During the 2016 election, candidate Donald Trump reportedly asked a foreign policy advisor why the United States couldn’t use nuclear weapons. His alleged question: “if we have them, why can’t we use them?”
After relating the story on Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough indulged in a moment of shocked silence in an attempt to hammer home the simultaneous stupidity and horror of Trump’s questions. Vox later cited them as an example of his “seemingly confused views on actual nuclear policy.”
While Hillary Clinton called Trump’s purported views “terrifying” in the final presidential debate, the New York Times noted that his questions underscored the fact that “the more willing leaders are to use nuclear weapons, the less likely they will need to do so.” Of course, the Times reporter waved off any possibility that Trump was intentionally highlighting this fact.
But even though the Times didn’t realize it, the newspaper was explaining a key plank of Trump’s diplomatic and military strategies: unpredictability.
On Thursday, after President Trump called off the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un, Nicholas Kristof wrung his hands and worried about a potential military conflict with North Korea. He claimed that every president since Nixon has realized that “military options are too dangerous to employ.” Well, perhaps that’s why the North Korea problem has persisted as long as it has. Our enemies are emboldened when we categorically rule out using our military in all but the direst of circumstances.
Dealing with Syria, President Obama explicitly drew a “red-line,” giving our enemies free rein to do anything up to that line without fear of military retaliation. Worse, he didn’t respond militarily even when Syria crossed that red line.
While some may claim that Obama showed great restraint and avoided needless military engagement, his actions were far more dangerous than anything that Trump has done so far. Decisiveness and unpredictability make our enemies wary of testing us. But hesitation, mixed messaging, and weakness let hostility and tensions fester. Our enemies will raise the stakes and test us more aggressively. We will eventually have to respond in kind. The longer we wait to react, the more dangerous the potential confrontation becomes.
We can’t use our military as leverage in diplomacy if no one believes we will actually use it. Similarly, the effectiveness of nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip is slashed if we make it clear that we will only use them if someone else does. Our military and nuclear arsenal are most effective at deterring war when our enemies have real reason to worry about incurring our wrath. And maintaining that worry stems directly from unpredictability and an unwillingness to signal our every move.
But the media seem completely incapable of understanding or appreciating this strategy. This may stem from their desire to be the first to know things and to control the narrative. They still believe that they are smarter than the man who, against all odds, won the presidency and they believe they are the arbiters of truth and reason.
And so when Trump says or does something the press didn’t expect, couldn’t immediately understand, and can’t effectively spin, they lose their minds. Their arrogance blinds them to the possibility that the man who they have consistently underestimated and who has systematically outsmarted them, even before he had access to some of the best intelligence sources in the world, may understand something that they don’t. After all, the media would rather be wrong than admit they don’t know what is happening.
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