In Praise of the Viewer-in-Chief

The images from Syria of children and other townspeople gasping for breath, dead or dying from the sarin bombs dropped by their own government, filled our screens and shocked our sensibilities. Essentially no different than the normal carnage inflicted by this evil dictator, yet still somehow beyond the pale.

Another difference: the Viewer-in-Chief is now a man whose reality seems to be most formed by what is broadcast through the screen.  Seeing the aftermath of this particular attack  might have genuinely affected him. Within hours, plans were underway for a military response that would leave talking heads spinning all weekend. A fundamental campaign stance of candidate Trump– nonintervention for America First– was left up in the airwaves as the President appears to have switched channels.

Whether we are witnessing the initial days of a new, well thought out strategy (unlikely), or we are trapped in a weird remake of the film, “Wag the Dog” (whimsical), or this is the foreign policy analog to making 4 AM tweets or other pronouncements based on last night’s Fox news commentary (hmmm), the Friday airstrike against Syria was significant. And, I have to say, welcome.

I’ve heard and read enough on this the past three days to appreciate a few things, starting with the consensus that a solution in Syria remains difficult and incredibly complicated. While the violence seems all-consuming, that solution will have to be political rather than military. Russia will be key and must be persuaded or coerced into helping. The United States cannot accomplish this unilaterally.

What was accomplished on Friday was getting the world’s attention. I liked how someone put it this morning. The sheriff walked in and fired his pistol in the air. That stopped the action, in this case very likely no more gas attacks in the near future. Now, everyone is looking to see what Trump will do next. Will National Security Advisor McMaster or Secretary of Defense Mattis prevail on the President to allow for smart strategic planning, follow up, and diplomacy? Or will something on TV this week set us on some other course?

So, why else was it significant? And why welcome?

The world has watched for six years while Assad has slaughtered 400,000-500,000 of his own people and displaced 5 million more. The world has continued to stand by while Russia has joined and enabled the Syrian butcher. Diplomatic efforts have so far failed.

In Kosovo in 1999, genocide was only stopped when US-led NATO airstrikes were added to the diplomatic efforts. Five years earlier, in Rwanda, there was a UN attempt at peacekeeping, but no military intervention from the West to put a halt to the eventual genocide of an estimated 800,000 people.

This surprising willingness from the new President to use military force against Assad has at least the potential to change the scenario in Syria. It has signaled hope that perhaps other nations will muster the will to stand up for the Syrian people.

I wrote last week that schools teach children to resist bullies by getting help from the adults. But I have to admit, there are times we really want to see, and all cheer when, someone walks up to the bully and just lets him have it.

Nice punch, Mr. President.

 

U.S. Foreign Policy: It’s going to be a bumpy ride

It’s not like no one warned us. It’s not like a majority of us did not believe those who warned us. But we are all passengers on the Trump ship of state now. We are airborne and en route to spots around the globe. The Fasten Seatbelt sign is still on, and the turbulence just keeps getting worse. You have to wonder if there’s anyone in the cockpit who actually knows how to fly this thing!

The warnings came from both halves of the political spectrum, sometimes with great drama and fanfare. (Think Mitt Romney.) One that is resonating with me this week came on August 8, after the Republican convention. It was the public Statement by Former National Security Officials. All fifty former officials, many who served at the highest level, served in Republican administrations from Nixon to George W. Bush. After stating none of them would vote for Trump, it includes these paragraphs:

From a foreign policy perspective, Donald Trump is not qualified to be President and Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, we are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.

In addition, Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based. At the same time, he persistently compliments our adversaries and threatens our allies and friends. Unlike previous Presidents who had limited experience in foreign affairs, Mr. Trump has shown no interest in educating himself. He continues to display an alarming ignorance of basic facts of contemporary international politics. Despite his lack of knowledge, Mr. Trump claims that he understands foreign affairs and “knows more about ISIS than the generals do.”

He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander- in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

We are convinced that in the Oval Office, he would be the most reckless President in American history.

We older Boomers grew up with the real threat, nearly an expectation, of nuclear holocaust. The world watched as the testing of atomic and then hydrogen bombs put their awesome destructive power on display. We crawled under our school desks during drills and held our collective breath during the Cuban Missile Crisis, coming even closer to cataclysm than we realized at the time.

The Cold War provided the context and the impetus for a US foreign policy that has weathered and navigated the decades since. No one would claim it has done so perfectly. Far from it. Nonetheless, conflicts have been regional, not global, and we are the country that free nations and those aspiring to democracy have looked to for leadership and support.

In the past 50 years, only Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush have entered the presidency with any significant national security/foreign policy experience. Stability and continuity have been maintained by appointing experienced, capable leaders for departments staffed by career professionals, intelligence officers, and diplomats.

Until now.

The President possesses an unfounded but boundless confidence in himself and trusts others only to the extent that they satisfy his prerequisite of proven loyalty. And, it seems, with that sole dubious qualification satisfied, they are admitted to the inner circle where the real influence and responsibility reside in this administration. The State Department is perhaps the most obvious casualty.

When he was appointed, then confirmed relatively easily, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was widely considered evidence of Trump gathering a well-qualified team. It is still early, sort of, but it would seem Secretary Tillerson would have been a better fit at the CIA. It is possible he is doing good things at State, but he has managed to keep it a closely guarded secret as he avoids not only the press, but his department staff and diplomatic corps as well.

Meanwhile, the State Department has suffered resignations and firings of a large number of senior officers and is facing a potential 30% budget cut. Tillerson was refused his choice for Deputy, the experienced Elliot Abrams, allegedly because Abrams had come out against Trump during the election.

This shrinking of the State Department is inversely proportional to the rapid expansion of the portfolio of wunderkind Jared Kushner, who serves as the prime example of the premium Trump puts on personal loyalty and trust. And the lack of value he attaches to experience.

The ridiculous list of jobs for the 36-year-old Kushner has been delicious fodder for the late night comedians and social media. It may be less amusing for the Cabinet Secretaries who expected they would be responsible for those  things.

There has been so much more in the news just this week about our foreign policy. It is all troubling, but if you have made it to the end of this piece, you have no doubt read much of it yourself already. So I’ll just sum up by saying it’s not just us that are in for a bumpy ride. Leaders and citizens of countries around the world are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to read the mixed signals emanating from the Trump administration.

Would someone go ask the pilot where he’s taking us first: Russia, Mexico, Syria, Iraq, China, or North Korea? Oh, and don’t be surprised if you find he looks like he’s just a kid!