PATRICK LAWRENCE: Trump’s Foreign Policy Explained

Trump arrived in Washington as a New York property man unfamiliar with the permanent DC establishment, but determined to make deals where others dare not go. Chaos was the result.

Part of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. (State Dept.)

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

“Some friendly health advice to Iran,” President Donald Trump tweeted last Wednesday. “If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”

Actually, the full tweet began: “Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets. Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN. Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq…” And then came Trump’s threat.

Are we in for a five-minutes-to-midnight attack on the Islamic Republic? Or is this a last go-around of huffing and puffing from an administration that has spent the past four years threatening to blow Iran’s house down?

Let us end this era at ease. Trump and his people have spent the past six weeks looking tough and intent on the Iran question, but it seems to me sheer onanism, if I may put it this way. There will be no attack on Iran in the weeks before Trump vacates 1600 Pennsylvania and Mike Pompeo at last cleans out his desk at State to begin his delusory run for the presidency in 2024.

There is plenty to suggest we ought to be nervous that Trump and the foolhardy many among his advisers have in mind some spectacular display of power in the Persian Gulf to prove their rough-and-tough credentials these final weeks of their time in power.

This story begins in mid–November, when the administration considered a military strike or cyber-sabotage operation against Natanz, Iran’s main uranium-processing site. Those deliberations were in response to an international inspectors’ report that Iran had increased its inventory of low-enriched uranium to some 5,400 pounds—far less than it had before it signed the 2015 accord governing its nuclear programs and none of which is refined sufficiently to build a nuclear weapon.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber. (U.S. National Archives)

The Central Command has subsequently taken to flying B–52 sorties near Iranian airspace and dispatched an additional squadron of fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. The Nimitz carrier group is now wandering around the Persian Gulf and is shortly to be joined by a submarine carrying the long-range cruise missiles known as Tomahawks.

That tweet last week was in response to a Dec. 20 rocket attack on the American Embassy compound in Baghdad that the U.S. Central Command said was the largest in a decade and which it attributed in an official statement to “an Iranian-backed rogue militia group.”

There is a lot less than meets the eye in all this. This is supposed to look like imminent war, but it is theater at bottom.

As Trump packs up for his Fifth Avenue triplex, let us take the administration’s recent hot-dogging on Iran as a last (one hopes) display of the incoherence and discombobulation that have characterized what we can only loosely call Donald Trump’s foreign policy these past four years. What have we been watching and why does it look as it does?

Trump arrived in Washington with the sensibility of a New York property man determined to make deals where others feared to tread. He would talk to Vladimir Putin, he would talk to Xi Jinping, he would talk to Kim Jong-un, he would even talk to Bashar al–Assad if the Syrian president was interested in a sit-down. Trump came very close to meeting Hassan Rouhani , the Iranian president, at the U.N. General Assembly last year.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Time running out for Trump before returning home to his triplex here at Trump Tower on 5th Ave. (Wikimedia Commons/Tiraspolsky)

There are two problems right off the bat.

Trump the New Yorker was a stranger in a strange land, having nothing of the sensibility of the insular, self-serving swamp-dwellers in Washington and no grasp whatsoever of the power of the Deep State, whose ire he quickly aroused. Trump was a terrible statesman, too seat-of-the-pants, but what was to him dealmaking was at bottom diplomacy, an activity Washington has little time for.

Why did Trump surround himself with people who opposed him and not infrequently sabotaged those few foreign policy ideas one can approve of—constructive ties with Russia, an end to wasteful wars, peace in Northeast Asia, sending “obsolete” NATO into the history books? What were H.R. McMaster, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and numerous others like them but of lesser visibility doing in his administration?

I am asked this not infrequently. My reply is simple: It is not at all clear Trump appointed these people and at least as likely they were imposed upon him by the Deep State, the permanent state, the administrative state—whatever term makes one comfortable. Let us not forget, Trump knew nobody in Washington and had a lot of swivel chairs to fill.

We must add to this Trump’s personal shortcomings. He is by all appearances shallow of mind, poorly read (to put it generously), of weak moral and ethical character, and overly concerned with appearances.

Put these various factors together and you get none other than the Trump administration’s nearly illegible record on the foreign policy side.

