The adults in the room are gone. Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis quit because he could no longer abide President Trump’s ally-bashing isolationism. With his departure, it’s clear that the only way to stay in the West Wing is to be a Trumpian toady, blindly repeating the president’s lies and uncritically enabling his worst impulses. (The jobs of Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders and Trump’s family members are safe).
Those people have virtually no knowledge of the rest of the world. Trump has surrounded himself with sycophants while systematically purging experts like Mattis who tried to serve the country. During the presidential campaign, Trump was asked who his main foreign policy advisers were. His answer then is our reality now: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
Trump is advising Trump.
We are entering a new and dangerous stage of Trump’s presidency. It will be defined by a reckless man who will happily burn down the international order or launch missiles to distract the country as he tries to save his own skin. History will likely judge the first two years of the Trump era as the comparatively normal and stable period.
Unfortunately, it’s a perfect storm. Trump is already the most incurious and poorly informed president in modern history. But now he faces few constraints from advisers who understand the risks of rule-by-tweet. Trump is more likely to lash out than before, too. He surely understands that the legal cases closing in on him pose an existential threat not just to his presidency but to his post-presidency freedom, too. He also understands — or will soon realize — that his domestic agenda will be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled House come January.
The next two years are certain to prove frustrating. And for a man obsessed with branding, “Donald the Lame Duck” isn’t a moniker that he will accept quietly. He will want to create news that buries his bad news. Given his domestic constraints, however, foreign policy will be the logical recourse.
Under past administrations, there have been worries of a “wag the dog” scenario, in which a president mired in scandal launches a foreign war to divert attention. But that setup doesn’t necessarily fit Trump’s worldview. The foreign policy of his first two years featured a blend of isolationism (withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal) and meaningless but ostentatious displays of American firepower (bombing one runway in Syria). It is, therefore, less likely that he will send hundreds of thousands of troops to start a war, and more likely that he will bring troops home from places where they are essential for international and national security.
So how would Trump manufacture a crisis? Claiming some alleged offense by a friendly nation, he could make good on his long-standing threat to withdraw from NATO, thereby removing the linchpin of postwar international security. In pursuit of good press on North Korea, he could draw down or remove troops from the South, leaving our allies in the region exposed to the whims of a totalitarian madman for whom Trump has professed “love.” Or he could completely abandon Afghanistan, creating a security vacuum that threatens a repeat of the pre-9/11 period.
Such moves would embolden foreign autocrats to take more risks. As they see Trump stuck in scandal and America’s role waning in the world, they will test the limits of American power, inviting a greater risk of disaster. Putin’s recent capture of Ukrainian sailors may have been testing the waters. The Baltic states are right to be worried.
At the same time, Trump could consider launching limited military campaigns that mirror the limited missile strike on Syria in the spring of 2017. Airstrikes on Venezuela? Sure, it sounds crazy, but the advisers who stopped him from intervening there previously are largely gone from the White House. Bombing Iran? If a “Fox & Friends” anchor says the mullahs are making Trump look weak, does anyone believe that he wouldn’t be tempted?
And, unfortunately, any new American adventures abroad are far more likely to be done without the support of American allies. Our foreign friends have spent the last two years trying to figure out when they’re being bullied and when they’re being abandoned. Now, with the president of the United States more likely to see “steel slats” in a prison cell than stretching across America’s southern border, our allies are starting to calculate that the best approach might just be to hold on, weather two crazy years (or less) and wait for a new president.
As Americans, we don’t have that luxury. This is the moment we’ve feared. If Trump believes that he has to decide between protecting himself and protecting the international order that guarantees peace and security, we all know what his “very good brain” will choose.