Their rationalizing strikes us as not unlike the reaction in the West when each new Soviet leader emerged on the world stage. Oh, but he has Western suits! Oh, he went to an Ivy League school in his youth! The straw-grabbing often involves excessive praise for not doing insane things. (Well, he hasn’t said he would invade any countries!) We are adept at self-delusion.
“Even the hardest line NeverTrumpers such as myself would, for the country’s sake, like to say this is normal. But it’s not. It’s better than it was because of some of the key appointments at the top, particularly the replacement of Michael Flynn by H.R. McMaster,” said former State Department official Eliot Cohen. “But it won’t be normal even when the new team gets past their backlog of appointments in a year’s time, because of the man at the top. He thinks of foreign policy almost exclusively in personal and transactional terms rather than enduring interests, relationships and values.” Cohen added, “He has advisers who do not agree with one another. And above all, he remains what some of us described last March as ‘unmoored in principle’ — not to mention untrustworthy ignorant, impulsive and narcissistic.” Cohen therefore argued that “in foreign as in domestic policy presidential character counts, and his character remains reprehensible.”
Inconveniently interrupting the “He’s getting better!” meme, Trump’s interview with Reuters on Thursday is nothing short of terrifying. His cluelessness about the world persists. “This is more work than in my previous life,” he says. “I thought it would be easier.” That smacks of “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” which amounts to admission of complete ignorance of the world’s complexity and insistence that everyone is as blind as he was.
Oh, but that’s the least of it. Sounding weirdly sympathetic to arguably the world’s worst tyrant, he said of Kim Jong Un: “He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age.” And as if to set everyone’s teeth a bit more on edge he declared, “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely.” Gulp. Yes, thanks for the reminder that the potential for nuclear war rests with a man given to impulsive outbursts and angry responses to perceived slights. (Referring there to Trump not Kim Jong Un.)
To top it off, Trump seemed to go out of his way to kick ally South Korea, which sits directly in the line of fire of a homicidal tyrant. Reuters recounts:
He blamed the U.S.-Korean trade deal, known as KORUS, on his 2016 Democratic presidential election opponent, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state promoted the final version of the trade pact before its approval by Congress in 2011.“It is unacceptable, it is a horrible deal made by Hillary,” the Republican Trump said. “It’s a horrible deal, and we are going to renegotiate that deal or terminate it.”Asked when he would announce his intention to renegotiate the deal, Trump said: “Very soon. I’m announcing it now.”Trump’s comments stunned South Korean financial markets, sending Seoul stocks and the won currency into reverse even as the country’s economic outlook has started to brighten.South Korea’s foreign ministry said Seoul would continue to explain to the Trump administration the benefits of the free trade deal. Washington had not officially filed a request to Seoul to renegotiate the agreement, it said.
Trump also asserted that with regard to the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system: “I informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they paid. It’s a billion-dollar system.”
These remarks are not just embarrassing; they create doubt in the eyes of allies that we will be there in a crisis. Unstable adversaries come to believe they are dealing with a rube, someone with little interest in going to bat for allies.
It is also worth remembering that Trump has yet to face an actual crisis or construct new, coherent policies to replace ones he thinks were deficient under his predecessors. Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon calls for “a bit more patience, and skepticism, even as I have breathed a huge sigh of relief based on the choices of the top national security team and the responsible crisis management to date, and the repair of relations with China.” Trump is momentarily reactive (as he was in responding to Syria’s chemical attack), but lacks sustained interest to demonstrate U.S. staying power. O’Hanlon thinks an “incomplete” may be the fairest assessment — “simply an incomplete grade because they really don’t have any new policies yet.”
Trump has put forth a defense budget that falls short of expectations. A 3 percent increase doesn’t amount to a serious effort to rebuild the military after years of neglect.
On trade, he sealed our departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If you believe him, we came within a whisker of pulling out of NAFTA. He spends his time threatening trade wars (against China, Mexico, Canada), not understanding that his bluster can create lasting ill-will and, ultimately, undermine his credibility when he backs down (as he always does).
And let’s not forget his cringe-worthy congratulatory call to Turkey’s president in the wake of an allegedly rigged election or his unprecedented cheering for the National Front (!) in France. These actions coupled with unqualified support for human rights abusers (Egypt) and silence on totalitarian suppression of civil liberties (China) make him so far the worst human rights president in history. His attacks on the American media give cover to regimes that imprison, threaten and even kill journalists. His failed Muslim travel ban alienated Muslim allies and damaged America’s moral stature.
Author and military scholar Tom Nichols thinks Republicans cheering Trump are deluded. “There isn’t a policy, as far as I can tell,” he said via email. “Remember that phone call to Taiwan? Apparently that’s over with, and now [Chinese President Xi Jinping] is a great guy.” He concluded, “Republicans are desperately trying to impose intellectual coherence on a grab bag of statements that are all over the map at this point.”
Trump deserves genuine credit for picking (after Flynn) McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley (although he now reportedly wants her to clear her speeches — suggesting she’s gotten too much praise for the narcissistic president to tolerate). If they only had a different commander in chief, we might have an effective foreign policy.