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Trump’s tweets can destroy American credibility

Trump’s tweets can destroy American credibility

Since the first of the year, President Trump has attacked a variety of countries in Twitter posts, urging protesters to overthrow the Iranian government, threatening to blow up North Korea and calling for cuts in aid to the Palestinians. In bluster and tone, he has begun 2018 where he left off.

Two things stand out about the foreign policy messages Mr. Trump has posted on Twitter since taking office: How far they veer from the traditional ways American presidents express themselves, let alone handle diplomacy. And how rarely Mr. Trump has followed through on his words. Indeed, nearly a year after he entered the White House, the rest of the world is trying to figure out whether Mr. Trump is more mouth than fist, more paper tiger than the real thing.

Countries are unsure whether to take his words as policy pronouncements, or whether they can be safely ignored. If Mr. Trump’s threats are seen as hollow, what does that do to American credibility? In a series of Twitter posts on Saturday, Mr. Trump reacted to questions about his mental fitness by calling himself a “very stable genius.”

Even if there is a recognition that Mr. Trump’s tweets may be largely intended to let off steam or reassure his domestic base, there is an increasing sense that the credibility of the administration, and the presidency itself, is being eroded.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, recently repeated some of Mr. Trump’s more belligerent tweets and said: “This is our commander in chief. Think about it.”

The words of the American president matter, he added in a Twitter message: “That is why so many of this president’s tweets alarm. The issue is not just questionable policy on occasion but questionable judgment and discipline.”

The bottom line, Mr. Haass said, is that Twitter posts should be handled as seriously as any other White House statement, lest the currency of what the president says comes to be devalued.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson addressed Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts in a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, saying his department’s approach was “resilient enough” to handle the unexpected and still pursue long-term goals. “I take what the president tweets out as his form of communicating, and I build it into my strategies and my tactics,” he said.

But the Twitter posts have already devalued the president’s words, argues R. Nicholas Burns, a former career diplomat and ambassador to NATO, who teaches at Harvard and worked with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “These are statements of the president, of the U.S. government, so the tweets are important,” Mr. Burns said.

 “There’s always some excess or some objectionable statement that undermines American credibility, and it’s hard to win that back,” he said. “Allies and opponents invest in your judgment and common sense.”

He pointed to Mr. Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, however delayed or symbolic. That broke with years of international policy consensus, which called for the status of Jerusalem to be settled in peace talks.

“When you give away the status of Jerusalem unilaterally and get nothing from Israel and anger the Palestinians and challenge the world and then you lose, it’s a disastrous example of lack of U.S. credibility,” Mr. Burns said.

The decision infuriated the Palestinians and the Europeans. Then, Mr. Trump and his United Nations envoy, Nikki R. Haley, threatened to cut off aid to any country that opposed the new American position in a vote in the General Assembly.

On North Korea, despite Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts, Pyongyang has gone ahead with tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and has given no indication that it will agree to denuclearize in exchange for talks with Washington. Instead, it has gone around Washington to reopen talks with Seoul.

Even on Pakistan, where Mr. Trump followed through last week on threats to suspend aid over the country’s ambiguous support for the American battle against the Taliban, the president was for the Pakistanis before he was against them.

Some suggest that Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts should not be taken so seriously. Daniel S. Hamilton, a former State Department official who directs the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, says that Mr. Trump “uses these tweets and social media to secure his political base,” and “whether the tweets turn into a policy or not is a whole different question.”

One cannot ignore presidential tweets, Mr. Hamilton said, “but their purpose is not to make daily policy pronouncements.” Mr. Trump is well aware of their impact and timing, and when he tweets so early in the morning, Mr. Hamilton said, “it sets up the media for the whole day.”

For those around Mr. Trump in Washington, the daily battle is to “try to temper his temperament,” Mr. Hamilton said. “But for the allies it’s very hard to read.”