Trump is to be credited with sticking to his guns on the big stuff: He held out for a new-détente with Russia, getting the troops out of the Middle East and Afghanistan, making a banner-headline deal with the North Koreans. He was scuttled in all cases.

Complicating the tableau, the prideful Trump time and again covered his impotence by publicly approving of what those around him did to subvert his purposes. A year ago, the record shows, Pompeo and Mark Esper (then the defense secretary) concocted plans to assassinate Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian military leader, flew to Mar–a–Lago, and presented Trump with a fait accompli—whereupon Trump acquiesced as the administration and the press pretended it was White House policy all along.

Now We Come to Iran

Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly’s General Debate, Sept. 25, 2019. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

Pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord a year into his administration was among the most destructive moves Trump made during his four years in office. It was afterward that the shamefully inhumane “maximum pressure” campaign against Iranians was set in motion.

Trump’s intention, however miscalculated, was the dealmaker’s: He expected to force Tehran back to the mahogany table to get a new nuclear deal. As secretary of state, Pompeo’s was to cultivate a coup or provoke a war. It was cross-purposes from then on, notably since Pompeo sabotaged the proposed encounter between Trump and Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN GA.

Now we have some context for the recent spate of Iranophobic posturing and the new military deployments in the Persian Gulf. We have just been treated to four years of a recklessly chaotic foreign policy, outcome of a war the Deep State waged against a pitifully weak president who threatened it: This is the truth of what we witness as Trump and his people fold their tents.

Trump the dealmaker a year ago now contemplates an attack on Natanz on the pretext Iran is not holding to the terms of an accord he abandoned two years ago? The only way to make sense of this is to conclude that there is no sense to be made of it.

Who ordered the B–52 sorties and the Nimitz patrols? This question promises a revealing answer. It is very highly doubtful Trump had anything to do with this, very highly likely Pompeo and his allies in hawkery got it done and told the president about it afterward.

Trump is out in a few weeks. The self-perpetuating bureaucracy that made a mess of his administration—or a bigger mess than it may have been anyway—will remain. It will now serve a president who is consonant with its purposes. And the eyes of most people who support him will remain wide shut.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. 

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


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10 comments for “PATRICK LAWRENCE: Trump’s Foreign Policy Explained

  1. Ed Rickert
    December 31, 2020 at 10:06

    A first rate analysis of the inconsistent and inchoate policies of Trump as well as an acute assessment of his psychology, notably his weakness when challenged. Equal cogent is Lawrence’s trepidation and concern over the policies and potential actions of the administration that is to replacement Trump. Thank you for your thoughtful work.

  2. Pierre Guerlain
    December 31, 2020 at 06:51

    I would just like to have a linkto the sources for Pompeo hoodwinking Trump for the assassination of Soleimani.

  3. Linda
    December 30, 2020 at 18:42

    Thank you, Patrick, for this very clear article summarizing Trump’s clumsy attempts at making peace with other countries (a campaign offering to voters) and the Deep State’s thwarting of those attempts. My friends and I intuitively knew the people taking roles around the Trump presidency were put there by the “system”. Trump had been made into a pariah by the Press, his own Republican Party, and shrieks for ‘Resistance’ by Hillary Democrats in the millions across the country even before he was inaugurated. There was no ‘respectable’ person in Washington DC who would dare help Trump make his way in that new, strange land. Remember one of the Resistanace calls to the front? …. “Become ungovernable!!!!” Tantrums, not negotiations, have become the norm

    So long, any semblance of Washington DC respectability. It was nice to think you were there at one time.

  4. December 30, 2020 at 16:52

    Dear readers and supporters of Consortium News around the Earth,

    Please pass the following important message along to the genuine war criminals United States President Donald Trump and United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    “Do the right & moral thing for once in your hideous, miserable & pathetic lives, – and free genuine peacemaker Julian Assange.”


    Please consider making the (1st ever in history) establishment of genuine Peace on Earth the absolute overwhelming #1 New Year’s Resolution worldwide for 2021. The quality of life for future generations depends on the good actions of this generation.. Thank you.


  5. December 30, 2020 at 14:32

    I thank these commentators, a couple of whom read these pieces regularly, and all others who’ve taken the time this year gone by to put down their thoughts. I read them always and almost always learn things from them. Blessings to all and wishes for a superb new year! — Patrick.

