When a foreign policy pundit declares that U.S. “leadership” has been brought to an end by this or that action, he is often just saying that he thinks the current president is conducting foreign policy the wrong way, and “leadership” talk usually frees the pundit from having to explain anything else. The problem the critic has is not that the U.S. has ceased to “lead,” but that the president is leading the U.S. in the wrong direction. It would be more useful and it would save us all a lot of time if critics of this or any other president’s actions would skip laments for lost “leadership.”
I’ve really appreciated that Daniel Larison — who was a consistent scourge of the Bush and Obama administrations — has been at least as scathing about the conduct of foreign policy under President Trump. And so I also appreciate his recent meditation on whether Trump has abandoned leadership of the free world:
I would say that U.S. “leadership” as conventionally understood is still intact and will be for the foreseeable future, but that Trump’s conduct of foreign policy–if it continues this way–will leave us with a worst-of-both-worlds situation in which the U.S. is still obliged to do all the same things it has been expected to do while having even less influence with other governments than it does now. Trump isn’t ceding America’s “leadership” role. He’s just doing a terrible job when he tries to exercise that leadership.
Trump is managing to find a way to antagonize allies without reducing our liabilities, and at the same time he is stoking tensions with adversaries while increasing support for and entanglement with irresponsible clients. This is not really a foreign policy of “retreat” or “withdrawal” any more than Obama’s was. It appears to be a foreign policy of fruitless confrontation for its own sake. This not a case of putting American interests first. It is picking fights with lots of other countries regardless of the benefits and costs of doing so and declaring victory without having any success.
I agree with all of that. Trump’s foreign policy consists of a peculiar combination of blustery displays of dominance with treaty allies combined with obsequious fawning over unsavory clients, and it’s very hard to see how that adds up to anything that particularly benefits America.
But I think more needs to be said about this:
I think Larison is absolutely correct in general that the cult of American leadership has made it harder and harder to talk intelligently about our choices in foreign policy. But that doesn’t mean the concept of leadership is actually meaningless and should just be ditched. I’ll take two of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration as illustrative cases: the Libyan war and the Iran deal.
The Libyan war was the brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy above all (you can read the cynical thoughts I wrote about it at the time), and the Obama administration joined the fray substantially because we felt entangled by our web of alliances. The French, the British and the Arab League all felt that we had allowed “friendly” dictators in Egypt and Tunisia to fall to popular unrest; we could not follow that up by allowing an “unfriendly” dictator like Gaddafi to hold on to power by force. The “world community” had to show that such behavior was unacceptable — and had to act preemptively where there was reason to believe atrocities were being planned. Obama may have thought that America was “leading from behind” but it was our leadership that brought the Chinese and the Russians to accept a U.N. mandate for action.
In other words: the motivation for the disastrous war (far more disastrous than I had anticipated, though I thought the war was a foolish gamble from the start) was to demonstrate leadership. That demonstration itself was the only real interest that we had at stake; had the worst fears of what Gaddafi planned to do come to pass, and he had perpetrated a huge massacre in Benghazi, there would have been no direct harm done to American interests. Instead, our action itself badly harmed American interests in two major ways: the war itself destabilized much of the Sahel region and has exacerbated the ongoing refugee crisis, and the fact that the coalition rapidly and blatantly exceeded its mandate poisoned any trust that had developed with Russia and (to a lesser extent) China. But the action was undertaken overwhelmingly for the purpose of maintaining that posture of leadership.
Now consider the Iran deal. The Obama administration clearly sought an opening to Iran from its early years, but initially it used sanctions and covert action to harass the Iranian regime with the aim of bringing them to a more compliant position once negotiations began in earnest. And in those negotiations, the Obama administration had to juggle a fractious group including the Russians and Europeans (who were eager for a deal on just about any terms) while trying to keep allies who were not part of the negotiations (like the Saudis and Israelis) from undermining their progress. The Obama administration’s acquiescence in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and relative lack of commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reflected in part a reluctance to create additional issues with these allies at a time when the overwhelming focus was on cementing a successful deal with Iran.
