The Trump Threat
Earlier this week I posted a sideways defense of Trump, saying that the question, “Why should my son die for Montenegro?” as a practical way to question the value of expanding NATO membership is a defensible question. (I allowed for the fact that it might have a good answer, but am not prepared to accept the judgment of the US foreign policy establishment without question.) But I also wrote that his Helsinki press conference with Putin was a disgrace.
Yesterday, the Director of National Intelligence had to learn from NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who go it from Twitter, that the President of the United States had invited Vladimir Putin to Washington for a summit this fall.
This is not how it’s supposed to work. This is wrong. The Director of National Intelligence should be in on these decisions. Trump has the right to make US foreign policy, but he’s wrong to leave his own national security team out of the loop. It’s not only wrong, it’s foolish and reckless. Susan B. Glasser writes in the New Yorker:
On Thursday, Putin gave a public address to Russian diplomats in which he claimed that specific “useful agreements” were reached with Trump in their one-on-one meeting at the summit, a private meeting that Trump himself insisted on. Putin’s announcement came a day after his Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said that Trump had made “important verbal agreements” with Putin on arms control and other matters. The Russians, Antonov said, were ready to get moving on implementing them. The White House, meanwhile, has said nothing about what the two men may have agreed to in private, although Trump tweeted Thursday morning that he and Putin had discussed everything from nuclear proliferation to Syria, Ukraine, and trade, and that he looked forward to a second meeting with the Russian President soon, to follow up.
You see what happened? No American was in the room with Trump when he met with Putin (nobody except the interpreter), so no American other than her knows what the President of the United States agreed to. But now we know that Russia is acting on Trump’s word. Whatever that was. Even senior members of America’s own team are still in the dark. Glasser:
We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of American foreign policy. This week’s extraordinary confusion over even the basic details of the Helsinki summit shows that all too clearly. We may not yet know what exactly Trump agreed to with Putin, or even if they agreed to anything at all; perhaps, it will turn out, Putin and his advisers have sprung another clever disinformation trap on Trump, misleading the world about their private meeting because a novice American President gave them an opening to do so. But, even if we don’t know the full extent of what was said and done behind closed doors in Helsinki, here’s what we already do know as a result of the summit: America’s government is divided from its President on Russia; its process for orderly decision-making, or even basic communication, has disintegrated; and its ability to lead an alliance in Europe whose main mission in recent years has been to counter and contain renewed Russian aggression has been seriously called into question.
On Thursday, not long after Putin’s remarks, I spoke with a former senior National Security Council official who has remained in close contact with Trump’s Russia advisers. The official described a bleak scene: the utter lack of process; the failure of the U.S. government to clarify what was even discussed, never mind agreed to, at the meeting; the deep concerns of nato allies who had spent the previous week believing they had secured Trump’s commitment to their shared agenda of pushing back against Russian aggression. It all seemed almost incomprehensible to anyone with the vaguest sense of how the United States has conducted its foreign policy for generations. “This is no way to run a superpower,” he told me. It’s hard to imagine anyone, Republican or Democrat, who could seriously disagree.
Take a look at this delectable column from Edward Luce of the Financial Times, in which he takes Henry Kissinger to lunch and tries to get him to talk about Trump and foreign policy. Kissinger is 95, and as cryptic as ever. He does say this:
“I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”
“I think we are in a very, very grave period for the world,” Kissinger replies. “I have conducted innumerable summit meetings, so they didn’t learn this one [Helsinki] from me.”
Both things can be true at the same time. Trump clearly marks the end of the postwar era. He didn’t come from nowhere, but emerged in part from the American public’s distrust of the country’s establishment. Donald Trump didn’t lead us off the cliff in Iraq: George W. Bush and his brilliant Republican advisers did. Donald Trump didn’t lead us to the economic brink in 2008: a bipartisan coalition of Wall Streeters and their bought-and-paid-for politicians of both parties, over the Clinton and Bush II administrations, did.
But that doesn’t mean that Donald Trump, in his staggering pride and gross incompetence, will not lead us into an even more consequential foreign policy debacle.
Will Inboden considers what Trump may have cost this country in Helsinki. This stands out to me:
Anyone who has worked for or with the intelligence community can attest to the resilience, equanimity, and dedication of its professionals. But when the president disgraces the community on the world stage, alongside one of the country’s most cunning and hostile adversaries, there will be a cost. It may come in risky operations curtailed because intelligence professionals doubt the support of the president, in liaison relationships truncated because partner services do not trust the U.S. president’s commitment, or especially in aggressive countermeasures not taken against Russian information warfare because the president refuses to order them, as only the president can do. We will never know the timing or full extent of this damage, but that does not make it less real.
In his rapport with Putin, Trump is flying blind. His chief intelligence officer, Dan Coats, doesn’t even know what he’s doing. How can the US intelligence community even trust that the Commander In Chief is loyal to the country he governs? I’m serious.
Donald Trump — Donald Trump! — sat alone (except for interpreters) across from a KGB colonel, and talked with him at length. We’re supposed to have confidence that it was all on the up and up? Why did Trump not want his own people in that room with Putin?
Let me be clear: I want foreign policy change too, including better relations with Russia. And I don’t think shaking up the NATO alliance, and rethinking Atlanticism, is a bad thing, in principle. But the utter recklessness of Trump is too much. Far too much. I have big problems with Henry Kissinger, but if an American with the mind of Henry Kissinger were one on one with Putin, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned. But this is Trump, a man who is corrupt and unable to tell the truth.
The fact that the US foreign policy establishment has failed in the past does not make what Trump is doing right, or even sane. Ask yourself: Do you trust Donald Trump to have handled himself well in that meeting with Putin, and to have defended the best interests of the United States? Do you trust him to tell the truth about what he said in it?
UPDATE: Here’s a comment from a reader who posts under the name “Henry Clemens.” I should tell you that he is a retired career diplomat, is very conservative (not in a neocon way), and is a personal friend:
Rod is, unfortunately, spot on. It’s not that we did not need a fresh approach (or, fresh approaches, properly considered, in some instances). And, having been there, I quite agree that conservatives had good reason to see some of the progressive gospel that Clinton/Obama et al. were pushing on the international scene needed badly to be revised and replaced by a new administration.
But foreign policy is hard work and effective decision-making organization. Gut instinct will not lead us to functioning alliances, necessary adjustments to other states’ needs and political requirements, to the effective promotion of common positions of benefit to the US, and to effective opposition to damaging initiatives by other states and elements in the international system. Effective foreign policy requires smart, experienced, realistic practitioners, trusted by the political leadership and well organized by a White House that has a real and deep understanding of the world and its challenges.
The next disaster may not come from Russia but we need people and systems in place to deal with the world at a time when the international system has never, in the past 60 years, been so fragile nor American leadership so incompetent. And yes, the neo-cons led us badly astray, but competent American leadership remains, at this point in history, a sine qua non. We may be, indeed, in a period of American decline. Inevitable at some point. But all the more need to value qualified and skillful statecraft.
It wasn’t really a question of Hillary or Trump, There were at least a few qualified alternatives to Trump amongst the Republican primary candidates. But the temper of the Republican electorate was such that we ended up with a President of “staggering pride and gross incompetence.” This is a dangerous time, and most discouraging for me is the inability of so many on the conservative side of our political spectrum to understand that reality.