With the phrase “the calm before the storm,” President Trump on Thursday evening kicked off one of the biggest media kerfuffles since his late-night tweet in May about “the constant negative press covfefe.” That mysterious locution produced a spate of stories speculating sardonically on what the president meant. We’re now hearing a similar round of mockery. But this was no late-night typo in a tweet, and while offended members of the media default to derision, it’s worth considering that the president quite likely sent a useful message to an audience that extends way beyond the White House press corps.
The setting was a dinner for top U.S. military commanders and their spouses, hosted by Trump in the White House State Dining Room. Trump invited reporters in for a brief photo-op. Flanked by military officials who have dedicated themselves to defending America and winning its wars, all gathered with their spouses under a big portrait of President Lincoln. Trump asked the reporters, “You guys know what this represents?”
“Tell us, sir,” said one of the reporters.
“Maybe it’s the calm before the storm,” said Trump. A reporter asked, “What storm?” Trump gave the oblique reply, “We have the world’s greatest military people in this room, I will tell you that.” A reporter asked, again, “What storm?” Trump said, “You’ll find out.”
The entire exchange lasted about 30 seconds. The reporters were thanked and dismissed. The media were left to speculate on whether the “storm” referred to impending military action again North Korea, or maybe plans to back away from President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, or something else, or nothing at all. Asked again by reporters on Friday what he meant by “the calm before the storm,” Trump again declined to clarify, saying again, “You’ll find out.”
This has been playing as a crazy-Trump story. CNN came out with the headline: “Trump is treating a potential war like a reality show cliffhanger,” and warned, “This is no reality show… His words — whether he means them as a tease, a threat or something in between — can have very real consequences.” Esquire called Trump “Our Reality TV President” and asked, “Will the season finale involve nuclear war with North Korea?” The New York Times called Trump’s comment “ominous.” NBC called it “provocative.” Politico called it “unprompted.” The Huffington Post, in a headline, called it “Bizarre.”
I’d call it smart. We don’t know precisely what the president had in mind. But we do know — or we ought to know — this: In world politics, there is a gathering storm that threatens America and our allies. There is a rising network of tyrannies hostile to American interests and values, including most prominently Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. The U.S. superpower can face down any one of these actors if it must, but the disturbing trajectory is that for years now — whatever their differences — they have effectively been making common cause against America and the requirements of a free and peaceful world order. They do illicit business together; they often back each other diplomatically, and they learn from each other just how much it is possible to get away with. Russia and China have been carrying out joint military maneuvers. North Korea, longtime weapons dealer to Iran, is cultivating an arsenal of nuclear missiles. The threats compound.
This trend accelerated dramatically during the years of America’s policies of retreat, appeasement, and surrender under President Obama. China, as part of its military buildup, sped up its construction of artificial islands topped with military bases clearly designed to threaten freedom of navigation along vital shipping routes in Southeast Asia. Russia snatched Crimea from Ukraine, and got away with it. Terrorist-sponsoring Iran extended its reach in the Middle East, and is currently benefitting from a rotten nuclear deal that paves its way to the bomb, accessorized with ballistic missiles. Syria disintegrated into war, which opened the way for both the rise of ISIS and military inroads by Vladimir Putin’s Russia into the Middle East. Libya, with America leading-from-behind, disintegrated into terrorist-infested chaos.
And North Korea, which had carried out one nuclear test in 2006 on the watch of President Bush, conducted four more tests during the tenure of Obama, along with scores of ballistic missile tests, while Kim Jong Un consolidated his hold on the totalitarian throne inherited in 2011 from his father. Taking advantage of Obama’s “strategic patience” to ramp up a rogue nuclear program, Kim Jong Un’s regime was ready to greet the Trump administration with an arsenal that by now appears quite convincingly to include long-range missiles, miniaturized warheads and the hydrogen bomb.
None of this is a figment of Trump’s imagination. Neither is it a prop on some reality TV show. It is real.
This is not of Trump’s making. But given the rate at which the threats and crises have been compounding, it falls to him to cope with a greatly emboldened group of increasingly well armed and predatory powers. This has been made all the more difficult by the enormous amount of U.S. credibility that was squandered by Obama — who gutted the U.S. military, bore passive “witness” to upheaval in Iran, erased his own red line over chemical weapons in Syria, threw away the hard-won progress in Iraq, bungled Afghanistan and Libya, promised (and delivered) flexibility to Putin, deferred to China, embraced Cuba, shrugged off the rising nuclear threat of North Korea, and assured the American public that the tide of war was receding.
The first priority for any president inheriting this virulent global mess should be to try as far as possible to reclaim America’s credibility; to persuade America’s enemies that the bargain sale on U.S. interests is over, and America will, if necessary, wield its full military might to defend itself, its allies and interests. That is vital to deterrence, which — if genuinely effective — is vastly preferable to war.
The conundrum is how America can regain the credibility needed for deterrence, without having to resort to war in order to prove the point. For instance, unless Kim Jong Un truly believes that the U.S. might actually attack North Korea despite the potential horrific cost, why should he back down? Why should he worry about U.S. warships and submarines in the region? It’s an impressive show of military hardware, but is it a credible threat?
For an American president faced with this problem, one move worth attempting would be to gather America’s top military commanders for a meeting at the White House, followed by a dinner with their spouses, and invite the press to come witness and report on this conclave. If, in the midst of this genial scene, the president mentions that this is the calm before the storm, it may be baffling and frustrating to reporters — whose job includes nailing down details. But in capitals such as Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang, it might just help prompt a rethink about the assumption — gleaned from their success in rogue ventures during the tenure of Obama — that America is a hamstrung giant.
Whether that was Trump’s intention, I don’t know. It sure looked that way. In the phrase that so alarmed CNN and Esquire, there was a useful ambiguity. Trump didn’t guarantee a storm; he merely suggested it could happen. Surrounded by his top military commanders, in the seat of American power that is the White House, the commander-in-chief prefaced his statement about “the calm before the storm” with “maybe.” It was, in a genteel and peaceful setting, a warning not to mess with America.
There’s always the possibility that it was more than a broad warning — that perhaps Trump is indeed about to launch a specific military action. But to whatever extent this cliffhanger helps concentrate minds in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang on just how unpleasant it could be to provoke an American storm, it was an important message. Quite possibly a bid to avert a war, rather than start one. Worth the kerfuffle in the press.