Sunday, January 19, 2020

Foreign Policy Run by Dopes and Babies

On July 20, 2017 senior administration foreign policy officials gathered in a highly secure room in Pentagon. Their goal: to school the president of the United States, to offer him history lessons.

They believed that President Trump was flying off the foreign policy rails and had been promoting the wrong policies. For their part, these senior officials were largely defending what they knew, the foreign policies followed by previous administrations, especially those promoted by the Obama administration.

By now you know that Trump dismissed them all as babies and dopes, because they did not know how to win wars. At the same time, we should not forget, while reading the account by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, that Trump was elected precisely because he rejected this conventional wisdom about American foreign policy.

In many ways, the most striking part of the story was not Trump’s return of fire, but the disrespect shown him by leading foreign policy officials in his own administration. They assumed that Trump was an ignoramus. They treated him as a know-nothing. They condescended to him, disrespected and talked down to him. Effectively, they treated him like a dope and a baby. They were acting like philosopher kings explaining to an ignorant commander in chief how things were done. If Trump had not fired back they would have taken over administration foreign policy.

Trump should certainly have known better than to hire them in the first place. As of today, all of them are retired or fired. Their absurd gambit backfired. Or better, it showed Trump that they were disloyal to their commander in chief.

As for specifics, they assumed that if only Trump understood history and philosophy as well as they did, he would never, for example, move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He would never recognize the Israeli right to the Golan Heights. He would never exit the Paris climate accord or the Iran nuclear deal. And he would happily kowtow to the enlightened leaders of Western Europe, seeing no problem with their siding with Iran against America. He would treat them as valuable allies while they were not acting like allies. And, to bring things up to date, if Trump were a true internationalist Qassem Soleimani would alive today.

Anyway, the Trump administration leadership did not understand the president’s foreign policy or they dismissed it out of hand. They were being insubordinate and saying that they were not going to implement the president's policy. That Trump became angry at them is one thing. That they disrespected him and were rejecting his policy… were quite something else.

The authors of A Very Stable Genius present their case, which they turn into an indictment of an impetuous and petulant president. As noted, they fail to see that the officials were being disrespectful and discourteous. They were acting like school marms, assured that they were right, unwilling to consider opposing points of view.

The authors open:

By that point, six months into his administration, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had grown alarmed by gaping holes in Trump’s knowledge of history, especially the key alliances forged following World War II. Trump had dismissed allies as worthless, cozied up to authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere, and advocated withdrawing troops from strategic outposts and active theaters alike.

So, the authors and the officials blamed the president. The authors suggest that the same bad behavior and ignorance of history almost provoked a war with Iran. They fail to notice that there is no war with Iran. Trump’s bluster apparently functioned as an effective deterrent. And it allowed him to remove a world class terrorist from planet. And that, standing up with those who protest Iranian tyranny and terrorism is surely a defensible position. 

What happened inside the Tank that day crystallized the commander in chief’s berating, derisive and dismissive manner, foreshadowing decisions such as the one earlier this month that brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran. The Tank meeting was a turning point in Trump’s presidency. Rather than getting him to appreciate America’s traditional role and alliances, Trump began to tune out and eventually push away the experts who believed their duty was to protect the country by restraining his more dangerous impulses.

The tone drips with condescension. It is worthy of a school teacher talking to a class of mentally challenged pupils:

Mattis devised a strategy to use terms the impatient president, schooled in real estate, would appreciate to impress upon him the value of U.S. investments abroad. He sought to explain why U.S. troops were deployed in so many regions and why America’s safety hinged on a complex web of trade deals, alliances, and bases across the globe.

An opening line flashed on the screen, setting the tone: “The post-war international rules-based order is the greatest gift of the greatest generation.” Mattis then gave a 20-minute briefing on the power of the NATO alliance to stabilize Europe and keep the United States safe. Bannon thought to himself, “Not good. Trump is not going to like that one bit.” The internationalist language Mattis was using was a trigger for Trump.

Trump appeared peeved by the schoolhouse vibe but also allergic to the dynamic of his advisers talking at him. 

And why, pray tell, would he not have been?

Note that the presentation was pure propaganda. It did not consider any other point of view. And it certainly did not consider that the Trump campaign had run on entirely different principles.

Trump responded by asking why America is paying for bases that are protecting other countries. The internationalist answer is that these bases protect world security. But, this does not answer the question of why America should be paying more than its fair share for them:

For instance, the word “base” prompted him to launch in to say how “crazy” and “stupid” it was to pay for bases in some countries.

And also:

South Korea should pay for a $10 billion missile defense system that the United States built for it. The system was designed to shoot down any short- and medium-range ballistic missiles from North Korea to protect South Korea and American troops stationed there. But Trump argued that the South Koreans should pay for it, proposing that the administration pull U.S. troops out of the region or bill the South Koreans for their protection.

