The American public is accustomed to taking politicians at their word. In turn, the country’s political elite has grown accustomed to being cautious about the language it uses—lest they later be handcuffed by their own policy statements. During the 2004 presidential election, U.S. President George W. Bush’s campaign labeled the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, an unreliable “flip-flopper,” in part because he claimed he opposed the Iraq War even though he had voted for the legislation authorizing it. Pundits attribute Kerry’s loss in that presidential race partly to the fact that the flip-flopper narrative stuck. Voters punished Kerry by casting their ballot for the other guy, as they would most politicians who change their stance or undermine their own credibility on important issues.
In the national security realm, officials tend to be even more careful with language because the stakes are potentially much higher. Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s famous 2011 “red line” threat against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and his unwillingness to follow through on it, still haunts his legacy everywhere, from Syria, where President Bashir al-Assad’s war against the rebels escalated, to East Asia, where allies began questioning the credibility of U.S. commitments on that basis.
What has baffled political pundits about President Donald Trump is that his policy statements, which a group of over one hundred Republican national security leaders has called “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle,” have left him politically unscathed. But a closer read of Trumpian language reveals why that might be the case. Trump has not necessarily flip-flopped on his policy positions. In fact, it is primarily the inferences made about his remarks that are inconsistent with what he actually says.
Compare Trump’s rhetoric with the media and campaign coverage of it on two major national security issues: alliances in Asia and nuclear weapons policy. Trump never stated that he was closing bases or ending alliances with Japan and South Korea. Instead, he had merely bemoaned that “we defend countries. They do not pay us what they should be paying us because we are providing a tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune.” Elsewhere he had said, “South Korea is a money machine but they pay us peanuts,” continuing, “South Korea should pay us very substantially for protecting them.” And on Japan, Trump said, “It could be that Japan will have to defend itself against North Korea …You always have to be prepared to walk. I don’t think we’ll walk. I don’t think it’s going to be necessary. It could be, though.” In contrast, characterizations of Trump’s position on these allies has included headlines such as “Japan and South Korea Rattled by Trump’s Talk of Closing U.S. Bases” and a press release from the campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that said, “Donald Trump Has Threatened to Abandon America’s Allies.”
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