Once again, America was clearly and unequivocally the leader. But in this case, the motivation for the deal was an American interest (rightly or wrongly understood) of limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions through diplomacy, with a likely background interest in reducing America’s exposure to the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East. America’s leadership position both enhanced our ability to pursue that interest (because without European and Russian cooperation American pressure would have been far less effective) and constrained how we could pursue it and what ancillary actions we needed to take to maintain our fractious web of relationships through the process.
Leadership, then, is an asset. It’s an expensive asset to maintain, and an enormous — and enormously common — mistake to act as if these expenditures somehow magically pay for themselves, particularly when at least some of the time the kinds of actions undertaken for the sake of maintaining “leadership” backfire horribly and do grave damage to the very position that we’re trying to maintain. But that doesn’t mean the asset is worthless, or that there would be no costs to simply abandoning it or failing to maintain it at all.
Critics of Trump’s foreign policy who decry that he is “throwing away” American leadership may indeed in part be complaining that he is “leading in the wrong direction” — some are definitely complaining about that — and they may be complaining that he is leading in no purposeful direction at all (a criticism that I think Larison would concur in). But they may also be complaining that this complicated and frustrating asset — this position of leadership — is being tossed aside because Trump simply doesn’t appreciate its value or what it would take to minimize the costs of reducing our exposure to it.
And I think that’s a valid criticism even while agreeing that this position of leadership is exceedingly expensive, and worth a thorough reevaluation.
Debating what it means to be “conservative” is mostly an old dorm-room pastime (and yes, now you know all you need to know about how exciting life was in our dorm rooms). But one definition of the word surely has to be an orientation toward preserving existing institutions and arrangements.
In that sense, America is a naturally conservative power, and both of our political parties are naturally conservative political institutions, because incumbents necessarily benefit disproportionately from existing arrangements. But for various reasons, sometimes within the incumbent’s control and sometimes beyond it, a country or an institution may find its position increasingly precarious, requiring more and more effort to preserve.
This is the position Republican establishment has been in since about 2004 or so, and in 2016 it finally fell, to a barbarian invader who had no clear idea of what to replace it with nor much capacity to do so if he had an idea. It’s also the position the United States has been in internationally since roughly 1991, the high point of America’s global influence and clout. President Trump is now kicking out the props out from under that order as well, and in the process revealing just how rickety it was, and how much of his predecessor’s policy mix was oriented around shoring that shaky order up.
That’s the theme of my latest column at The Week:
In both the domestic and international spheres, having a dyspeptic void at the head of the executive branch is rapidly revealing the degree to which the Obama administration was engaged in the small-c conservative project of propping up arrangements and institutions that were already losing their natural cohesion. With the props removed, get ready for change to accelerate.
It’s far too soon to know whether what follows, either domestically or internationally, is going to be productive of a new order or purely destructive of order itself. The Democratic Party could undergo a much-needed revolution, and emerge as a stronger and more unifying national political movement. Or both parties could be eclipsed by a new centrist force (as has happened in France). Or we could see a widening spiral of bitterness and anger in the domestic political sphere.
Similarly, in the international sphere, France and Germany could successfully pursue a deeper (and smaller) European Union with a common fiscal and defense policy that forms the beginning of a true European state — but if it does so, it will likely be at least in part to provide a counterweight to America rather than to be a more supportive ally. Or Europe may fall apart. Our more important Asian allies may increasingly bandwagon around a patient and burgeoning China — or the U.S. and China may stumble into direct conflict.
It’s too soon to know what change will come — but like it says in the play: “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” And I am highly skeptical that we are ready.
Read the whole thing there.
Josh Barro has the right take on the withdrawal from the Paris Accord:
A lot of people have been noting that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change will leave the US as one of just three non-participating countries in the world. We are nearly alone on this. Isolated.
