On Tuesday, President Trump was asked by the press pool about news that North Korea had perfected a nuclear warhead capable of fitting on its intercontinental ballistic missile. Trump’s response was blunt and colorful:
North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal statement. As I said, I said they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.
All of this is fine – if Trump means it. If not, he shouldn’t be saying it. Teddy Roosevelt famously said that he would speak softly and carry a big stick; no American president should be perceived as someone who speaks loudly and carries a toothpick, as President Obama was.
And herein lies the foreign policy conundrum with regard to Trump’s words. He’s a cipher. He’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to use American military might to fight our enemies – ISIS has lost one-third of their total territorial loss under Trump’s green-light strategy for the military. And Trump wasn’t afraid to fire a missile at a Syrian airbase when Bashar Assad displeased him.
But Trump also had no follow-up on Syria. He hasn’t created serious consequences for Russia or China. He’s currently successfully pursuing sanctions on North Korea. So does this statement make Trump look stronger or weaker? It’s sad to say, but Defense Secretary James Mattis seconding Trump’s language would do a world of good for American credibility.
But at least Trump is no longer engaging in “strategic patience.”
Now we just have to wait to find out what comes next.