You would expect, amid all the tiresome comment written and broadcast on Donald Trump’s “first 100 days,” something worth thinking about might have appeared somewhere. I have had no luck looking. Instead of detached, thought-through analysis, it has been either pabulum, echo, or more of the usual and not-very-useful denigration—the unpolished style, the dismissal of Washington decorum, the doings at Mar-a-Lago, and other urgent matters of global import.
As bad or worse on the foreign-policy side. Apart from people who once fretted about Trump and nuclear codes now applauding as he signs off on missiles and bombs, no one has much to say. The event that tipped me into writing this column was H.R. McMaster’s appearance on Fox News Sunday this past weekend. Trump, his national security adviser wants you to know, “has been masterful in his development of a relationship with President Xi,” the “masterful” being a masterful touch. Iran is “committing mass murder of its own people.” Do tell. No, we did not just watch as the Pentagon wrested foreign policy from civilian control. “He has devolved responsibility down to where it belongs…. So he’s doing things that have made our policy execution much more sensible.”
Read the transcript. It is vacuous euphemism, start to finish. I tip my cap to Chris Wallace: His questions were dead on the money, excellent. He got nothing back in response—or nothing he intended—but Wallace did get McMaster to make one thing perfectly plain. Even at the very core of power, this country’s leadership is not capable of a serious conversation about our conduct abroad. Their topic is meta-policy. It consists of sets and subsets of pretense, delusion, and disinformation.
There is a steep price to be paid for this drift further and further from reality. It is far too soon to guess the size of the final bill, but so far the cost of keeping ourselves calm by pretending to talk about things we decline to talk about is an ever more evident alienation from the world we purport to lead. “Americans are alone in the world” is the title Luigi Barzini put on a book he published in 1953. He meant that the unmatched power we assumed in the post-1945 order, along with our illusions, was bound to leave us an isolated people. Now that is what I call one prescient hack.
This is an anti–100 days column. There was a lot more in Trump’s opening act on the foreign side than anyone in our corporate media is going to acknowledge. There have been three key events, and they need to be considered together: (1) Trump inherited Barack Obama’s foreign-policy framework, (2) he arrived in office with certain ideas to rethink it, and (3) control of policy was taken out of his hands. If we think about these things as a sequence we stand a chance of living in the same world as the rest of humanity, and we might feel a little less lonely.
Do you remember how often Trump used the word “mess” during the 2015–16 campaign? That is because his predecessor handed him so many of them. Obama made the Middle East crises worse, oversaw two coups (Ukraine and Libya), blessed a third and fourth (Honduras and Brazil), and had us neck-deep in a fifth (Syria) while a sixth (Venezuela) teeters. He deployed drone technology to establish illegal assassination as official policy, and all the while he befouled relations with China and Russia, the two non-Western nations that will have more to say than any other about peace and a remade order in the 21st century.
Let us go to fundamental errors. I count two.
One, Obama assumed it would suffice to tinker with the means of US foreign policy while leaving its intent—the preservation of global dominance—unexamined and untouched. I have argued this point previously in this space. Until the goals of policy are altered in a manner befitting the 21st century, the United States will remain dependent on one or another kind of coercion for the simple reason that primacy is yesterday’s story, not tomorrow’s, and the world beyond our shores has tired of it.
Two, Obama failed to demolish a false binary within which we are trapped. There is either military engagement or there is “isolation,” as those advancing this thesis have it. In consequence of his first error, Obama left mostly unexplored all alternative modes of engagement, and these are more or less infinite in number. This was a signal opportunity for Obama, for it is in alternative policies that the future lies, but he did not seize it. The Iran nuclear agreement and the opening to Cuba stand as only partial exceptions: Washington has been busily sabotaging the Iran accord since it was signed—never mind the new administration’s plans—and the new relationship with Cuba is predicated, as Obama made clear when he spoke in Havana, on getting done above board what the CIA failed to get done covertly.
Trump did not have a great many things of interest to say on foreign policy, but he had a few. Many people, probably most, were too taken up with contempt for his very numerous faults to understand these few things as serious renovations. This was a mistake. Here is my list: (1) improving relations with Russia; (2) negotiating conflict in Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, and elsewhere; (3) doing better by the Palestinians—a very short-lived thought; (4) a stated commitment to self-determination—“the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” as Trump put it; and (5) a disavowal of liberal interventionism—“we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” as he also said.
