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Is Trump's Foreign Policy Belligerence A Diversion From A Stalled Agenda?

Is Trump's Foreign Policy Belligerence A Diversion From A Stalled Agenda?

It’s called “saber rattling,” a term used when a leader has problems at home and picks a fight abroad. Historians have examined the idea exhaustively, but there’s nothing like seeing it in real time.

President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Il Jung, both of whom have an apparent case of missile envy, are rattling their sabers.

Trump’s bombardment of Syria and Afghanistan — and his threats against an uncowed North Korea — came after his youngish administration had a bad start on immigration and healthcare reform, conflicts of business interests, ousted underlings with ties to Russia and policy drift in general.

During the weekend, Kim’s display of anti-ballistic missiles — some of which had performance issues — was another example of leaders hoping to show strength by fanning the patriotic threat of war with big sticks.

Does It Work?

“A core finding of my book was that it does not work, often causing those threatened to react in a contrarian way,” B. Dan Wood, author of “Presidential Saber Rattling: Causes and Consequences” (Cambridge University Press), told Benzinga.

Both Trump and Kim are engaging in textbook examples of pumping up the local populace by antagonizing an enemy, a tactic that also has an economic imperative, Wood said.

Wood’s book analyzed 4,000 instances of drum-beating from 1945 to 2009, which covers the Cold War and the chaos that ensued when the Soviet Union collapsed and left a massive power vacuum still being chaotically filled today.

Wood’s research found that isolating and attacking an enemy correlate to domestic problems and can boost a leader’s appeal, albeit only temporarily.

Similar studies have come to the same conclusions about what might seem to most people as simply common sense.

“It is conventional wisdom that the public rallies 'round the president when military force is used abroad,” according to “Presidents, the Use of Military Force, and Public Opinion,” a study published by the Journal of Conflict Resolution in 1993.

“Indeed, this belief has encouraged the view that presidents are apt to rattle the saber to divert attention from domestic problems." 

The Psychology Of Diversionary War

U.S. presidents who are generally distrustful and tend to see the world in simplistic terms are most likely to engage in what historians call diversionary warfare, said Dennis M. Foster, a professor of international studies and political science at the Virginia Military Institute.

“I think there are some reasons to believe that the recent behavior is at least in part diversionary; and if it is, it is a historically unique brand of diversion,” he said.

Some reasons:

    1. Trump’s domestic agenda is stalled “and things don’t look like they are going to get moving anytime soon.”
    2. His behavior is in stark contrast to the “quasi-isolationist” foreign policy vision he’d outlined in the past.
    3. Trump seems much less sensitive to the consequences of his actions than previous presidents of the post-Cold War period.
    4. “Finally, there is no clearly apparent international strategy, either within or across crises, other than the show of American strength in the face of behavior we don't like.”

Trump Actions ‘High-Risk’ And ‘Unsettling’

If Trump is in fact creating a diversion, it’s high-risk and doesn’t appear to advance any concrete international strategy, said Foster, who wrote a piece for the Washington Post back in December that pondered whether Trump would go to war to distract from a stalled agenda.

“It would thus be, in two fundamental and unsettling ways, very different than any other action I've seen described as diversionary conflict,” he said.

In contrast, former President Bill Clinton’s cruise missile strikes on al-Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan — retaliation for the August 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania — came at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and were relatively low-risk, he said.

Likewise, former President Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia during the height of street protests against the Vietnam War may have been diversionary, but they clearly advanced a foreign policy agenda.

Saber Rattling Impact Usually Short-Lived

The whole Machiavellian idea of using war as a diversion from domestic stress is as old as, well, war. And the bully pulpit that is the presidency makes it awfully tempting to shore up support by rallying the people to an exaggerated enemy.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who wrote the definitive study of the United States in “Democracy in America,” ruminated that the American president has, when it comes to foreign relations, “almost royal prerogatives.”

But, as Brown says, good luck with that.

“Generally, the political science literature suggests that any change in approval from presidential saber rattling … is small and short-lived.”

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Image Credit: "President Donald Trump and King Abdullah II of Jordan walk along the West Colonnade towards the podiums to begin a joint press briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House Wednesday, April 5, 2017, in Washington, D.C." By Shealah Craighead - Photo of the Day: April 6, 2017 on, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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