Folly comes cheap in the era of Trump. In just one week, the President granted the world a twofer: starting a trade war with China, which he has promptly escalated, and promising a pull-out from Syria, which would would leave America’s worst enemies—Iran and Russia—in control of the Levant. Not bad for a few days of tweeting.
The Chinese caper began when Washington slapped a 25 percent tariff on 1,300 Chinese products, totaling $50 billion worth of “Made in China” stuff. The textbook response came a few hours later, with Beijing imposing a 25 percent tariff on American exports to the Middle Kingdom. This is what great powers do. They don’t cry uncle after an opening volley; they want to inflict pain to salve their pride and to deter the next broadside.
So far, so predictable, as was Trump’s second move, raising the ante by threatening tariffs on another $100 billion of imports from China. Why this reckless gambit? Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sounded like Alfred E. Neuman, the Mad Magazine mascot with the famous motto: “What, me worry?” U.S. exports targeted by China, Ross soothed, “amount to about three-tenths of a percent of our GDP. So it’s hardly a life-threatening activity.” In other words, we are starting a trade war over one-third of one percent? Nations should go to war over weightier matters.
Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer had his own Neuman moment. He insisted that U.S. tariffs on Chinese products will not raise prices for American consumers. There are lots of suppliers on the global market who will fill in for the Chinese. But pray tell, Mr. Lighthizer: How will these substitute imports from other countries reduce America’s towering trade deficit with the world, which has just hit a ten-year high?
Consider this instructive example: In 2009, the United States imposed punitive tariffs on tires made in China. So other nations took up the slack, letting their tires roll into the United States. Imports from China did drop, but those from Mexico, Vietnam, and South Korea rose. Alas, the overall trade deficit did not budge while job gains for the U.S. tire industry rose by a paltry 2 percent. The bottom line? Every saved job cost $900,000 due to rising tire prices for the American consumer.
Now, as we know, Mr. Trump praises himself as a “stable genius.” So let’s put the best gloss on his adventure. His calculation may go like this: We will go to the brink, loosen a few rocks, and see what they hit. So what if the Chinese retaliate? Never mind, as long as they get the message. They depend more on the U.S. market than we do on theirs. Their exports to us are four times higher than ours to them. They’re gonna give, Mr. Trump must be thinking.
Suitably rattled, the Chinese will come to the table and deliver what we really want—above all, serious concessions on what has been irking us for decades: their unremitting theft of U.S. intellectual property. Or their acquisitions by not-so-gentle persuasion. You want to set up shop in China? Then you have to go into partnership with a local firm and throw technology transfers into the bargain—something that is not allowed by the World Trade Organization.
There may well be some give here on the part of the Chinese, especially since they are not just up against the United States. They have been inflicting the same uncouth methods on all Western companies wanting to build production lines in China.
For once, Mr. America First would serve the American interest, along with those of its allies, if he successfully pressed China along these lines. Our allies would even cheer him (albeit very softly so as not to rile Beijing). Regrettably, Donald Trump is not known around the world as a diligent coalition builder. So don’t hold your breath in the expectation of a sudden outbreak of American multilateralism.
The point of this rosy take on Trump’s trade war is that the initial exchange of fire is a signaling game, not necessarily the prelude to real economic warfare. Both sides could still rescind their threats and walk back from the brink.
Not so in the Middle East, where another folly is unfolding. “We will be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” Mr. Trump told the world at the end of March, and the Washington Post reports that he recently instructed his military to prepare a withdrawal from Syria—though without a date. The maxim is: Let George do it—in this case, our rich Sunni allies. So Trump may be aping Barack “Let’s Go Home” Obama, who drew his infamous “red line” in Syria only to dishonor it.
The difference between the tit-for-tat machismo in the Far East and the abandonment of the Levant is momentous. You can always return to the bargaining table to hash out a trade deal. Yet you cannot reinsert yourself in Syria once you cede the arena to Iran and Russia—except at enormous risk. It is a lot safer and cheaper to stay than to fight your way in again. Iran and Russia are staying for keeps, and they would be delirious with joy to see the United States fold, thus strengthening their hold on the larger Middle East.
Then consider the collateral damage. ISIS or the next incarnation of Islamic terror may sink roots in the oil-rich area east of the Euphrates. As the former U.S. Ambassador in Turkey, Eric Edelman, put it, pulling out now “will likely lead to a revival of the ISIS threat much as Obama’s premature evacuation of Iraq led to a void that was filled by ISIS.”
Will the Sunni Arabs redouble their efforts, making Obama’s failed dream come true? No longer shielded and led by the United States, they are just as likely to sue for peace and to make nice with the new masters of the region, Moscow and Tehran. Don’t balance against the strong, realpolitik whispers to the weak, bandwagon with them.
Israel has been trying to stay out of the Syrian melee, but with Iran safely ensconced in the vast stretch from Basra to Beirut, the strategic threat to Israel soars. So does the probability of war once the United States is no longer in place to deter Tehran and its Hezbollah proxies. Look forward to more millions of refugees trying to escape from round two of the Syrian war, with Israel going all out to decimate the deadly Shi‘a foe on its northern border.
Alexander Pope, the 19th-century English poet, taught: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Change that to: “Only fools rush out where angels never lived”—where power is the ultimate currency of strategy. Next to the Western Pacific, the Middle East will be the most critical battleground of the 21stcentury. To leave it is to lose it. Abandoning the Levant is voluntary self-demotion—the ultimate folly in the affairs of nations.