But I don’t think this talking point means quite what people think it does.
It was possible to get nearly every country in the world to join the agreement because the agreement does not really do anything. The agreement allows countries to set their own targets for greenhouse gas emissions, and it prescribes no way to enforce those targets.
Since the agreement is fundamentally symbolic — an expression of global intent to combat climate change — Trump’s choice to withdraw is similarly a symbol of his intent for the US to unencumber itself from international commitments.
Exactly. The substantive things Trump is doing to dismantle President Obama’s legacy on climate change all relate to his appointments and changes to the domestic regulatory framework. Those decisions were already damaging America’s international position; pulling out of Paris is a purely a public-relations stunt. And it’s a stunt that the very industries that stand to benefit from Trump’s gutting of Obama’s environmental legacy opposed, precisely because by throwing away our seat at the table, it threw away theirs as well.
It is way past time for those observing the Trump White House to recognize: this is an exceptionally weak administration with no objectives, no plans, no goals, and no ability to accomplish anything. Virtually everything it does, it does out of petty and venal self-interest, out of fear, or out of simple vanity and desire for attention. The fact that Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accords is the best proof needed that the action is of little significance on the substance. Indeed, it won’t even result in us pulling out of the accords — per the text of the agreement, we’ll be in through 2020, after the next Presidential election.
As Daniel Larison points out, this doesn’t mean leaving is literally meaningless. It will weaken both America’s negotiating position vis-a-vis future agreements and in unrelated areas:
Far from forcing a better deal from the other parties, this just demonstrates that our government isn’t interested in making a deal, and the other parties to the agreement respond accordingly. Trump can’t possibly improve on a non-binding agreement that calls for voluntary contributions, and the other signatories aren’t interested in talking to him about it in any case. This decision gains the U.S. nothing it didn’t already have, and it harms our relations with many allies in the process.
And, as Barro argued in an earlier piece, that might be the best thing for the future of efforts to fight climate change:
Obviously, taking the US out of the accord reduces our ability to lead on reducing carbon emissions — but the US wasn’t likely to provide much leadership on that under Trump, in or out of the accord.
Trump’s choice to exit might increase political pressure within other countries to act on climate change. This effect would be similar to the surprising way Trump seems to be strengthening the European Union and depressing support for Euroskeptic parties in Europe.
Trump is globally unpopular, and he tends to bring discredit on the causes with which he associates himself. When Trump endorses nationalist political parties, voters become less inclined to support them. And if Trump is against the Paris agreement, that could increase support in other countries for adhering to Paris — and for the economically challenging steps those countries might have to take to reduce emissions.
I’m skeptical of that, because while I think the Europeans, Chinese and Indians take climate change seriously, I also believe they take their own economic positions seriously. That was what made negotiating any climate agreement so difficult: every country worried that they would be particularly disadvantaged by whatever metrics are agreed upon. Which is how we wound up with a purely voluntary agreement that included everybody rather than a tougher agreement that China or India objected to as being unfair.
But now, the Chinese, Indians and Europeans have every incentive to do something like figure out what carbon-pricing regime best rewards them for their existing initiatives, and negotiate an agreement that penalizes American exports and companies more than theirs for not having the same mix of carbon problems and solutions. We’ll complain, of course, but we’ll be negotiating from a position of self-imposed weakness rather than strength.
Josh Barro says what needs to be said about Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte’s assault on a reporter — or, more specifically, the reaction:
Republicans used to claim to favor the rule of law.
Yet what happened when a Republican candidate for Congress in Montana was accused of body-slamming a reporter and cited for misdemeanor assault?
The conservative commentator Laura Ingraham wanted to know why he went crying to the police.
“Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?” she tweeted.
Of course, this is what the police are for: They investigate crimes and enforce laws, so we don’t have to get into physical altercations with Republican candidates who really don’t want to discuss the Congressional Budget Office’s score for the Republican healthcare bill.
