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Foreign Policy Experts Push Back On Trump's Iranian Ships Comments

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Donald Trump says he wants to spend billions beefing up the armed forces - more planes, more ships, more troops.

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DONALD TRUMP: We will rebuild our military - and again, so strong that nobody's going to mess with us.

MONTAGNE: Trump, speaking last Friday at a rally in Pensacola, Fla., at the top of his list for who should not mess with the U.S. - Iran. Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. on a threat to shoot Iranian ships out of the water.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: In the crowded shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf, Iran and the U.S. have long played a game of cat and mouse. Lately, the mouse has been poking hard. This month, an Iranian vessel came within 100 yards of a U.S. Navy ship. And remember the confrontation in January, when Iran took U.S. sailors into custody after their ship strayed into Iranian territorial waters. The U.S. has condemned Iran's actions. At his Florida campaign stop, Trump advocated going considerably farther.

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TRUMP: When they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn't be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water, OK? Believe me.

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KELLY: That applause went on a full 30 seconds, a sign the threat played well to his supporters, to foreign policy experts listening, not so much.

JAMES JEFFREY: I found this very troubling.

KELLY: Ambassador James Jeffrey, he served in senior roles under both Obama and George W. Bush. Jeffrey agrees with Trump that the U.S. should push back harder against Iranian provocations. He calls the Obama administration's response lackluster. But...

JEFFREY: It's one thing to say I would be tougher on the Iranians. That's a reasonable position. But to say, if they harass us, I'll blow them out of the water, that would be terribly dangerous.

KELLY: Words matter. And Jeffrey argues Trump's words today set expectations tomorrow.

JEFFREY: To throw out these general threats is inherently dangerous because if you become president, it's hard to back down on them.

KELLY: Former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns says Iran's actions reveal internal battles in Tehran, divisions that play out in aggression towards the U.S.. Burns has served both Republican and Democratic presidents and now advises the Clinton campaign. He calls Trump's proposed response, quote, "neither sophisticated nor sensible."

NICHOLAS BURNS: Obviously, if Iranian naval vessels exhibited a lethal threat, an imminent threat to an American naval vessel, we would have every right to respond and to counterattack. But it hasn't come to that.

KELLY: It's worth noting China plays the cat and mouse game, too. So does Russia. Last week, a Russian fighter jet came within 10 feet of a U.S. Navy plane over the Black Sea. The question, for whoever is elected America's next president, is do you go to war over provocations? Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.