As long as he remains in the room, no war is likely to begin

Autocrats prefer the polished, clear diplomatic and political rules which protect them, but Trump thinks out of the box and it works. Op-ed.

Daniel Pinner ,

טראמפ וצוותו בבית הלבן
טראמפ וצוותו בבית הלבן
Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

It’s been years since I last played chess; at least a decade, maybe more. But a quarter of a century ago or more (and yes, I know how old that makes me sound!), I enjoyed frequent chess games.

I was a soldier in the IDF at the time that the Soviet Union was collapsing, newly-liberated Jews were pouring into Israel from behind the rusting remains of the Iron Curtain, and there were uncountable Israeli soldiers who had grown up in the Soviet Union and were now living freely as Jews in Israel.

Even combat soldiers are plagued by remarkably long periods of boredom, so we would pass the time by playing chess. Whatever the other faults of the Soviet Union, it taught its denizens to be some of the greatest chess-players in the world.

And to my astonishment, when I played chess against people who had grown up in the USSR and had been trained in chess since infancy, I was often able to hold my own.

It was astonishing, because I have never been professionally schooled in chess. Beyond a few TV programmes about chess I remembered from England in my teenage years, a few tips from a few friends, and two or three chess book I had studied alone, I have never had any training in “the game of kings and the king of games”.

Professionally-trained chess-players are all familiar with the Kings Indian Defence, the Ruy Lopez Opening, the Budapest Gambit and scores of other standard openings, defences, attacks, gambits, strategies, tactics, and end-game moves.

Not me.

I was a maverick, making up my own openings, defences, attacks, counter-attacks, gambits, strategies, and tactics. It made my moves unpredictable and my responses erratic. My opponents could never understand what I was planning, so even if my improvised tactics weren’t objectively all that good, no one could understand what I was planning.

Then again, I couldn’t understand what other players were planning either, so I rarely gave the “correct” defences to their attacks.

And that was my strength in chess. Precisely my inexperience and lack of knowledge led me into unorthodox moves which tripped up players far better-trained than myself.

Like chess, international politics and diplomacy have their clearly-defined rules.

For example, one fundamental rule of US-Israel bilateral relations is that during US election campaigns, every Presidential candidate must declare his (or her!) unconditional support for Israel, and promise that the US “has Israel’s back”.

And after winning the election victory, that same candidate must pay constant homage to “the unbreakable bond that links our two great countries” (in the words of every US President since Truman), while supplying weapons to Israel’s most ferocious enemies and excoriating Israel for ever having the temerity to defend herself.

Another unbreakable rule of US-Israel relations and diplomacy is that every President must acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in words, while obstreperously frustrating any legislation which might recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in practice.

These rules remained unbreakable until a few short years ago. During his election campaign back in 2016, Donald Trump indeed repeated the same platitudes as dozens of his predecessors.

But then when he won the election, he broke the previously unbreakable rules by actually keeping his promises and following through with deeds.


Trump is clearly a maverick, a political outsider who has never been professionally schooled in international politics and diplomacy. He has clearly never had any training in the game of affairs of state.

And that is precisely his strength. He has dared to challenge the might of the entire Islamic world (alright, almost the entire Islamic world, with a very few honourable exceptions) in a way that no political insider has ever dared before, or indeed could ever dare.

Every Arab and Moslem leader, indeed just about everyone in the world, assumed that he would follow this same stratagem – let us call it “the Washington Gambit”: talk about “the unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel, and continue talking, while doing the polar opposite. Mouth some empty platitudes about Jerusalem, while obstinately maintaining the status quo.

But President Trump had a different stratagem – one of his own invention, one that few world leaders have ever used (at least, not in recent decades): he actually meant what he said.

This unexpected move – a US President who spoke the truth, who made promises and actually kept them – has shaken the world.

Another recognised rule of international diplomacy is that democracies never declare war. They can respond when dictatorships attack, they can mobilise in self-defence, they can even sometimes defend their allies. But they cannot initiate war.

That’s why Britain and France couldn’t confront Nazi Germany until the Wehrmacht invaded Poland – by which time it was far too late to avoid global disaster. That’s why the US couldn’t confront Imperial Japan until the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor. That’s why Britain couldn’t pre-empt the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

That’s why the US couldn’t declare war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq until after Iraq had invaded and devastated Kuwait – and even then, the US could only go to war as a member of a multinational military coalition whose attack had been authorised by the UN in its Security Council Resolution 678.

And that’s why dictators the world over feel confident in threatening democracies with war. For a century past, every dictator has known that he can threaten, and even invade, other countries with impunity, because the world’s democracies won’t break the rules by counter-attacking.

