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Trump's brinkmanship: Indecisive or judicious?

Wallace Henley Portrait
Wallace Henley |

Anyone can pull back from the edge of conflict, but only the strong, confident, principled, and well-informed can be trusted to pull back from the brink, not because they have been scared away but because they know it to be the most judicious, reasonable action.

Trust means a leader’s own people can have confidence that the leader knows the implications of his or her actions, and that the opponent can trust the fact that the leader means business, and if the overture is not accepted there will be consequences.

Successes of ancient Israel in its conquest of Canaan came about because, among other reasons, Joshua could be trusted when he gave orders to advance, but also when he commanded a halt in the battle.

Trump is not Joshua. Inconsolable, irretrievable Never Trump voices will herald the president’s “backing away” from retaliating against Iran for downing an American drone aircraft as if to imply that he is indecisive.
Hopefully, what we may be observing is maturing of the Trump presidency.

Again, the issue here is not the decision itself, but trust. It was the distrust of many watching the leftist Obama administration make its peace deals with Iran that raised so much concern, and may have even led to the delicate foreign policy balance that must be maintained today.
We have been here before.

In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican presidential candidate against the Democrats’ Adlai Stevenson, had to choose a vice presidential candidate. Ike chose California Senator Richard Nixon. The left fell into something resembling Trump Derangement Syndrome today, so intense was their hatred of Nixon.

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nixon had chased communists through his role on the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had also run in California against Helen Gahagan Douglas, a staunch leftist, and won.

In 1962, Nixon ran for the California governor’s office, and lost. He announced he was withdrawing from politics, and told the establishment press that battered him in the anti-Trump style of today that, “you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

That observation was shattered in 1968 when staunchly anti-communist, anti-socialist Nixon won the presidency, and was inaugurated in 1969.

Many were shocked in 1971 when Nixon began an effort to establish détente with the Soviet Union. He met with Soviet leaders, including Brezhnev, the communist nation’s head of state. Then, in 1972, Nixon stunned the world by announcing he was going to the People’s Republic of China, and would meet with Chairman Mao.
As a member of the White House staff I fast became aware at the level of indignation within the conservative community. China’s door had been shut from the rest of the world since Mao’s takeover in 1949. It was a hermit nation, as North Korea today. It did with fury what leftists and communists do now: restrict freedom of religion, speech, press, private property, and other features of a free society.

I took numerous phone calls from outraged people who had supported Nixon. Was he crazy? Was he a turncoat? Was he being lured into a trap?

The truth was that Nixon could be trusted to sit down with Mao precisely because Nixon was anti-communist.
Yet President Nixon could see that the world’s most populace society must be brought into the global family of nations. Nixon earnestly wanted an end to the Vietnam War, and the release of American POWs. A further purpose was to position our foreign policy relationship with China to slow or even halt its development as a nuclear superpower.

For the security of the United States, and all the world, this had to happen. But who could be trusted to bring it about, and not be duped by the communists?

Not Franklin D. Roosevelt (had he been alive) who had, in Winston Churchill’s view, been beguiled by Stalin. But how about a veteran, well-established anti-communist who was wary of Marxist propaganda and its strange view of truth as a disinformation tool?

Nixon could be trusted to open doors to the Marxist world not only because he had a realistic comprehension of communism, its promoters and potentates, but also because he was backed by America’s powerful military and weaponry, confident in his ability to negotiate effectively with his enemies, principled in his own firm belief in America’s founding values, resistant to the Marxist-Leninist values and worldview, and well-informed as to the situation “on the ground” because of the work of his intelligence agencies.

It was also clear that Nixon would listen to his diplomatic and military advisors.

People who hate Nixon will not like such a description. Trump-haters will loathe the very idea that Trump could also be trusted with foreign policy decisions like that he’s just made regarding retaliation for the drone downing.
Nevertheless, Trump could make a humanitarian decision after being told by his military leaders that 150 people would die in the planned strategic action. Despite allegations otherwise, Trump does embrace principles that can weigh the consequence of shooting down an unmanned drone versus killing a large number of people in response.

The president must show that he is strong enough to pull away from the brink, but smart enough not to take his eye off it. He can do that only if he knows he is backed by America’s military strength, intelligence agencies that will tell him the truth rather than working to destroy him, and confident in his own values as opposed to those of his opponents, and his ability to make a deal that benefits everyone.

Wallace Henley is senior associate pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church, and Chair of Belhaven University's Master of Ministry Leadership degree. He is a former White House and Congressional aide, and co-author of "God and Churchill", with Winston Churchill's great-grandson, Jonathan Sandys.

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