"We have to get Pakistan to stop screwing us—get them fully on board with our anti-Taliban program.”
“We’ve been trying that for 17 years! Nothing works!”
“What if we threatened a hard tilt to India?”
“President Bush tried that.”
“What if we meant it this time?”
“OK, great, but remember India runs a $24 billion trade surplus with the U.S. last year, ahead of South Korea's. That’s a big concern for the president.”
“Well, he’s just going to have choose his priority.”
But of course, he did not choose a priority. He’s trying to change Islamabad’s behavior by threatening it with a tilt to India—and trying to change New Delhi’s behavior at the same time by threatening it with a tilt against India. Result: He will change nobody’s behavior, and face exactly the same strategic choices a year from now that he does today.
This speech, however, despite its billing, was not about strategic choices, not this year or next. It was about this week’s positioning. Within the closed-world of cable-TV chatter that matters so desperately much to this president, the tactic will work for a time. He probably enjoyed his morning TV viewing today more than he has enjoyed it in a long, long time. But he has changed nothing in either the domestic or international political situation, and that gravity will reassert itself very soon.
As often as he does wild and erratic things, still much of his time is spent doing normal-looking president-y things: signing pieces of paper, sitting amid grave-looking officials, shaking hands with foreign dignitaries. It’s the nature of television (or at least, the nature of people most often invited onto television) to see the world as a sequence of days, each only lightly connected to the day preceding or the day following. “Did the president have a good day? Who won the week?” It’s even more the nature of television (or of its favorite guests) to perceive events visually—to transform politics into optics. “Did the president sound strong? Did he change the narrative?”
Yet real-world events move slower and their consequences last longer. Changing the narrative changes very little, if the narrative is based on reality, because reality is recalcitrant. Wise and consistent presidential leadership can move that reality, but usually only slowly. Fitful and impulsive leadership that seeks to change only the next morning’s TV chatter—well, it changes only that, and that is not very important. The chatter will change again the day after that.
But if you do want one image to remember from yesterday, cast aside Trump’s theatrical performance of Monday evening. Pay attention instead to his behavior of Monday afternoon, when he waved aside all advice and glared directly into the solar eclipse. Truculent and self-harming: That’s the elected leader of the United States. Nothing will change that, certainly not words written for him or promises of action extracted from him. Those will flit and fluctuate from day to day, hour to hour, and will mean little enough at the time they are spoken. So it is with this highly advertised speech—but that, too, you knew already.