That’s why every Soviet dictator from Lenin until Gorbachev got away with oppressing his own people, subjugating a dozen other countries in East Europe, arming and funding terrorist gangs throughout the world, and destabilising regimes across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

In North Korea, three generations of Kims – Kim Il-Sung who led the country from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il who led the country from 1994 until his death in 2011, and now the present leader Kim Jong-un – have played by the well-established rules of international diplomacy:

They oppress their own people, they threaten to invade or fire missiles at nearby countries such as China or Japan – and the US responds by moving a few warships of the Seventh Fleet a few nautical miles closer to North Korea, or by holding joint military manoeuvres with South Korea and Japan.

Shows of force, designed to prevent escalation. In fact, reassurances to dictators that they are safe.Until the political neophyte President Trump responded – not with one of the standard “correct” moves, but rather with stratagems of his own devising.

In August 2017, when Pyongyang announced that North Korea had built a nuclear warhead small enough to fit onto an intercontinental ballistic missile, they obviously expected Trump to respond with the standard “Washington’s President Defence” – a carefully-worded letter of protest to the UN, maybe coupled with some military manoeuvres around the Pacific, and nothing more.

Instead, President Trump shot from the hip with a most undiplomatic statement: “North Korea had best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen”.

And the following month he addressed the UN General Assembly: “No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime of North Korea... If this is not twisted enough, now North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life... No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles. The United States has great strength and patience; but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea”.

About as undiplomatic a warning as any leader can possibly sound. And then Trump gets personal: “Rocket-man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

Not quite Churchillian rhetoric, certainly not the way that one national leader is supposed to refer to another. “Rocket-man” – Trump’s contemptuous appellation for Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

Yet Trump’s almost juvenile sneering at North Korea’s Supreme Leader was a gambit which worked: like the chess master facing a maverick whose tactics he couldn’t fathom, Kim Jong-un had no idea how to respond. And the years which has passed since then have thoroughly vindicated Trump: he indeed forced “Rocket-man” to back down.

When an unpredictable and erratic maverick, who also just happens to be the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s mightiest military machine and biggest nuclear arsenal, threatens annihilation, then even the most delusional tyrant is forced to come to heel.

Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was another outstanding example of his unpredictable and unorthodox gambits.

For sure, when he spoke about this four years ago in his first presidential election campaign, he sounded little different from any number of his predecessors. But then he went ahead and actually did it – and shook up the entire Middle East! For decades, the PLO and the Hamas had held the entire world to ransom, demanding and threatening that there could be no peace anywhere in the Middle East until their demands had been fully satisfied.

(And since their minimum demands include the extermination of Israel and the genocide of all Jews therein, their demands could never be satisfied, so there could never be peace in the Middle East.)

And the consequences have been clear: both the PLO and the Hamas have suffered severe loss of influence, stabilising Israel and its immediate environs; Arab terrorism against Israel has been reduced; the UAE and Israel have signed a bilateral agreement, a warmer relationship than we ever enjoyed with either Egypt or Jordan; Sudan, previously a terror-sponsoring state, has been manoeuvred into dropping its support for terror and entering into diplomatic relations with Israel; Turkey is far more cautious about intervening in the Syrian civil war; even Iran has been forced to be more cautious in supporting Hezbollah.

President Donald Trump is a bit like everyone’s eccentric uncle: the butt of many jokes, the uncle who everyone loves to make fun of, who enjoys clowning about sometimes, who everyone admires (even if they’d rather not admit to it in public) – and who you’re always a bit chary of inviting to parties because even though he’s fun to have around, you’re never sure if he’ll embarrass you in public with some off-colour remark.

In an era of ever-increasing uncertainty in the world, at a time when unstable dictators and paranoid tyrants have access to nuclear weapon and delivery systems, an erratic and unpredictable president in the White House is the greatest asset that the free world can possibly have.

Autocrats always fear the unknown and the unpredictable: they would of course prefer the polished and known diplomatic and political rules which protect them.

This wildly unstable and eccentric and erratic man in the White House, who threatens North Korea, Iran, Isis, and other unsavoury regimes with his unpredictable and non-understandable moves, is making the world a safer place for us all. No one wants to annoy or upset him too much, because no one knows what consequences he might trigger.

He is the archetypal New Yorker: crass, uncouth, loudmouthed, unrefined, and refreshingly honest and forthright. And he controls the mightiest economy and war-machine in the world.

The New York City born-and-bred newspaper columnist and editor Heywood Broun (1888-1939) cynically said that “a liberal is a man who leaves the room before the fight begins”.

This is emphatically not Donald Trump. As long as he remains in the room, no fight is likely to begin.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.