I will go to my final rest amazed as to why so many people failed to see opportunity in these positions. Trump proposed to shake loose some very big stones in the edifice. But a few people understood perfectly well the opportunity in Trump’s views. It was plain-as-day to destroy them that the Pentagon and the national security apparatus, with assists from AIPAC and various others, tipped Trump out of bed this spring and took policy from his control as he fell to the floor.
What have we had since the center of gravity in the foreign-policy sphere shifted to the Pentagon? There was a one-off cruise-missile strike against Syria, the purpose of which is anyone’s guess. Then the “MOAB” bomb in Afghanistan, ditto. There was chest-out tough talk on the North Korea question, from which—the best way to put it—we have just watched a dramatic climb-down. And there was a failed attempt to tell the Chinese what to do, which, as we just saw on Fox News Sunday, the Mattis-McMaster policy axis is not quite finished denying.
Where does Trump land? I was interested to note his silence in the days after the Pentagon usurped him: Everyone was talking except the president. This suggested Trump took his policy positions seriously, even if he lacked depth, and understood that all prospect of them had just been destroyed. He has now assumed the role that all Republican presidents since Nixon have played: He is “the Communicator,” if he is not “the Great,” saying in reassuring mufti what men in uniform have determined the United States will do. (The one possible exception here is George H.W. Bush, the old director of spookery, and we can leave that for another time.)
We come to the final question—for now, anyway. What have we been watching? I do not mean for the past 100 days; I mean for the past eight years plus 100 days.
In my read we are staring at limits. These are to be welcomed.
Obama sought to prolong American hegemony but make it look nicer, at least to those not on the receiving end of the effort. The United States has lost ground with Russia and China that it will eventually have to make up. As to the Islamic State and the inflamed sentiments of radical Islamists, Obama may as well have taken a hammer to a saucer of mercury: The problem is everywhere now. All in, Obama succeeded only in showing us that maintaining US primacy, once so simple, is now complicated on the way to unsustainable.
For a brief interim we had Trump and his ideas. We are counting in weeks, but there is one thing to take home from this period: If nothing else, we now know how hard any new attempt to reinvent some of the basic tenets of American foreign policy will prove.
Now policy flows through the Mattis-McMaster axis. I am told by people worth trusting that there is no one left in Trump’s inner circle to counter their thoroughly military perspectives. Like all people trained in operations, those now running policy have proven better at the do-or-die part than the reasoning why. Especially but not only across the Pacific, behind the bluster turns out to be an improvised vaudeville routine: We will we won’t, you’ll pay we’ll pay, the ship’s here the ship’s there, you’ll do it our way but it’s OK if you don’t. I wonder why they left out “Who’s on first?”
Can you imagine what they think of this spectacle in Beijing, with several millennia of diplomacy behind it? First they give us John Wayne and now it’s Abbott and Costello.
Washington is running out of alternatives, in my read. Power without strength always peters out, and we will see this in years to come. This is what lends Trump’s opening months significance. America in its late-imperial phase grows sclerotic. Our policy cliques have not had to make any decisions for seven decades, and now they are incapable of them. Their view of the world is petrified—in both meanings—such that they cannot adjust it. There is no obvious way to preserve US primacy without an almost pornographic exposure of the bankruptcy of the professed ideals. In short, a state of paralysis approaches. Allies grow quietly irritated and adversaries do nothing differently. Even Chris Wallace suggested the United States is marginalizing itself as it goes around the world marginalizing so many others.
I have used the word “opportunity” on a couple of occasions. Our moment as just described presents one, at least in the ideal. But it also presents a problem, and this is of our own making. Rarely in the decades since April 1975, and never effectively, have Americans insisted on exploring alternatives to the foreign-policy orthodoxy—the orthodoxy of exceptionalism, of imperial adventure. More prevalent are apathy on such questions, or acquiescence. At this point there is barely even a conversation. In consequence, there is no one in power, and too few in positions of influence, to exploit moments of opportunity. The first step for all of us, I would think, is to discern such moments.