I hope the relevance of this more than two-year-old video is clear enough a day or two after President Trump threatened nuclear war against North Korea and went ballistic over the comments of a former White House adviser whom he fired. We needn’t mention his constant threats against the media, Hillary Clinton and her staff, and the Justice Department, the FBI, and even his own Attorney General. The man loses his cool faster, less appropriately, and more publicly than any president I can recall (that’s back to Truman).
Does it matter? I am told that President Obama, smooth and calm to a fault in public, in fact lost his temper and frothed at aides in private. I witnessed Vice President George H. W. Bush lose his temper over trivia on a visit to Brasilia, while I was waiting to brief him on the far more important issue of Brazil’s nuclear program. Nixon was acerbic, anti-Semitic, and vengeful in private and not much better in public. Truman wrote a scathing letter to a critic who savaged his daughter’s singing. I’m pretty sure Bill Clinton and George W. had their moments too.
Trump is different. He is angry much of the time and likes the effect his volatility has on others, so he flaunts it. He figures it helps him get his way. He thinks his berating of Iran for its crackdown on demonstrations will help the protesters. He has attributed North Korea’s willingness to talk with South Korea to his angry outbursts against Kim Jong-un. He imagines his criticism of China for failing to do more to restrain Kim will get Beijing to do more.
This tactical use of anger may work with Trump’s underlings, but it won’t with his international peers. “Insane,” the word foreigners are using to describe the President, is not a compliment in diplomacy. Nor does it necessarily mean he is crazy. What it is meant to convey is that he is not logical, rational, or reliable. His conclusions don’t follow from the premises, he reacts emotionally, and what he will do is unpredictable. On top of that, he is vain, conceited, and egotistical. He treasures compliments, overestimates his own influence, and resents slights.
One day Trump calls Pakistan his good friend, a few weeks later he is proposing to cut off hundreds of millions in assistance to Islamabad. Never mind that the US needs Pakistan’s cooperation to supply American forces in Afghanistan. He avoids any greater involvement in Syria than Obama but one day decides to react to Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons with a massive cruise missile attack. Months later the chemical weapons are still being used without any US response. Where are all those critics who though Obama did not follow through sufficiently?
Trump may well stumble into war. Bullies have an inclination to escalate. But he has done zilch to prepare the United States for war with North Korea or Iran: no PR or Congressional campaign, no removal of US civilians from harm’s way, no argument in the National Security Strategy for the use of force, no nothing really. If he were to initiate hostilities with Iran or North Korea, I imagine he would have a hard time with both the public and the Congress, which simply are not ready for it, and of course much of the country would see the move as an effort to distract from the Russia investigation.
That of course is well understood in Tehran, Pyongyang, Beijing, and elsewhere. Trump’s intemperate threats are by now so empty of serious content that no one takes him seriously. He has few friends around the world. With the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s allies wouldn’t support a military move against either Iran or North Korea at this point. Neither the ayatollahs nor Kim Jong-un seem much concerned, though both enjoy using a hostile Trump to encourage anti-American patriotism. China is meanwhile enjoying the fruits of Trump’s mistakes: the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his quiescence in the South China Sea.
Temperament matters. Like his America, this President’s is not great.