Calling the police when a man grabs you by the throat and slams you to the floor, as witnesses have described — while you and he are both at work and he is a candidate for Congress — is what an adult does in a civilized society.
Yet, as Kevin Glass notes, “conservatives” in the Trump era tend to think not like adults, but high-school boys, vaunting the sort of ideal of masculinity that might be imagined by a socially maladjusted 15-year-old and tolerating in our political leaders the sort of behavior that a guidance counselor would never accept.
Republicans are a party that now celebrates the bully who steals lunch money because, hey, at least he’s not the nerd who gets his lunch money stolen.
All I’ll add is that I’m starting to seriously wonder whether what we need in politics is a better class of wrestler.
On the Jewish calendar, today is the 50th anniversary of the reunification (or conquest, depending on how you look at it) of Jerusalem. The holy city has now been under Israeli control for as long as the combined periods of the British Mandate (1917-1948) and Jordanian rule (1948-1967). 2017 also marks the 500th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem; Israeli rule still has a while to go before it matches their 400 year tenure of sovereignty, which I consider to be the record-holder (though dating events of the First Temple period is extremely contentious and it’s a matter of interpretation whether to consider the East Roman Empire under Constantine to be a new regime or a continuation of Roman rule). Regardless, 50 years is entirely respectable in historical terms, certainly for a modern state.
Except that it is not respected: Israeli sovereignty in the entirety of Jerusalem is not generally recognized, for very obvious reasons. The eastern part of the city was conquered in a war initiated by Israel (preemptively, in the context of very legitimate fears of an imminent attack). While the previous occupier of the eastern portion of the city, Jordan, renounced all claims many years ago, Jordan’s own claims were never recognized by most of the world, so that renunciation did not automatically validate Israel’s own claims. And a significant minority of Jerusalem’s residents, and most of its Arab population, remain non-citizens. Jerusalem is in many ways a microcosm of Israel itself, a place of unparalleled importance to Jewish history, all of which is under Israeli sovereign control, but only part of which is generally recognized as such, and the whole a peculiar hybrid of a modern democracy and a religio-nationalist regime.
For 50 years, Israel has lived and grown around this fundamentally unsettled and ambiguous condition. Its aims, honestly plainly, have been not to resolve those ambiguities until conditions on the ground are sufficiently favorable that they are likely to be resolved in Israel’s favor. It believes — not without reason — that any other course of action would expose its citizenry to unacceptable risk of violence, and also potentially fatal to the country’s national spirit.
It is common to say that a trend that cannot continue will not continue, and that a condition that cannot endure will not endure. I have been known to apply those adages to the situation in Israel and Palestine myself, and to join the chorus that says that Israel must, for its own sake, prioritize resolution of these ambiguities and irregularities, before events resolve them in far more unfavorable ways.
But a fiftieth anniversary is a good occasion to consider the other possibility, the possibility that what has endured and been endured for fifty years might continue for another fifty, and that one day Israel might celebrate a centenary of Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem without the Messiah having come, without peace having been agreed, without borders having been generally recognized, without much of its population’s citizenship being settled — and without a catastrophe. That might not be the world that we want to live in — it might not be the world that either Jewish or Arab residents of Jerusalem want to live in. But it might be the world we get.
And it’s worth imagining what it will feel like, to those of us fortunate enough to still be alive in fifty years, and to the grandchildren of those Jerusalemites alive today, to have watched more settled and nominally secure orders rise and fall around the world, while their own formally less-settled existence endured.
What conclusions will they — and we — draw about the ways of the world if that should come to pass?
Ross Douthat has been taking a lot of flack for his suggestion that Vice President Pence and President Trump’s cabinet act to remove Trump from office under the 25th Amendment. Two of the best responses are by Charles C. W. Cooke and Josh Barro. The most important, which isn’t really a direct response to Douthat but which articulates the key background concern, is by our own editor, Robert W. Merry.
