Politicians are notorious for not always saying what’s really on their minds. They often hedge their words to placate different constituencies, with minimum commitment to any particular point of view. And it’s axiomatic in diplomatic-speak never to say exactly what you’re thinking. The diplomats’ golden rule seems to be: when in doubt, mumble.
So what to make of President Trump’s penchant for saying exactly what’s on his mind? I believe it is a welcome departure from the tired old ways of conducting both domestic and foreign affairs, which got the U.S. and the world into the muddled mess in which we find ourselves. And it just may help us break seemingly endless logjams both at home and abroad.
Let’s start at home. The president has not hidden his impatience with the snail’s pace of action in Congress. In this he’s in sync with the vast majority of Americans, who hold Congress in lower regard than just about any other institution. And he’s not the first president to speak plainly about his frustrations.
President Harry Truman was famous for speaking his mind about Capitol Hill, especially when he admonished “the do-nothing Congress.” John Kennedy slipped a warning to America’s enemies into his inaugural address that “in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” The point he was making to the communist world was unmistakable: Conflict with U.S. will end in your doom. When confronted with the possibility of nuclear war with the U.S. during the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviets wisely backed down.
Ronald Reagan could also speak in no uncertain terms. When he called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire,” and when he spoke in Berlin and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the hand-wringers at home worried that he was being too hard on a powerful adversary. Reagan even joked once on an open mic in the Oval Office that he would begin bombing Russia in five minutes. The naysayers were aghast. But the Soviets were forewarned: This is a man not to be trifled with. In the end there was no nuclear Armageddon, the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. None of this happened by coincidence.
So when Trump rails at leaders in Congress for failing to pass just about anything since he took office, his impatience is completely understandable. Matters are not made better when members of Congress remind the president that he is new to Washington and must learn patience with the arcane ways of Capitol Hill. That’s exactly why Trump defeated the mealy-mouthed Hillary Clinton, whose motto, when confronted with a tough choice, seemed to be: Some of my friends are for it, some of my friends are against it, and I’m for my friends.
Sometimes tough talk is the only thing tough adversaries understand. Two decades of diplomatic niceties have accomplished nothing when it came to containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Now we’re confronted with a nuclear-armed rogue nation that regularly threatens to lob missiles toward Guam and the U.S. mainland. Why not let “Rocket Man” know, in no uncertain terms, that if he’s crazy enough to start a war with the U.S., his country will be “totally destroyed”? Maybe Kim Jong-un is sane enough to step back from the brink.
The same goes for the ill-considered Iranian nuclear deal, in which the West paid out billions of dollars in cash to Iran in exchange for a weak and hard-to-enforce pause in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Under the agreement, Iran must be given up to 24 days’ notice of inspections of its nuclear facilities, so much time that the inspections may be worthless. Missile development isn’t even included in the deal’s provisions. And at the end of the 10 years covered by the deal, Iran will be free to restart developing nuclear weapons. Trump was right to call the deal an “embarrassment” and to call for reopening negotiations to significantly tighten Iran’s nuclear restrictions and to stop its ongoing export of terrorism in the Mideast.
We live in a world where it’s harder and harder to get anything big done, whether at home or abroad. There are always a million reasons not to do health care reform, tax reform or immigration reform, and to put off hard choices in our dealings with adversaries like North Korea and Iran. That’s why a little plain speaking to kick-start real progress in these critical areas may be just what the country needs. That’s what the electorate decided last November, and it’s up to our leaders in Washington to turn words into action, plain and simple.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.