Thursday, July 06, 2017

Is it Time to Admit that Trump is Just Too Dumb to Be President?

President Donald Trump (R-NY)
When it comes to politics, foreign policy has never really been my place of focus.  I have loved politics for my entire life, but when it comes to policy, my areas of expertise are almost entirely domestic.  This makes sense, of course, because as a Millennial I've encountered very few elections where the focus was almost entirely on foreign policy.  The last president we really elected with an eye toward foreign policy specifically was perhaps Ronald Reagan, the last POTUS whose legacy was crowned by the Cold War.  Since then, we have seen a shift in elections toward the economy or social issues, with foreign policy a neglected supporting player.  Yes, briefly you could argue that from 2002-06 the Iraq War was a major campaign issue, but even then it was more a sector of the world that was impacted than actual American soil.  Here we were still focused on issues of homeland security in the wake of 9/11, gay marriage,  and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, all largely domestic issues.  Indeed, in 2016, despite Hillary Clinton repeatedly attempting to shift the debate to foreign policy, the election was largely decided upon economic issues, jobs, and immigration.  As it had been over thirty years since we'd last elected a man with a worldwide threat above our heads, the American people rather haphazardly elected a president with no experience in diplomacy or international relations.

As a result of that, we are paying the price for not focusing on foreign policy in unexpected ways, as Donald Trump does not seem to be a president whose signature crisis is going to be a sex scandal or a recession or even a domestic terror attack, but instead the increasing specter of a second Cold War, or more catastrophically, a third World War.  With North Korea this past weekend having launched an ICBM that has the theoretical capability of not just striking in the South Pacific, but as far as Alaska, a US state, Donald Trump is now in a position that no president has seen in decades, not since Reagan, perhaps not since JFK if things get worse.  The problem here is eminently clear-Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy were more capable men, more experienced leaders, and had several years into their presidency before they faced intense conflicts with a nuclear power.  Donald Trump is less than a year into his term, mired in endless scandals, and alienating allies left-and-right.  In short, it is impossible to overstate how terrifying it is that we have Donald Trump, a man whose worldview is more informed by his complete lack of intelligence when it comes to world issues than anything else, as the Commander-in-Chief.

Trump would not be the first president who had limited experience in the realm of foreign policy and his impact on world peace.  With the exception of George HW Bush (who had served as VP, in Congress, CIA Director, and as an Ambassador to both the UN and China, making him arguably the most qualified non-incumbent ever to serve as POTUS from an international standpoint), every president since Reagan has been largely without a huge amount of foreign policy experience.  Bush and Clinton were both governors of southern states who had never served in Congress, while Barack Obama had only minimal experience in the Senate (although he had served on the Foreign Relations Committee).  But these men were quick learners, and chose as their mentors in Washington deeply capable men who had a breadth of knowledge in foreign policy (Richard Nixon to Clinton, Richard Lugar to Obama, and Bush Sr. to his son).  And they assembled a deeply capable list of diplomats and statesmen to serve in top positions in their cabinets.  Say what you will about Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Samantha Power, but these are not intellectual lightweights; they are in fact deeply knowledgeable in the realm of foreign policy and understand the ramifications of their actions.  They might not all be on the same page in terms of their foreign policies, but they are all people who understand geopolitical complexities and perform their jobs accordingly.

Donald Trump, however, did not appoint people who made up for his serious gap in knowledge.  Rex Tillerson has no experience other than business relations with other countries, and it shows as Foggy Bottom is continually one of the most mismanaged of all federal departments under Trump.  Nikki Haley, our UN Ambassador, has no foreign policy experience as well-she seemed more like a political appointment to a plum job more than anything else.  Again, it shows, with her frequently contradicting her boss sending a mixed international message on issues ranging from Syria to the Ukraine, and following her boss's footsteps by complaining about how hard her job is as North Korea fires off a rocket that could theoretically be targeted at one of our allies or even American civilians.  Jeane Kirkpatrick would be rolling in her grave if she knew what Twitter was.