The common thread in all of these responses is absolutely correct: removing Trump in this manner would amount to a kind of coup. Trump’s behavior since being elected is entirely consistent with his behavior during the campaign and throughout his career, and he won anyway, substantially because of the near universal opposition (or at least abstention) of the great and good. To remove him now on the grounds of being unfit would be understood, quite properly, as a direct repudiation of the outcome of the election. One can imagine the horrible potential consequences of such a move — particularly since, if he is deposed, you can be absolutely certain that Trump will personally spend the rest of his natural life making those consequences as horrible as possible, without regard for the cost to the country.
Nonetheless, the discussion does not end there.
First of all, we may be in the middle of a quasi-coup already, in the sense that the military and the intelligence community may be preventing the President from conducting his own foreign policy (assuming that he has one, which at this point is highly doubtful). If the President continues to act in an alarmingly erratic manner, I don’t think it is far-fetched to imagine that the cordon around him will tighten further, to the point where an entire generation of senior leadership of the military and espionage services become accustomed to the notion that one of their key functions is to protect the country from its own president. This is precisely the scenario I worried about in my recent column. It is not obvious to me that four years of institutional insubordination is better for our democracy than a cabinet coup would be.
Indeed, there is an argument to be made that at least a cabinet coup would be forthright and above-board about what is going on. And, as Douthat points out, members of Trump’s own cabinet are in a better position than anyone, including the voters, to be able to say: we’ve seen the man up close, and he’s simply unable to do the job. To be clear: that’s not what the 25th Amendment was designed for — but it is a lot closer to what it is for than having Congress impeach a President who has not (yet) credibly been accused of any high crimes or misdemeanors.
(As an aside: I’m curious to learn whether the various folks debating the application of the 25th Amendment have read this little-remembered political thriller by the late Bill Safire. I encourage people to check it out; it’s not a bad read and it’s always interesting to see what well-informed observers in the past could imagine about the future.)
Second, consider the inherent limits on the precedent that would be set by a cabinet coup. The cabinet is not like Congress, independently accountable to the people. Nor is it like the military, a permanent bureaucratic interest. The cabinet is a creation of the president. So what lesson would future presidents draw from a cabinet coup against Trump? They would take care that their cabinets were stocked with people who would be unlikely to want to remove them from office and install their Vice Presidents in their stead. But that is already the normal state of affairs in a properly functioning party system. Trump is extraordinary in that he took over the GOP from the outside, and therefore brought only a handful of people into government who were part of his “movement.” How often will that situation recur?
Moreover, if the precedent were more serious, and future presidents genuinely had to worry about losing the confidence of their party and potentially being removed by their cabinet in consequence, would that be such a terrible constitutional innovation? It’s pretty much exactly what happens in parliamentary systems, where votes of no-confidence are how leaders can be deposed in between scheduled elections. Douthat has expressed his own enthusiasm for Theresa May. Perhaps he wishes we could acquire someone like her as chief executive by a similar constitutional operation.
Finally, those who worry about the political fallout from Trump’s removal, noting the powerful and justified popular fury at elite failure that powered his campaign, need to reckon with the fact that Trump’s presidency is going to do nothing whatsoever to reduce the scope of that fury. Indeed, it could well magnify it. Trump shows every sign of reneging on every significant promise he made during the campaign. He has no plans to address the economic or social problems that powered his own populist revolt. His only hope for continuance in power is to continue to stoke the resentments that put him in office in the first place. Trump is not the cause of the crisis — but neither is he any plausible part of the solution.
That solution can only come from — to coin a phrase — a “political revolution.” It doesn’t have to be Bernie Sanders’s version — it doesn’t have to be limited to one version at all. But it has to be something that involves people organizing to do politics, not putting their hopes in a comic-opera Napoleon figure. In that sense, perhaps nothing would be better than to demonstrate the manifest futility of the Trump quest, the extraordinary weakness of one angry, vain, solipsistic man pitted against the entire edifice of elite administration.
