the excuse to ignore the warnings from knowledgeable advisers. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis wanted to mediate the Qatar issue, not exacerbate it. But Trump has stiffed them, tweeting support for the Saudi monarchy against Qatar.

The Big Man Doctrine hasn’t worked out any better with China. Trump wined and dined Xi in April at Mar-a-Lago and thought he had convinced the Chinese leader to get tough on North Korea. Indeed, the president damped down all previous criticism of Beijing on trade and on militarizing the South China Sea, because he believed he’d talked Xi into cutting economic ties with Pyongyang.

Last week, the president uncharacteristically tweeted an admission of failure on China and North Korea. “At least I know China tried!” he wrote.

Does he?

Almost any China expert would have told Trump that Xi wasn’t likely to blockade Pyongyang; Beijing worries less about North Korean nukes than about the potential collapse of the regime.

Trump, however, disdains experts, notably at the State Department. The White House has slashed the department’s budget by a third, and failed to fill scores of key positions. Moreover, Trump famously distrusts the U.S. intelligence community. And judging by his tweets and off-script remarks, he fails to absorb much of his briefings.

So, unburdened by knowledge, his Big Man Doctrine is likely to trip him up again and again.

Nowhere is that more obvious than with Putin, whom Trump will probably meet with at a G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, next month.

Candidate Trump was obsessed with the idea of doing some sort of “grand bargain” directly with Putin, lifting sanctions imposed for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in return for joint cooperation against ISIS in Syria. That obsession, fed by key advisers such as Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, revealed Trump’s vastly overblown expectations of what Putin would deliver in any such deal.

Trump’s urge to set up a secret back channel to communicate directly with Putin is probably what sent Flynn and Kushner in pursuit of fishy meetings with Russians during the Trump transition. The president-elect no doubt dreamed of announcing a “big man” deal during his first hundred days.

Whether or not that was the case, Trump still seems to dream of a deal with Putin. He’s still unwilling to admit, flat out, that Russia conducted cyber-espionage during the U.S. election. He still refuses to recognize that Russian espionage involves a threat to U.S. security, irrespective of who won the election.

Which brings us to the biggest risk of the “Big Man Doctrine.” By personalizing foreign policy, by making it about him, his family, and their potential deals, Trump misunderstands the role of a president. He refuses to recognize he’s dealing with issues of far greater magnitude than the display of his bargaining skills.

The president’s dealings with King Salman and Xi, and his hopes for Putin, have achieved little because they’ve been based on a crippled foreign-policy process and a woeful presidential lack of knowledge. Personal relationships between leaders can be useful, but a Big Man foreign-policy doctrine will lead to grief. ​

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