Nowhere does Donald Trump have more unilateral power than in his role as Commander in Chief. And nowhere has he been more contradictory than in his remarks about three global hot spots where regional stability and American lives are at stake: Iran, Syria and North Korea.
In March, Trump told a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that his “No. 1 priority” is to “dismantle” the international deal that froze Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the suspension of most sanctions against the country. As President, Trump can make that happen with the stroke of a pen. To reach agreement with Tehran, President Obama waived economic sanctions, and Trump can reinstate them as soon as he is sworn in. Iran would then restart its nuclear program, likely prompting Israel to once again prepare military strikes to destroy it, potentially drawing the U.S. into a new war in the Middle East. But in the same speech to AIPAC, Trump said that “at the very least, we must enforce the terms” of the Iran deal, suggesting he might simply continue Obama’s existing approach.
Next door, in Syria and Iraq, Trump has said he intends to “bomb the hell out of ISIS.” He pledged to cut off aid to rebels fighting Syrian strongman Bashar Assad and join with Russia in targeting Assad’s opponents. But Assad and Russia have spent little time fighting ISIS. Rather, they’ve targeted moderate groups opposing the Assad regime. In Iraq, Trump has called the U.S.-backed effort by Iraqi and Kurdish forces to oust the terrorist group from the city of Mosul a “disaster,” even as those forces have broken initial ISIS resistance and driven deep into the city. It’s not clear what Trump would do differently. Of his plan to oust ISIS, Trump says, “I’m not going to say anything. I don’t want to tell them anything.”
In the communist hermit state of North Korea, which Western experts estimate may have more than a dozen nuclear weapons, Trump has alternately said that the dictator Kim Jong Un is a “bad dude” and a “madman,” and offered to meet the despot “over a hamburger” so he could cut “a good deal.” During the presidential campaign, Trump suggested that South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons so that the U.S. would no longer have to bear the cost of defending Seoul against the North. But one of his first acts as President-elect was to call South Korean President Park Geun-hye and assure her that the U.S. stood with Seoul “against the instability in North Korea.”
With reporting by CHARLIE CAMPBELL/BEIJING and JARED MALSIN/ISTANBUL
This appears in the November 28, 2016 issue of TIME.