  6. Lee C Ng
    December 30, 2020 at 14:02

    I agree 100% with the writer. Example; if Bolton, probably pushed into the administration by the Deep State, didn’t sabotage Trump’s talks with the N. Koreans in Vietnam, we might’ve had a peaceful settlement on the Korean peninsular by now. And it’s no surprise that Trump on several occasions prevented the success of US-China trade talks – it was more than likely he was forced to do so. Trump wasn’t a politician, much less a statesman. But he wasn’t an orgre either, despite the hostility of the corporate press towards him (and I’m no fan of Trump).

    Biden will represent better the real forces behind all US administrations – the forces responsible for the over 200 wars/military interventions in its 242 years of Independence.

  7. Jeff Harrison
    December 30, 2020 at 00:19

    Thank you, Patrick, you have made some sense out of a nonsensical situation. “We have just been treated to four years of a recklessly chaotic foreign policy, outcome of a war the Deep State waged against a pitifully weak president who threatened it: This is the truth of what we witness as Trump and his people fold their tents.” What is it that the Brits call their Deep State? It’s something like the civil service but it’s actually called something else.

    You called Donnie Murdo a deal maker. Donnie Murdo is a New York hustler. His “negotiation” style only works when his interlocutor must make a deal with him. If his interlocutor can walk away, he will and Donnie Murdo will go bankrupt. The real problem is that the US doesn’t need a deal maker – we have people for that. The Prezzy & CEO is frequently called that, the chief executive officer. But that’s an administrative title. He is also frequently called the commander in chief but that really only applies if we are at war which we should be at as little as possible. What the prezzy really is supposed to be is a leader. If Donnie Murdo were, in fact, a leader, John Bolton would have been taking a commercial flight back to the US after his little stunt in Vietnam. But he didn’t. So the question isn’t what could Donnie Murdo do in the next three weeks, it’s what can Donnie Murdo’s henchmen do in the next three weeks?

  8. Casper
    December 29, 2020 at 18:19

    One of the other personal things about Donald Trump, was that he had no skill nor experience in leading and manipulating a bureaucracy. He had basically directed a family business and his personal publicity machine. To the extent that Trump hotels had thousands of employees, Trump hired managers to do that. It would appear that the Trump family business largely concentrated on making of new deals for new hotels.

    Thus, Donald Trump arrived in Washington completely unprepared to be the leader of a bureaucracy and completely unskilled at being able to get it to do what he wanted it do do.

    I’m not a Joe Biden fan, but he’s been in Washington since the 1970’s. He’s seen the bureaucracy from the Senate point of view for 40 years, then got at least a view of what it was like to try to direct it from watching as Veep. I still suspect the real power lies with the military command, and has since the 1950’s, but this administration is going to come in with at least some skills in terms of trying to get a government to do what it wants.

  9. PEG
    December 29, 2020 at 17:46

    Perfect article – and epitaph on Trump’s foreign policy record.

  10. Anne
    December 29, 2020 at 14:00

    Indeed, Patrick, they (the eyes of most of the electorate) will remain shut, eyelids deftly closed…Only other peoples commit barbaric, heinous war crimes, invade other cultures completely without cause, bomb other peoples to death, devastation, loss of livelihood, home water supply…We, the perfecto (along with one other group now ensconced – illegally, but apparently western acceptably – in the ME) people do what we do because, well, we are perfecto and thus when we commit these barbarisms, they aren’t such. And are, it would seem, totally ignorable. Wake me in the morning style….

    Truly, the vast majority of those – whatever their skin hue, ethnic background – who voted for the B-H duo are comfortably off, consider themselves oh so bloody “liberal” (do they really know what that means, in fact? Or don’t they care?), so to the left of Attila the Hun (which obviously doesn’t mean much, Left wise)….and what the MICMATT does to other people in other societies matters not flying F….After all, aren’t they usually of “swarthy” skin hue and likely not western and of that offshoot religion of the one gawd, the third go around?

    The west (US, UK, FR, GY etc…) really and truly need to develop a Conscience, a real morality, humanity…but I fear that that is all too late…

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