Trump Confuses Tactical and Strategic Unpredictability

by Michael Dorf

So much of what Donald Trump says is nonsense that taking his pronouncements seriously feels like a sucker's game. But as the likelihood that he will secure the GOP nomination has recently increased, simply ignoring him is untenable for anyone interested in public policy. One approach would be to point out the nonsense, vapidity, and internal contradictions in what Trump says. That is a full-time job by itself.

Consider Trump's speech on foreign policy on Wednesday. The biggest piece of nonsense was the following statement: "I was totally against the war in Iraq, very proudly, saying for many years that it would destabilize the Middle East." Politifact rightly rates this statement "false." At best, Trump's pre-war stance could be called ambivalent. That's better than having been an enthusiastic supporter, but it doesn't draw the contrast he apparently intends to draw with Hillary Clinton, who, as a Senator, voted to authorize the Iraq war in the hope, she said, that doing so would give President Bush leverage with the UN and the Saddam Hussein regime. This HuffPo story is, in my view, too forgiving of Clinton and the other Democratic Senators who voted to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq, but the basic outline is correct. Trump's claim that he is a strategic genius who, unlike Clinton, foresaw and warned of the dangers of going to war in 2002/2003, is a lie.

The vapidity of the Trump foreign policy address speaks for itself.  For example, ISIS "will be gone quickly," but there is no explanation of how.

As for internal contradictions, I confess to nearly falling out of my chair laughing upon reading this observation by two writers for the NY Times: "There were paradoxes throughout Mr. Trump’s speech." No there weren't. Affirming two or more statements that cannot all be true gives rise to a paradox if one cannot figure out how any of the statements is false. A paradox implies a puzzle of some sort. In Trump's case there is no puzzle. He is simply a foreign policy dunce who is unaware that one does not reassure our friends that they can count on us by threatening to leave them unprotected unless they pay more for their defense. Etc.

Pointing out the inanity of a Trump speech is a game of whack-a-mole. I surely will be tempted to play the game again between now and November 8, but for now I want to take seriously an idea that Trump has repeatedly floated and that he repeated on Wednesday: that U.S. foreign policy should be less predictable. Here's the way he put it:
we must as a nation be more unpredictable. We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops. We tell them. We’re sending something else. We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now.
The claim that tactical unpredictability is valuable strikes me as true in various contexts. Consider three:

1) You are a prospective home buyer negotiating a price for a house. You can spend up to $X but you would like to pay less so that you will have more money left over for other purposes. It would be advantageous to offer less than $X rather than immediately disclosing your full finances and accurately telling the seller that you can go as high as $X but no higher.

2) You are a soccer player taking a penalty kick. You kick with the most speed and accuracy when you aim for the lower left corner of the net. Nonetheless, you should not always try to kick the ball there, because if you do, the goaltender will know where to dive to block your kick. The optimal approach randomly selects a target based on probabilities correlated with your own strengths and the goaltender's weaknesses.

3) You are a general deciding whether to attack the enemy position from the front, from one of the flanks, or in combination. You would be wise to disguise your intentions.

Scenario 1 relates to Trump's criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump considers himself a great deal-maker. He isn't, but let's put that aside. He thinks that a better negotiator would have gotten a better deal with Iran. That's probably false, and in any event, Trump has not offered any particulars about how this supposed better deal could have been reached. Indeed, I would be very surprised to learn that Trump even understands how the Iran agreement works. But the general point is true. A president negotiating an international agreement would do well with some unpredictability. Insofar as various aspects of the agreement are zero-sum, a country--like a home purchaser--stands to get a better agreement if the counter-party is uncertain about the country's squeal point. There's no evidence that the Obama Administration has acted in disregard of this principle, but it is a valid principle.

Scenario 2 is simply a stylized version of Scenario 3, so I'll treat them together. Trump appears to have military matters especially in mind when he touts unpredictability. Here too the general point is correct, and here too Trump is knocking on an open door. To see why, we need to distinguish between tactical and strategic unpredictability.

Tactical unpredictability undoubtedly has value in the conduct of war. Is there any evidence that President Obama is unaware of this fact? The signature military success of the Obama Administration was the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Although it was generally known that the United States was attempting to hunt down bin Laden, the Administration kept the operational details secret, especially from the Pakistani intelligence and military, which were deemed potentially unreliable. More generally, the Obama Administration has not in any way abandoned the principle of tactical unpredictability.

Nonetheless, the U.S. does typically announce when it is deploying troops on foreign soil. Trump thinks even this kind of strategic transparency is problematic, but he does not elaborate on how. Deploying large numbers of troops surreptitiously is impossible or at least a war crime--as when Russian troops in unmarked uniforms invaded Crimea. Special forces can be deployed secretly in small numbers, and the U.S. does just that. When the government announces a general policy of using special forces it never broadcasts exactly where they are going in a way that would jeopardize operations.

So what exactly is the complaint? President Obama and, before him, President Bush, have sometimes been criticized for announcing withdrawal dates far in advance. Some of the criticism is based on the (reasonable) objection that withdrawal decisions should be made based on military and political conditions at the time of withdrawal, not based on a pre-set timetable. But another criticism is that by announcing in advance that we plan to leave by a date certain, we embolden our enemies to hold on until that date. Could this be an example of foolish predictability?

Not really. Our enemies will be emboldened to hold on regardless of what we announce. There are really only two alternatives to announcing a date certain for withdrawal. One possibility is to announce that the U.S. will remain an occupying force forever. This is politically and morally unacceptable. It is also not credible.

The other alternative is to announce that the U.S. will keep troops in a country "until the job is done" or something like that. In what world would such resoluteness lead the Taliban or their equivalent elsewhere to lay down their arms? Actual battlefield success by U.S. and allied forces could lead to a political resolution. So could other measures. But the idea that a commitment to keeping troops in country on an open-ended timetable would lead insurgents to give up is naive. They know we will leave eventually. They will hold on as long as they can or think it is advantageous to do so in any event.

Bottom Line: Trump's proposal that U.S. foreign policy should be somewhat unpredictable is as empty as all of his other statements. Where unpredictability is valuable, we already practice it. Greater unpredictability would be unhelpful.