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Trump the Technocrat

Advancing U.S. interests is more complicated than analyzing a profit and loss statement.

We have come to associate the term “technocrats” with the kind of unelected and non-political experts that serve in European governments, particularly those responding to the recent financial crisis that has devastated several economies there. For example, economists like Mario Monti who served as Italy’s prime minister from 2011 to 2013, leading a government of technocrats in the wake of the Italian debt crisis. Their task wasn’t to transform the economic status quo in Italy, but to use their knowledge and expertise to fix that country’s economy.

In fact, “technocrats” was considered to be a term of abuse in the 1960s and the 1970s. It was used then by American intellectuals, especially on the political left, to describe the economists, engineers, and scientists that came to play a critical role in making decisions about domestic and foreign policy. As the critics saw it, asked to build structures that would carry human blood from New York to Chicago, your average technocrat would tell you how much such a project would cost and how long it would take to complete it, but would refrain from asking a very basic question: Why the hell do you need to carry human blood from New York to Chicago?

Robert McNamara, the former president of Ford, and later secretary of defense during the escalation of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, was considered the archetype of the detested technocrat, who like the rest of the Best and the Brightest in Washington never came to challenge the intellectual foundations of U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia, or for that matter, of the entire American Cold War strategy.

Instead, McNamara was searching for ways to make that policy work, to make it more cost-effective. But what he and other technocrats failed to take into account was that foreign policy, like other social affairs, involves human beings and not machines that can be calibrated in response to our needs. In a way, it’s the job of political leaders to make decisions based on the needs of their respective societies or, in the case of foreign policy, their national communities (in the form of the “national interest”). Only then does one hire the most talented technocrats to implement their decisions.

From that perspective, General David Petraeus, the leading architect of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, was another technocrat who succeeded in devising and implementing a policy of providing security to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province. He never questioned whether the decision to oust Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq made sense in terms of U.S. national interests. Petraeus therefore failed to consider the possibility that while the “surge” may have helped fix the American vehicle, it didn’t change the fact that we were driving towards a dead-end in Mesopotamia.  

If we make this distinction between political leaders and technocrats, it may lead to the conclusion that when it comes to Donald Trump, we may have gotten the entire “thing” wrong. Trump is not ready to become a political leader. He is the ultimate technocrat, a man who loves to fix things in the same way he helped bring back to life the business he inherited from his father. Unlike our great presidents, he really doesn’t have a personal sense of what America is all about, a perspective which is usually grounded in reading history, in a set of values (religious and otherwise), and a feeling for the current Zeitgeist.

We need to take Trump at his word. He is a great deal maker and he thinks that all the problems facing the United States, especially in the international arena—immigration, trade, national security—are consequences of bad deals made by incompetent figures.

Hence Trump doesn’t challenge the notion that the United States needed to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran or that it has the responsibility to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He never let us know what he really thinks about the Iranian theocracy and whether or not it is in the American interest to engage with the Ayatollahs. Nor does he explain to us why the U.S. president needs to spend time and resources in resolving a tribal war in the Holy Land. He just asserts that if he was in charge, he would succeed in negotiating the best deal (and indeed as a deal maker he would need to be “neutral” when it comes to the Israelis and the Palestinians).

Even on the issue of trade, Trump insists that he supports free trade and by extension, an open international trade system, but again, that the problem lies in the bad trade deals Americans negotiate. He claims he would be more successful in reaching trade deals with China, Japan, and Korea. Even when it comes to punishing China with tariffs, he winks at us and explains that it’s only the opening position in negotiations with Beijing.

Notice that many of his “views” on such issues as U.S. policy toward Europe and Asia are construed as financial problems and evaluated in terms of costs and benefits. He doesn’t consider why exactly we are continuing to protect South Korea and Germany. As far as he is concerned, we can continue doing that if the South Koreans and the Germans pay us what we deserve for carrying out our services.

Even when he starts sounding as though he is raising broad political and strategic issues, he does so in the form of another cost-effective analysis. For example, during his recent meeting with the editorial page of the Washington Post, he questioned the need to continue participating in NATO, which he said was just too expensive when we need the money to spend on other things.

But NATO isn’t a business. It’s a military-political entity that was formed to promote the interests of the United States and its allies. We should reassess the American role in NATO and the rationale for continuing to maintain it. But Trump needs to explain to us why we need to do that, not like a technocrat going through the books but as a political leader with coherent vision of the role the U.S. should play in the world. We do foreign policy not to make a profit but in order to protect the country and advance its interests.

That much of what Trump describes as foreign policy or national security doesn’t reflect such a vision, and is usually a product of his stream of consciousness babble, also explains why it doesn’t make a lot of sense. He may have been a critic of the Iraq War, but he proposes now that the U.S. deploy thousands of ground troops into Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS, without clarifying why that kind of military intervention wouldn’t lead to another American quagmire.

No one expects Trump or any presidential candidate to be an expert on world affairs, or for that matter, to provide detailed proposals on how to transform the international trade system or remake Western alliances. But one assumes that the person who wants to lead this country would have some intellectual curiosity about these issues, like Ronald Reagan did, and that he would try to learn them and recruit the best minds in the field to help him make the correct decisions and serve in his administration as technocrats and negotiators.

Yet the same man who apparently has enough money in the bank to purchase high-quality steaks and show them off during his press conference, responded to the pressure on him to unveil the members of his foreign policy team by showcasing in Washington Monday a group of men who are part of the “foreign policy establishment” that Trump’s supporters love to bash.

The problem is these advisers occupy the lowest echelons of that foreign policy establishment, and include two Beltway Bandits (Joseph Schmitz and Keith Kellogg), two self-proclaimed “energy analysts” (Carter Page and George Papadopoulos), and a professional propagandist (Walid Phares). In short, they are Kissingers for very poor people.

What the five do have in common is that they have never said or written anything that had a limited impact on the war of ideas in Washington—or was even noticed by the rest of the community of foreign policy practitioners and thinkers. And what they had to say or write has been either the kind of policy papers and columns that appear in marginal magazines and websites that nobody usually reads.

Moreover, the views they expressed certainly don’t echo the non-interventionist positions that Trump supposedly advocates, at least according to the Washington Post. In fact, Phares was a cheerleader for the Iraq War and for President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. Certainly these are not the kind “big” thinkers and “beautiful” ideas that the Donald has promised us. Instead, they are his mini-mes.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since in Trump’s world foreign policy—and policy in general—has very little to do with ideas that would allow us to change reality. What counts is the technical knowledge and skills of the policy maker, the technocrat. And since the Donald has those in large amounts, all he has to do is look in the mirror and talk with himself.

Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.



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