No matter how long this government shutdown lasts or how many more follow, 2020 will be a national security election. We cannot ignore the world no matter how much some wish we could.
In the wake of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to the Middle East and national security adviser John Bolton’s visit to Israel and Turkey, we have to focus on what former NATO supreme allied commander and retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis told me Friday: Conditions in the Middle East right now echo the combustibility in the Balkans in the run-up to World War I. In Asia, China is embarked upon the new millennium’s version of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. And, yes, there’s a new nuclear arms race.
In the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States traveled a path from euphoria through catastrophe into confusion, one which ultimately led President Barack Obama into the fantastical view that he could remake the world by ignoring its truths. The “Nixon Trap” — the attempt to turn the world upside down via a deft diplomatic move — ensnared Obama and led him to abandon realities around the world. He gave away the store to Iran’s mullahs. He offered a reset button to Vladimir Putin (which when pushed gave Moscow Crimea) and legitimacy to the remnants of Castroism, while turning a cold shoulder to Israel and a blind eye to the misery in Venezuela. The chaos of Libya that followed our intervention there was swept under the rhetorical rug. The Syrian genocide was met with shrugged shoulders and erased red lines. Our troops were abruptly pulled from Iraq in 2011, while the president deemed the then-fledgling Islamic State a “JV team.” North Korea’s sprint to a 60-weapon nuclear arsenal was hidden from public view. China was emboldened to militarize the South China Sea even as its “Belt and Road” strategy indebted many countries’ rulers to Beijing’s agenda.
President Trump inherited a set of national security perils unlike any since Ronald Reagan walked into the Oval Office in 1981. And Team Obama had simultaneously spent eight years clearing out the pantry of Pentagon assets. Trump has found in Pompeo and Bolton two long-standing advocates of Reagan’s core strategic doctrine: peace through overwhelming military strength, backed by the assistance of reliable, powerful allies. NATO, of course, is the key alliance, but it needed the kick in the rear Trump administered. And China needed the confrontation with us and the world engineered by Trump on many fronts.
On my radio show Friday, Bolton spoke of Israel’s right of self-defense but in a way unmistakably connected to America’s as well. “Article 51 in the U.N. Charter embodies what the text of the charter calls the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense,” he explained. “And that’s something we have stressed over and over again for Israel.”
People “would like to criticize Israel or constrain Israel’s options both for its own sake and because they know ultimately it’s the same argument to limit America’s ability to defend itself,” Bolton continued. “So we’re very interested in maintaining the unfettered right Israel has of, and as the U.N. Charter itself calls it the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense.”
We are back in the era many thought we’d left forever in 1989: Superpower competition at every level, often just under the “kinetic” phase. It turns out that ship counts and strategic bombers, a new generation of ballistic-missile-carrying submarines and a new group of offensive capabilities such as hypersonic missiles and cybersleuths are critical to not just prosperity but also survival. Trump has Pompeo and Bolton to help him navigate this course, and perhaps the Pentagon will soon deliver an actual plan on how to achieve Trump’s promise of a 355-ship Navy, as well as the details on the new nuclear arsenal.
So 2020 is going to be a national security election: More of Trump and his policies and people or back to Obama-era make-believe?
The inherent right of self-defense. A much larger Navy. A rapid growth in defense outlays. A rebuilt nuclear arsenal. The Reagan Doctrine is back, fully embraced by Trump. Just in time to define the Democratic presidential primaries and the 2020 election.