I would not go so far as to say I endorse Douthat’s proposal. But I will heartily endorse a bit more public honesty, both by those who are familiar with the actual situation inside the White House and those who so far have preferred to make their case for muddling through without reference to just how dire that situation appears to be. Those who continue to hope that Trump perseveres need to reckon with the near-total evaporation of his support, not only in the permanent bureaucracy but among his own appointees, and the reasons it has evaporated. These are the most important paragraphs in Douthat’s column:
Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press. (And I assure you they say worse off the record.) They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.
It is not squishy New York Times conservatives who regard the president as a child, an intellectual void, a hopeless case, a threat to national security; it is people who are self-selected loyalists, who supported him in the campaign, who daily go to work for him. And all this, in the fourth month of his administration.
This will not get better. It could easily get worse.
That is the problem in a nutshell. Any argument for muddling through — which is by far the preferable course for the integrity of our democratic institutions — needs to defend muddling through with that, and not some fantasy version of who one hoped Trump might have been, or might yet transform into.
Apologies for the belated posting — I had thought I had posted this last night. I am going to be interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning at 6:30am eastern time, talking about the ongoing threat to civilian control of the military and intelligence services posed by the chaos of the Trump administration.
I will post a link to the audio file when one becomes available.
UPDATE: the audio is available here.
Last month, in a column I wrote for The Week, I wondered whether President Trump’s “sloth and incompetence” might actually save America from catastrophic war by signaling clearly to our most important geopolitical rival — China — that they can easily get more by picking our pockets than by trying to mug us, while deluding the most nationalistic portion of the American public into thinking that all was well and America was becoming great again.
But as the administration’s collapse hastens, it seems likely that the illusion of dominance will be impossible to maintain. So my latest column in The Week is about what the Chinese themselves are up to.
Just this month, The New York Times published two major stories sounding the alarm, one about China’s burgeoning investments in Africa, the other about China’s massive investments in infrastructure in Southeast and Central Asia. As the Trump administration slips further into solipsistic delusion, starving its own diplomatic corps and boasting about trade dealsin which America got badly outmaneuvered, China’s potential moves on the global chessboard only multiply. Alarm would seem to be justified.
But what game is China actually playing? Is China constructing a 21st-century version of a colonial empire? If so, is that something America ought to be concerned about? And what should — what can — we do about it?
Read the whole thing to see how I answer the question in full. But I conclude:
Ultimately, whether China’s bets pay off spectacularly or only partially — or whether they are largely written off — the most important fact remains the quality and scale of the bets themselves, and the fact that China can readily afford them. That’s the important contest we’ve been losing.
If we invest in our own human and physical capital, we’ll be in a position to deploy that capital in ways that are mutually beneficial to ourselves and our trade and investment partners. If we neglect strength at home in favor of shows of dominance abroad, we’ll be playing right into China’s hands.
Unfortunately, with the generals increasingly in charge of foreign policy and both Congress and the administration essentially paralyzed, it seems all too likely that we’ll get precisely the opposite.
In the wake of the latest and most serious misdeed by President Trump, I re-read this op-ed by a former Minuteman III nuclear launch officer about why it is imperative that Trump not become President:
During my years in the Air Force, I worked over 300 nuclear “alerts”—24-hour shifts 100 feet below the Wyoming tundra. I sat at my post believing, through both the Bush and Obama administrations, that the president was fundamentally rational and would never ask me to do my terrible duty. Not unless the country was in the direst of national emergencies.
With Trump as president, the young men and women who are assigned to our nuclear forces will have no such assurances.
I am a Republican and I have long worked in Republican politics. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I believe my party’s nominee for president is mentally unfit to assume this heavy responsibility.
But he does have that formal responsibility. And the individuals directly below him in the chain of command have had ample time to accumulate the evidence that he is not capable of assuming it.
I have been inclined for some time to assume that they have made their own contingency plans for insubordination, just in case the worst proves true. Indeed, I assumed that when General James Mattis took the job as Secretary of Defense, he did so substantially in order to interpose his body and his mind between the president and the country’s fate, and thereby remove the need for a more fateful decision down the road.