And why exactly is America footing the bill for NATO, allowing the countries of Europe to skimp on spending for their own defense, the better to pay for overly generous welfare states? And besides, when America needs allies, in the fight against the Iran nuclear deal, these same allies went AWOL, even to the point of working to prop up the Islamist tyranny in Iran:

Trump proceeded to explain that NATO, too, was worthless. U.S. generals were letting the allied member countries get away with murder, he said, and they owed the United States a lot of money after not living up to their promise of paying their dues.

Trump was tired of being disrespected by Tillerson. He was especially torqued that Tillerson was slow walking the American exit from the Iran nuclear deal, one of the great instances of appeasement politics in our time. And one that the president had campaigned against. Would he have been more at home with Secretary Kerry, a man who had made his political career by denouncing American soldiers as war criminals?

One might ask how Tillerson, an oil company executive, became a foreign policy maven, but that is for another day:

“I don’t want to hear it,” Trump said, cutting off the secretary of state before he could explain some of the benefits of the agreement. “They’re cheating. They’re building. We’re getting out of it. I keep telling you, I keep giving you time, and you keep delaying me. I want out of it.”

And then, Trump, disrespected and insulted and offended asked the assembled generals why they had not won in Afghanistan. After all, if a country is not fighting to win a war, what is it doing?

He demanded an explanation for why the United States hadn’t won in Afghanistan yet, now 16 years after the nation began fighting there in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Trump unleashed his disdain, calling Afghanistan a “loser war.” That phrase hung in the air and disgusted not only the military leaders at the table but also the men and women in uniform sitting along the back wall behind their principals. They all were sworn to obey their commander in chief’s commands, and here he was calling the war they had been fighting a loser war.

In truth, after nearly two decades, the Afghanistan war has not been won. It is not even close. Is this a legitimate concern. It is, except for those who have been fighting it:

“You’re all losers,” Trump said. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”

As it happened the Obama administration strategy had not been to win. Nor for that matter was the Bush administration strategy:

Dunford sought to explain that he hadn’t been charged with annihilating the enemy in Afghanistan but was instead following a strategy started by the Obama administration to gradually reduce the military presence in the country in hopes of training locals to maintain a stable government so that eventually the United States could pull out. Trump shot back in more plain language.

“I want to win,” he said. “We don’t win any wars anymore . . . We spend $7 trillion, everybody else got the oil and we’re not winning anymore.”

Trump then uttered a now famous line:

“I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Trump told the assembled brass.
Addressing the room, the commander in chief barked, “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”

Trump had different foreign policy goals. The assembled officials were not only opposed to Trump’s policies. They did not respect his position and could only assume that he was not as enlightened as they. It shows the extent to which they were indoctrinated into a single foreign policy framework, to the point that they could even consider another:

The plan by Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn to train the president to appreciate the internationalist view had clearly backfired.

“We were starting to get out on the wrong path, and we really needed to have a course correction and needed to educate, to teach, to help him understand the reason and basis for a lot of these things,” said one senior official involved in the planning. “We needed to change how he thinks about this, to course correct. Everybody was on board, 100 percent agreed with that sentiment. [But] they were dismayed and in shock when not only did it not have the intended effect, but he dug in his heels and pushed it even further on the spectrum, further solidifying his views.”

Why was the task to change the way the elected president thinks? Why was it not to change the way they were thinking? They were thinking in terms of safety and security. Trump was thinking in terms of competing in the arena. They were thinking of how we could avoid all risk. Trump was willing to take risks, even great risks. Placing security ahead of risk is, quite simply, girl talk.

Dunford tried to explain to the president once again, gently, that troops deployed in these regions provided stability there, which helped make America safer. Another officer chimed in that charging other countries for U.S. soldiers would be against the law.

“But it just wasn’t working,” one former Trump aide recalled. “Nothing worked.”

It wasn’t working because Trump’s most senior foreign policy advisers, led by an oil company executive who thought he was a philosopher, refused even to consider the value of the policy that the American people had voted for.


UbuMaccabee said...

When LIncoln took office, his entire cabinet and the DC power brokers considered him a pliable bumpkin. He was a goober, a dummy, and he would do what they told him. The generals had contempt for him. Lincoln proved to be quite formidable and unrelenting in getting what he wanted. Trump lacks Lincoln’s eloquence, but he has his persistence. The are dopes and babies, wall to wall. And Afghanistan is a loser war. Truth hurts when you are a dope and a baby I suppose.

RU2131 said...

The status quo is not acceptable to Trump. He sees a hornets' nest and can help but kick it. He is a major wake-up call to the world. He is exactly what this country needed.

Sam L. said...

The Generals had been Bushed and then Obamanized.

LAG said...

"Everybody was on board, 100 percent agreed with that sentiment."

Not quite everyone, I guess.