WASHINGTON – Writing to a friend in 1900, future President Theodore Roosevelt used the phrase that would define his foreign policy: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."
President Donald Trump's approach may be the opposite.
Speak loudly, carry a little stick.
Trump's decision to order military action against targets in Iran – only to cancel the operation at the last minute – follows a familiar pattern: Threaten, pull back, confuse friends and foes alike.
In his two-and-a-half years in office, Trump has threatened to rain "fire and fury" on North Korea, close the border with Mexico, intervene militarily in Venezuela, hit China with new and massive tariffs, and retaliate against Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone – only to back off in favor of negotiations or some other action.
Critics said Trump's "tough guy" style sows confusion among allies and encourages adversaries to think of him – and the United States – as weak.
"It feels more like an unintended outcome of a chaotic, understaffed and unruly White House," said Brent Colburn, a Pentagon official under President Barack Obama. "I’m glad the administration tends to end up in more restrained positions, but the public bluster involved in getting there can be damaging to the nation’s credibility."
Brian Katulis, a national security and Middle East expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, said Trump’s decision to cancel the Iran strike sends two conflicting messages to the Islamic Republic.
First, that “he’s quite prepared to go to the brink” of military confrontation. At the same time, “it also more broadly sends this message – which is quite confused and erratic – that he’s pretty desperate to talk,” he said.
Trump, who will take his "tough guy" approach to a G-20 summit next week devoted to trade talks and North Korea, tweeted that the military was "cocked & loaded to retaliate" against Iran, but he canceled the operation ten minutes beforehand because of concern about loss of life.
In a series of tweets, Trump said economic sanctions are pressuring Iran to give up any thoughts of developing nuclear weapons. He also threw in another threat: "Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!"
....proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
Allies and aides said Trump's rhetoric underscores a negotiation strategy that harkens back to his real estate days: Sometimes you attack people, sometimes you flatter them, all in an effort to get the deal you want.
Trump's combative rhetoric in the past has brought North Korea, Mexico, and China to the bargaining table, supporters said, and may well do the same with Iran.
"He's trying to go the extra mile to find a diplomatic solution and get Iran to de-escalate," said Fred Fleitz, former chief of staff to National Security Adviser John Bolton and now president of the Center for Security Policy.
Fleitz and others also noted Trump has frequently taken aggressive action, including military strikes on Syria over its use of chemical weapons and tariffs on China over its trade policies directed at the United States.
The ongoing trade war with China tops the agenda next week as Trump travels to Osaka, Japan, for the G-20 summit of nations. He is scheduled to meet with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping about reviving negotiations for a new trade deal, even as Trump and Xi threaten to hit each other's countries with more tariffs.
Trump is also expected to talk with Xi and other foreign leaders about North Korea. The president and his supporters said his past threats to "destroy" North Korea over its nuclear weapons programs brought leader Kim Jong Un to the table to talk about dismantling his nukes in exchange for sanctions relief.
Critics note that, since his first summit with Trump in June of 2018, Kim has made no serious moves toward denuclearization, and that a second summit in Vietnam in February ended in failure.
Yet the American president, who used to denounce Kim as "Little Rocket Man," now describes the North Korean autocrat as a "friend" who writes him "beautiful" letters.
Trump and his team sometimes abandon threats with little to no explanation.
After a series of rhetorical attacks on Venezuela's socialist government, Trump labeled President Nicolas Maduro illegitimate and then backed a coup by opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s national assembly.
As the coup sputtered, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, met in May at the Pentagon with then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to discuss possible options. Pompeo said then that military action was possible – but that idea quickly faded.
Trump's threat strategy also applies to allies.
In April, Trump backed off a threat to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border, saying he would give the Mexican government one year to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.
Earlier this month, Trump threatened to hit Mexico with new tariffs over immigration policy; he withdrew that threat after Mexico signed an agreement to address problems on the southern U.S. border.
Now comes the fallout from Trump's Iran threat and retreat.
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which embraces a hard-line approach to Iran, said the president’s decision to forgo the attack gives him the opportunity to go into the G-20 meeting as “the adult in the room,” having resisted Iran’s provocations and the advice of his own hawkish national security team.
Now, he said, the president is in a position to portray Iran as the bad actor and try to persuade European allies to join his campaign of economic and political isolation of the regime in Tehran, as it threatens access to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for global shipping.
If Trump had retaliated against Iran now, he said, the regime could have used the attack to rally the Iranian people and portray Trump as “bellicose and itching for war," Dubowitz said.
Trump has made isolating Iran a cornerstone of his Middle East foreign policy. Making good on a campaign promise, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear agreement, under which the U.S. and allied nations lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
The White House has since imposed an escalating series of sanctions on Iran, seeking to drive its lucrative oil exports to zero and cripple the Islamic Republic’s economy. As those sanctions started to bite, Iran escalated its rhetoric against the U.S. and threatened to stop its compliance with the nuclear deal by increasing its uranium enrichment, a key part of weapons development.
Tensions escalated this week when the Iranians shot down an unmanned American drone, which it said had crossed into Iranian territory. The U.S. said the drone was in international airspace and the Iranian strike was unprovoked.
The drone strike came after a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Middle East, which the Trump administration has blamed on Iran.
Trump is “very unpredictable,” Dubowitz said, but that can be a positive characteristic in dealing with regimes like Iran. “That’s very useful in keeping the regime off balance,” he said.
Dubowitz said Trump "can’t be threatening military action over and over again and not following through." He added, however, "it would be a serious miscalculation on the part of these other regimes to think that Trump is loath to use military force.”
Some people sympathetic to Trump's goals in the Middle East are dismayed by the climb-down over Iran.
Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official and current president of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said Trump gave the impression that "he lost his nerve," and that the U.S. should have responded to Iran weeks ago.
Trump also seems to be more focused on nuclear weapons rather than Iranian aggression in the region, Makovsky said, and that is equally concerning. "The Middle East just became more dangerous in recent days," he said.
Some analysts said this could be like a replay of Trump’s “fire and fury” threats against North Korea, a use of bellicose rhetoric as a means to pivot toward to diplomacy.
Whether this undermines Trump’s credibility globally is an open question, said Katulis, who served in national security and foreign policy roles in the Clinton administration.
“It really depends on what happens next,” Katulis said. “Under Trump, it’s anyone’s guess.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump talks tough to adversaries - but doesn't always follow through