Trump's Ambiguous Clarity

Being unpredictable is very useful and often wise.

Donald Trump has shot to the top of the polls in large part because of his reputation for "telling it like it is" without pandering to political correctness, the Overton window, or in some cases, even stark reality.  In breaking down the infuriating wall of silence that's locked in conventional politicians since Mr. Reagan, Mr. Trump has performed a singular and desperately-needed service.

Yet the fact that he doesn't speak "political speak" does create occasional frustrations, when he tries and fails to explain something eminently sensible and leaves people scratching their heads.  Just such an occasion was Mr. Trump's much-vaunted foreign-policy speech last week.

He had the traditional setting: sober suit, American flags, formal audience.  He even had some nods to traditional style: a teleprompter, no less!  And he did keep his extemporaneous remarks to, for him, a minimum.

Indeed, as the LA Times reported, a lot of what he said is nothing more extreme than President Obama has already endorsed:

Trump did not call the NATO military alliance "obsolete," as he has in the past. He instead issued a demand that Obama has repeatedly voiced, that member nations must pay their fair share — a quota calculated at 2% of a country's gross domestic product...

If he is elected, he said, America will be "getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world," which is similar to the argument Obama made in his 2008 campaign.

But then he made a point that's getting him pilloried by journalists everywhere:

ISIS…. I have a simple message for them. Their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. As a nation we must be more unpredictable. They will be gone quickly.

Cue the shock and horror from the self-anointed literati!

As a “stranger” in America, I can tell you unpredictability always brings about unpredictable consequences. I’ve seen that for years while living in Turkey...

Many Middle Eastern states are skidding through authoritarianism. Radicalism is rising. And for America, some allies such as Turkey have unpredictable political policies.

Russia’s politics in the Middle East is unpredictable and ISIS is unpredictable, too. And the situation in Syria is completely unpredictable.

Despite what Trump says, unpredictability is not a good choice for a great country to make.

In the 1980s and ’90s, American political scientists used the term “rogue states” to describe unpredictable countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea.

Yes, Russia's actions in the Middle East have been unpredicted, at least by us, but they've been far from ineffective.  Indeed, as Trump has complained, Putin has a lot more influence over the endgame in Syria than we do.

Does "unpredictability" mean rogue status?  The exact opposite is true: centrally-governed members of the Axis of Evil like Iran and North Korea are perfectly predictable.  They will do whatever mayhem they are technically and economically capable of, gleefully exulting in the deaths of innocents and not caring a whit about the deaths of their own people.  If it raises Cain with whatever America and the free world are trying to accomplish, they can be accurately predicted to have a go.

Yes, Iraq is unpredictable, but that's because it's not really a country anymore.  Iraq has dissolved into a fluid group of battling warlords, microstates, and nations-in-waiting like the Kurds.  It's chaos, the predictable consequence of Mr. Obama's predictable neglect, and chaos, by definition, is unpredictable.

What You Don't Know Hurts You

Indeed, Mr. Trump's point about unpredictability has been American policy for decades.  Would the United States respond with nukes if we were ever attacked with chemical or biological weapons?  We won't say.  Will the United States go to war if Red China attacks Taiwan?  We won't say.  Exactly which ships in our Navy are equipped, or are capable of being equipped, with nuclear weapons?  We very much won't say.

Is this unpredictable?  We certainly hope so!  The less certainty China has about America's response to an invasion of Taiwan, the more hesitant they must be to try it.  Obviously, knowing which Navy vessels are packing the ultimate weapons would be extremely useful to any potential enemy.

It works elsewhere too.  Everyone "knows" that Israel has nuclear weapons, and indeed they probably do, but they've never admitted it, so nobody has any real idea how many they have or where they're stashed.  No doubt our intelligence services can make a fairly reasonable guess, but even the best guess is no substitute for actually knowing.  This ambiguity may not be much help against an apocalyptic theocratic regime of madmen like Iran, who'd welcome the opportunity to meet Allah in a ball of nuclear fire, but it sure worked wonders at bringing Egypt to the negotiating table in the 1970s.

For that matter, Mr. Trump himself is living testimony to the power of strategic ambiguity.  What is he going to say tomorrow?  What will his policy be on X?  None of us have any real clue, which, if you're his opponent, makes it devilishly difficult to prepare a counterattack.  It's this strength, above all, that gives him a fighting chance against Hillary, probably the most robotic, formulaic, tin-eared politician of our lifetimes.

But what we ought to remember is the power of Mr. Reagan's supposed unpredictability.  Even back then, the leftist media hated anything conservative and pilloried Mr. Reagan with whatever they thought might stick.  Most notoriously, they accused him of being a "cowboy" who couldn't be trusted with the nuclear button - shades of what they're saying today about Mr. Trump!

Mr. Reagan, in his brilliance, embraced this falsehood with merry enthusiasm.  We'll never know whether it was truly an accident which led to Mr. Reagan's "sound check" being broadcast live to the world:

My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

The Russians took it seriously, though, and put their forces on full alert.  Now, obviously Mr. Reagan did not begin bombing Russia in five minutes, or indeed ever.  Nor did he intend to.

Because the Russians didn't know that, they treated him a lot more seriously at the various summits throughout the 1980s.  As we all know, eventually their economy and regime collapsed from trying and failing to keep up with America's Star Wars and other techno-wizardry - which didn't actually work, but the Russians didn't know that either.  You could say that the Cold War was won by inspired ambiguity and sowing confusion among our enemies!

In fact, we can't help but quote the Soviet's plaintive whine in response to Mr. Reagan's joke:

The USSR condemns this unprecedented and hostile attack by the US President... this kind of behavior is incompatible with the great responsibility borne by heads of nuclear states for the destinies of their own people and mankind.

Doesn't this sound exactly like the complaints of the Great and the Good about Donald Trump?  Maybe it's because they, like the Russians, know that these kind of mind games really work, and they hate to see anyone other than themselves dare to use them!

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Partisanship.
Reader Comments

Wishful thinking on steroids. Trump is not being strategic. He's fumbling for something resembling a platform while too lazy, inexperienced and idiotic to actually come up with anything. Sometimes I wish Trump would actually win so his supporters reap the full four-year consequences. But then they wouldn't because they're delusional at the outset. It would continue to be someone else's fault or the rest of us "not understanding his brilliance".

As a side note, the best thing Cruz could do at this point, having lost the nomination definitively, is to declare a third party run and completely gut Trump's chances entirely. Take the wind out of the windbag before he can even start. (Not to mention the benefit of giving the rest of us a real choice on the ballot)

May 3, 2016 9:09 PM

Only Prez O thinks that leading with your chin is a good idea.

May 3, 2016 9:12 PM

only a fool tells its potential enemies what they are going to do. See the ISIS policy for an example. Trump may have stumbled into this policy but I think not. He knows how use power for his benefit. Don't sell him short. We need a businessman in the White House. The other 535 politicians in DC have no idea whatsoever in how to run a business and make money. We should make it a point to never elect a politician again.

May 3, 2016 9:33 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...