Is Unpredictability a Virtue in a World Leader?
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The pundits in the left-wing press have uniformly agreed with President Trump’s decision to call off the retaliatory strike on Iran, so they have instead criticized his supposedly making the decision at the last moment when the planes were already in the air.

The prize for the best line goes to Senator/candidate Amy Klobuchar, who reportedly said during the recent Democratic presidential candidate debate in Florida: “I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 in the morning.”

A more sober assessment without the gratuitous wardrobe advice was rendered by Holman Jenkins in a thoughtful column in The Wall Street Journal. Jenkins praised the substance of Trump’s decision as “His Finest Hour” but criticized the way he reportedly made it, saying: “Donald Trump’s ‘gut’ is not the genius he thinks it is. It is not any kind of genius to always do the unexpected thing, or to reject the advice of those around you just because they are advising it.”

That certainly sounds right. But is it really true? Many of the greatest experts on foreign policy have thought otherwise, believing that a reputation for unpredictability, which President Trump seems to relish and indeed to cultivate, does give a world leader an advantage in dealings with adversaries.

Daniel Ellsberg became famous when Nixon’s “plumbers” broke into his psychiatrist’s office, but the substance of his work as a foreign policy analyst has largely been forgotten. Ellsberg argued in his Ph.D. thesis that Hitler wasn’t really crazy; rather, according to Ellsberg, he carefully cultivated that image so that other world leaders would not assume they could predict his next action and would therefore give him a wide berth.

Leave aside for the moment whether Ellsberg’s diagnosis of Hitler was correct. Henry Kissinger reportedly said Ellsberg’s work was among the most brilliant he had ever read, and it is clear that Nixon and Kissinger carefully cultivated the image that Nixon was unpredictable and might do something rash so adversaries had better deal with the more rational Kissinger. This version of the old good cop/bad cop game produced some of the greatest accomplishments in recent American diplomatic history.

Trump seems to be playing the same strategy, but John Bolton is now the bad cop with only the unpredictable Trump to restrain him. After all, how did it become known that the plans for an air attack on Iran had been canceled at the last minute when the planes were already in the air? It did not leak; Trump himself announced it.

If one wanted the Iranians to believe that they had just had a very close call with America’s formidable military might without risking escalation, what better way to do it? The message was clear: “You might not be so lucky the next time.”

This fits a pattern in the Trump Administration. His critics assume he is an out-of-control idiot. I find it often fits the data better to assume there is a method to his madness.

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