President Trump’s failure to study and comprehend history, foreign or military affairs, security briefings and geography becomes more glaring as the last remaining national security adults have exited the administration (e.g., H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, Nikki Haley). What is left is unadulterated Trump — bundle of misinformation, bravado and fractured fairy tales Trump tells himself. Wednesday brought a doozy. He said:
So you take a look at other countries, Pakistan is there, they should be fighting. But Russia should be fighting, the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia, they were right to be there, the problem is it was a tough fight and literally they went bankrupt, they went into being called Russia again as opposed to the Soviet Union.
Well, where to begin? For starters, the syntax is so mangled one could be genuinely skeptical he was saying anything more than, “Russia. Afghanistan. Give it to Putin.”
Beyond the incoherence is the horrifying realization that Trump endorsed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an action regarded for decades as inimical to interests of the United States and the Free World. (You’ll recall for 45 years we opposed the invasion of independent states by an expansionist Communist dictatorship.) Former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul reacted with horror, as any informed public figure likely would:
“This strikes me as a typical Trumpian word salad that reveals his sketchy and inadequate grasp of the geopolitics of Afghanistan,” says former ambassador to Turkey, Eric S. Edelman. “The Soviet Union went into Afghanistan to prop up one faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) against another. Their invasion catalyzed the existing Islamist opposition to the PDPA but I digress.” (In other words, Trump’s claim Russia went into Afghanistan to stop terrorist attacks is flat-out wrong.) Edelman adds, “Simply put he has no idea what he is talking about.”
If you want to try making sense of the gobbledygook, let’s start with the biggest logical inconsistency. If Afghanistan brought down the Soviet Union — and virtually no credible historian or policy expert would deny it played a part nor argue it was the sole cause — why would Russian President Vladimir Putin go back in?
I am glad Trump brought up the end of the Soviet Union, however. The U.S.S.R. didn’t magically change its name; the West won the Cold War (until this president) through a combination of a sustained military buildup, strategic alliances, coercive diplomacy and moral clarity — all things Trump has abandoned with the exception of military funding (although it is far from clear this reflects any coherent national security strategy). Putin views the fall of the Soviet Union as a great calamity and seeks a low-cost means of reestablishing Russia as a great power, which Trump unfortunately has aided and abetted, most recently by handing Syria to Russia and its ally Iran.
More to the point, why is Trump handing off chunks of the world — Syria, Afghanistan, the Sea of Azov — to America’s greatest international foe? (Some think it’s a payoff for 2016 election help; others attribute his moves to protection of personal finances.) And where does this giveaway stop — at the Baltics? At Berlin? (It’s stunning that hawks such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who’d melt down if President Barack Obama had said any of this, remain dependable sycophants for a president aiming to destroy the world order they too used to defend.)
Trump’s latest blather actually provides insight into his real thinking. His policy is not “America First" — as in “America leads the world and creates conditions to our benefit.” Rather it is, “Russia First as long as we can pull up the drawbridge, extinguishing robust trade and legal immigration.” If Ronald Reagan’s response when asked how the Cold War would end was, “We win, they lose,” Trump’s is: “Putin wins. Let’s bury our heads in the sand.”
Eliot A. Cohen, perhaps the most insightful and tenacious Trump critic on foreign policy, wrote recently for Foreign Affairs, “The president has outlined a deeply misguided foreign policy vision that is distrustful of U.S. allies, scornful of international institutions, and indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the liberal international order that the United States has sustained for nearly eight decades.” He explains, “The real tragedy, however, is not that the president has brought this flawed vision to the fore; it is that his is merely one mangled interpretation of what is rapidly emerging as a new consensus on the left and the right: that the United States should accept a more modest role in world affairs.”
In short, at a time when we should fortify alliances, enhance diplomacy, bolster foreign aid, draw clear distinctions between democracies and authoritarians, and expand trade, we are doing the opposite, which merely encourages the go-it-alone voices on the right and the we-can-do-no-good-anyway voices on the left.
We should be worried, as Cohen points out, that Trump is not merely incoherent but also choosing decline for America. Perhaps his outbursts are “an expression of something deeper and more consequential: a permanent shift, among American leaders, away from the dominant postwar conception of U.S. foreign policy. . . . Trump’s foreign policy vision would amount to a doctrine—one in which the United States is merely one great power among others. In this view, Washington should pursue its own interests, stand for freedom chiefly at home and only intermittently abroad, and reject as a matter of principle the international organizations that previous generations of U.S. leaders so carefully built.”
The result of Trump’s inanities and the world view it represents will be more aggressive foes (both nation states and terrorist groups); the decline of friendly, liberal democracies as belligerent authoritarian regimes emerge; a world economic system dominated by China; a less dynamic American economy; the re-creation of ungovernable havens for terrorists (as was the case before 9/11); nuclear proliferation; and unabated climate change. It’s not a world any of us should want to live in.