During his first 15 months as president, Donald Trump has postured as the bad cop.
He railed about NATO members welching on their promised contributions to the alliance. Trump rhetorically reduced North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to “short and fat” and “rocket man.” He ordered the dropping of a huge bomb on the Taliban and twice hit Syrian chemical weapons sites. He talked of trade wars and hitting back at China.
Through all the bombast and follow-ups, Trump’s supposedly more sober and judicious appointees—especially former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis—played good cops against the outnumbered lone-wolf Trump.
This script was well known from the days of Richard Nixon and his national security adviser and then secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Nixon often postured as if he were eager to bomb the North Vietnamese to smithereens, to go to Dr. Strangelove levels to stand down the Soviets, or to unleash Israel to do whatever it took to defeat its enemies.
Then Kissinger was sent over to reassure both troubled allies and tense enemies. He pleaded for modest concessions to ward off what might be far worse. He confided to leaders that Nixon was a madman who terrified Kissinger as much as he did the world abroad.
The net effect was to gain compromises and advantages that otherwise would have been impossible.
Remember how in the old cop movies, arrested suspects were worn out and scared by unpredictable and brutal police interrogators? Once softened up, they were then handed over to make their confessions to a new shift of kindly detectives who brought out the good-cop gifts of cigarettes, coffee, and donuts while they badmouthed their colleagues’ harsh interrogation methods.
No one knows whether these simplistic stereotypes are even half true in the Trump administration. But what is certain is that new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, along with strengthened U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, are more likely to question the status quo and to take some risks in restoring U.S. strategic deterrence.
Will Trump now reverse roles and become the good cop?
Instead of worrying the Europeans, frightening the North Koreans, and assailing the Russians and Chinese, will he more calmly express his fears that he can scarcely control the righteous anger of his new foreign policy team?
There might be lots of advantages for a new good-cop Trump, compared with his past bad-cop role.
First, playing the skeptic with foreign interventions puts him more in tune with his swing-state, blue-collar supporters. Remember that Trump ran on avoiding entangling overseas interventions. Now, he can emphasize that role as he winks and nods to Pompeo, Bolton, and Haley to ratchet up the pressure as he publicly tries to calm them down.
Second, Trump’s art-of-the-deal style has been to play the mediator who claims that there must be some way to find common ground between two adversaries. As a good cop, he can say to the Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians and others, “Let’s make a deal so I don’t have to call in the tough guys, who are starting to scare me as much as they scare you.”
Third, Trump has a special affinity for Mattis. But in the past, Mattis was stereotyped as a good cop trying to talk Trump out of straight-arming NATO allies or walking away from past U.S. deals. Now, however, Trump can join Mattis in a good cop role, as the two pose abroad as unified voices of caution who want agreements rather than confrontations.
Even in role-playing. it is wise to have Mattis and Trump on the same side. One reason Trump has a special affinity for Mattis is that his caution and reluctance to intervene abroad fit Trump’s own campaign sloganeering.
There was always a paradox with Trump’s Jacksonian foreign policy. How was he to restore deterrence abroad without another costly intervention? How does he bomb ISIS into oblivion without worrying about the innocent refugees living among the ashes and an eventual return of ISIS infiltrators?
Trump now can outsource his lone-wolf hawkishness to new hard-liners Bolton and Pompeo, and remind enemies that his art-of-the-deal comprising is their last chance at an agreement.
In sum, the tough reputations of the highly regarded Pompeo and Bolton now allow Trump to be what he always was—a dealmaker.
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