In the wake of the most recent revelations, though, I wonder whether they are thinking about how to put those plans into action in a more thorough if less dramatic fashion.
That’s the theme of my latest column at The Week:
From here on, if it was not already the case, at every level of the chain of command, individuals will question whether communicating information up the chain in the normal manner could fatally compromise a mission. Since such intelligence is frequently the basis for military action, the same is true of military communications with the commander in chief.
One should assume that foreign governments are making the same assessment, and taking action to curtail their cooperation with American intelligence so as to protect their own national security. The mutual trust that is necessary for intelligence cooperation will have been compromised very severely. . . .
America’s military and intelligence services are therefore faced with a difficult dilemma. The only way to preserve America’s assets will be to routinize the violation of the chain of command by cordoning off the president from information that he properly needs to make informed decisions. Moreover, in order to reassure foreign allies, military and intelligence services will need to show their willingness to violate the chain of command in this fashion. It will need to become an open secret that the president of the United States is, in effect, no longer the president.
The threat this poses to America’s democratic and constitutional system should not be minimized.
The headline refers to a “coup,” which sounds alarmist, but we might not even notice a smooth glide into a world in which the military and intelligence services make policy and give the president a “recommendation” to “approve” rather than being given options to choose between based on the president’s own policy directives. After all, we barely notice anymore that Congress has no role in war-making, or that the president is no longer bound by treaty or international law.
If the men in uniform quietly moved to protect us from our chosen leader, we might find the knowledge that there are grownups in charge to be comforting, at least in contrast to the alternative. Indeed, if America were a foreign country, our intelligence services would probably already be sounding out their military about options.
Anyway, read the whole thing there, and weep.
I will admit that upon hearing the news I indulged in some of the same inner snark that I imagine is widespread. There is indeed something perfect about the choice.
Of course I doubt it really matters in any important sense — and not just because it’s hardly the most crucial appointment in the first place for American diplomacy. Ambassadors these days have little autonomy, and an ambassador in this administration has an even more impossible job than usual. As Michael Sean Winters explains for the National Catholic Reporter:
My friend, Ambassador Tom Melady, who served as Vatican ambassador during the administration of George H. W. Bush and who has since gone to God, used to tell the story about one of his successors, former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs. When the White House floated her name, a Vatican official contacted Melady to ask if she would have access to decision-makers, seeing as it was her husband, Hale Boggs, who had been Majority Leader in the House, and she had never held a leadership position in Congress. Melady explained that her son ran the most influential lobbying firm in Washington and her calls would be answered.
Some months later, according to Melady, Ambassador Boggs was called to a meeting by the Vatican’s foreign minister. There was a matter of some urgency he wished to bring up. Mrs. Boggs asked if she could borrow the phone on his desk, and within two minutes, she had Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the phone. That is what the Vatican wants in an ambassador.
It is not clear if Mrs. Gingrich will have that kind of access to President Trump’s team or to his Secretary of State, or if she will have to route it through her husband. It is not clear how much longer Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be at the helm of that department. He told Chuck Todd yesterday that he has to earn President Trump’s confidence every day, which is hardly what someone with a close working relationship says. Tillerson also pledged never to compromise his own values, which also indicates some distance between the two and a concern on Tillerson’s part not to get pulled too completely into the Trump vortex. It is the kind of comment Trump notices and does not appreciate. Ask Jim Comey.
It’s been plain for a while that this administration has not only no interest in diplomacy as a tool of statecraft, but limited interest in statecraft at all. The administration has used appointments like these for purposes of symbolism, but even when it has done so — as, for example, with the appointment of David Friedman to be ambassador to Israel — there’s every reason to question whether there’s any substance behind it, not so much because the administration’s real agenda may contradict the symbolic agenda but because there probably isn’t any real agenda at all.
Still, the symbolism here is pretty snarkily delicious.