Politics & Policy

Obama’s Weakness Fuels the Demand for Trump’s Strength

(Pool Image/Getty; Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

‘I never understood the appeal of Trump until I saw Kerry holding hands with Lavrov the day Putin started bombing secular rebels in Syria,” quipped former National Review news editor Dan Foster.

One of the less obvious assets of Donald Trump’s campaign is the Obama administration’s flailing foreign policy. The president’s penchant for making abysmal deals with our enemies abroad and advertising his inability to affect the course of events gives Trump exactly the contrast he needs to sell his reputation as a tough negotiator.

As Foster noted, a vivid example of the Obama administration’s signature style is Secretary of State John Kerry’s obsequious public appearance with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, touting their “constructive meeting” immediately after the Kremlin gave America and its allies one hour to clear out of Syrian airspace, lest they run into Russian warplanes.

Last Friday, President Obama insisted, everyone else’s perception of deteriorating U.S. influence in the region notwithstanding, that Putin’s intervention in Syria was actually a sign that the White House’s policies were working and the Kremlin’s weren’t. “Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness,” Obama said. But his overriding tone was one of helpless resignation, as if he himself hardly believed his own rhetoric. “This is a hugely difficult, complex problem,” he said. “No amount of U.S. military engagement will solve the problem.”

No wonder Americans are taking a long look at the guy with the bright red “Make America Great Again” hat, the one who keeps boasting that he never gets taken to the cleaners in negotiations. Trump’s view on the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria isn’t that different from Obama’s — but it’s unlikely you will ever see Trump dwelling on American powerlessness and the daunting complexity of an issue. He’s risen in the polls by offering voters the fantasy of simple solutions to intractable problems.

#share#Trump’s most frequent refrains are that the Obama presidency has been “a disaster” and “we have incompetent people — probably stupid — but incompetent people making deals.” The administration brought home a bad deal with Iran, and the American people knew it; only 21 percent told Pew they supported it.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — remember when Israel was a respected, valued ally? — called the deal “dangerous” and “a historic mistake,” declaring that it “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” The president who once talked of his vision for a future without any nuclear weapons appears to have set off a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt examine their options for a nuclear deterrent. That sure looks like disastrous incompetence.

The GOP primary electorate, fed up as it is with the president’s fecklessness abroad, is an easy mark for Trump’s strong-man act.

Trump insists he could straighten it out through sheer toughness and savvy. While most Republican presidential candidates talked about ripping up the Iran deal, Trump suggested he knows how to defeat an opponent by tying him up in red tape and contractual minutiae that would otherwise go unenforced.

“You know, I’ve taken over some bad contracts. I buy contracts where people screwed up and they have bad contracts,” he said. “But I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance. As bad as the contract is, I will be so tough on that contract.”

While Trump doesn’t specify how that would work, it’s not hard to understand why the idea of “policing that contract so tough” might sound refreshing to voters. After all, in its eagerness to make a deal, the Obama administration excused Iranian leaders’ chanting “death to America” and the Iranians’ decision to conduct a military practice exercise sinking a U.S. aircraft carrier. An administration willing to excuse those provocations might appear likely to ignore any minor breaches of the resulting agreement.

#related#It’s the same with China, another of Trump’s favorite themes. The administration has failed to muster a muscular response to Chinese aggression in the Pacific, and Obama responded to Chinese intelligence agents’ massive cyber-theft of American government-personnel records by inviting Premier Xi Jinping to dinner at the White House. Trump, on the other hand, assures voters that the Chinese are “going to listen to me. . . . And if they don’t do that, they have to suffer economically because we have the engine that makes China work. You know, without the United States or without China sucking out all our money and our jobs, China would collapse in about two minutes.”

It’s a preposterous analysis, of course — but alluringly so. The GOP primary electorate, fed up as it is with the president’s fecklessness abroad, is an easy mark for Trump’s strong-man act. It remains to be seen how far that act will take him. But it’s worth noting just how bad things had to get for it to take him anywhere at all.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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