Dina Powell, arguably the only qualified person on Trump's
foreign policy team
Most of Trump's other high-ranking international positions were filled with generals like James Mattis and HR McMaster, who have little experience with diplomacy and while they may be fine tacticians on the battlefield, don't have the experience when it comes to finding a balance with world powers in a peaceful way.  Plus, McMaster's credibility is shot after Trump made him lie to the public and then contradicted his assessment on Twitter.  About the only person in Trump's cabinet who is truly suited for this sort of work is Dina Powell, but she seems to have more the ear of the president's daughter than POTUS himself.

Like I said above, I'm not someone who loves discussing foreign policy, but it doesn't take an expert in the field to understand that by having a tactically misguided approach to the issue, and no experts surrounding him that Trump will listen to AND are qualified to be listened to (Jared Kushner, whose biggest accomplishment in life is being born to rich parents, doesn't count), is a recipe for disaster.  People frequently say that Donald Trump's worldview is one of American exceptionalism, one where America must succeed and others must fail, but I think that's a bold statement because quite frankly I don't think Donald Trump's views are nuanced enough to call them foreign policy.  Yes, whatever decisions he makes, intensely abstract though they may, will become the Trump Doctrine simply as a result of his being president, but this is a man whose political focus is shaped entirely by what Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were speaking about any given morning.  This is not a smart, qualified individual running the country.

Unfair?  Perhaps, but Trump has never exhibited any sort of intelligence when it comes to this policy, or quite frankly the intellectual depth to discuss any policy, foreign or domestic, in terms of an expert.  Some will gripe that this is a case of a Democrat underestimating Trump again, but I am not saying that there aren't smart people around Trump.  They might be morally reprehensible, but they're smart people.  Kellyanne Conway is smart.  Steve Bannon is smart.  Trump has had the good fortune to have very savvy campaign officials guiding him, and was lucky enough to run against a candidate whose qualifications uniquely put her at a disadvantage compared to the sort of sleazy, no-holds-barred campaign Trump needed to run in order to win.

But Trump has never exhibited any sort of breadth of knowledge when it comes to foreign policy, and it shows in his inconsistencies.  It is impossible to imagine Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, or Emmanuel Macron throwing not-so-veiled jabs at POTUS if Hillary Clinton were in charge.  It's impossible to imagine Jeremy Corbyn gaining a massive landslide by linking Theresa May to the president were Hillary Clinton in charge.  And it's unthinkable that Clinton would flagrantly give up political capital and goodwill with China knowing how detrimental and dangerous North Korea is to world peace, and what a threat it poses to American soil and to two of America's strongest allies (South Korea and Japan).

One could argue that Trump's focus is more that of replacing Russia as a tenuous ally rather than China, but even there his strange "America must win, you must lose" sort of attitude doesn't work.  For starters, China is going to be the one who ultimately has to put an end to North Korea if we are to avoid war-it's impossible to imagine a peaceful scenario where the North Korean regime foregoes its nuclear program without the complete cooperation of China.  Secondly, where exactly is America's gain in the cozying up with Russia?  Russia doesn't appear to be loosening on the al-Assad regime, despite Trump calling the Syrian leader a "butcher," there is no indication that the Russians will stop interfering in American elections or that they will relinquish Crimea.  Even if Trump is, as so many liberals want to toss out as a careless insult, "a Russian stooge," this doesn't seem to add up to an accurate depiction.  In April, Putin alluded to Russian-American relations as being at their lowest point since 2003 when Rex Tillerson visited, and the two men found little common ground.

So Trump's foreign policy departure has been an abject failure, and feels like it was written down by a man who has no grasp on his role in the world.  In the process, we have seen alliances with Canada, Germany, France, Australia, and countless other countries shredded to ash, and it's difficult to foresee exactly what it will take to repair these vital alliances in the future (it's unlikely to see politicians as savvy as Trudeau, Macron, and Merkel just reverting to normal the second Cory Booker becomes POTUS).  The media wants to call Trump's strategy enigmatic or complicated, but the reality is simpler: he just doesn't know what he's doing.  We just don't want to hear that because with international crises looming across the globe, it's too unthinkable to consider that Donald Trump may just be too stupid to be president.

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