Do not say Donald Trump the candidate hid his foreign-policy plans under a bushel, or that President-elect Trump did not hang in when faced with instant and severe resistance from the high priests and priestesses of the Washington orthodoxy. Trump said all along he intended to take a running whack at our liberal interventionists, who have reigned without serious challenge the whole of the post–Cold War era. Now President Trump is going about his business.
So are the liberal interventionists, but we will get to that later on.
If Trump’s policies abroad as we have them so far were stars in the sky, Greek shepherds would have no name for them. They do not make a coherent constellation. There are problems, naturally: Trump is not a progressive renovator of American foreign policy. But let us be clear on one point straightaway. The prevalent notion that Washington had it right on the foreign side before Donald Trump came along is beyond foolish—the indulgence of policy people who cannot think, media people too anxious about their jobs to think, and others who let these two sorts think for them. Once that is clear, so is this: There is continuity, inheritance, in Trump’s policy mix, and in such cases he hurtles down the same wrong road Barack Obama took. When Trump departs from Obama and his predecessors, he is more likely to go in the right direction, although he does not as often as he does.
A few commentators—those refusing to surrender to the created reality within which this nation is trapped—anticipated what we now witness in Washington. We cannot yet make out where Trump the grand strategist—ahem!—will take foreign policy. Consistency is not this man’s strong suit, and many questions are raised. But things come gradually into focus, nonetheless.
Trump’s foreign-policy people are all in place and getting on airplanes. State and defense scrap over Asia policy, per usual. (And the latter will probably prevail, per usual.) Michael Flynn, the retired general serving as national security adviser, seems to hold the Iran file, and I will return to that. But here is the big latke: The Russia portfolio sits on Trump’s desk. Relations with Moscow shape up as something like his premier foreign policy. If this is so, it is a good call. To be noted: Ever-mounting hostility toward Russia is the very linchpin of liberal interventionist thinking—font of fear, paranoia, security obsessions, blame games, and all else with which we insist on crippling ourselves. In this they are more or less one with standard neoconservatives or traditional conservatives such as John McCain—odd but no surprise. A brave prediction: Trump has a fight on his hands that will last as long as he stands his ground.
In my read, Trump’s January 28 telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin was the biggest development in the foreign-policy sphere since he took office. Two reasons:
- Repairing the appalling mess the Obama administration made of US-Russian relations is the single most urgent foreign-policy task Trump faces. It is the key to too many other questions to count, Syria being but one example, and it is now evident Trump understands this. Note in this regard: The same Saturday that Trump conversed with Putin for 50 minutes, he gave the national-security apparatus a month to devise a new anti-terror blueprint that is to include “identification of new coalition partners in the fight against ISIS.”
- With their open letters, press conferences, and opinion-page posturing, the policy cliques were clear that they intended to counter Trump as soon as he burst through their polished mahogany doors. They have, they continue to do so as we speak, and there is no telling when or on what question Trump may capitulate. He might, but he now persists beyond the point I thought he would cave, to be honest. The Pharisees were out in force by the time Trump conversed with Putin. Never mind, he as much as said. Some form of neo-détente, we can now conclude, is among the few commitments giving his foreign-policy framework a semblance of structure.
There have been signs since that Trump does not intend to flinch. In one of those klutzy moves Ukraine-watchers have come to expect, hostilities broke out in the eastern region within hours of the Trump-Putin exchange, and if you take this as coincidence, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to show you. There is little question—beyond our shores, that is—that this was Kiev’s provocation, the gambit being to foil Trump’s démarche. Trump did not fall for it. When he spoke by telephone to Petro Poroshenko a week later, Ukraine’s so-called president, let’s call him just for fun, got no joy. “We will work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help restore peace along the border,” Trump advised. Just right, Mr. President.
Now to Nikki Haley’s address to the UN Security Council, also subsequent to Trump’s conversation with Putin. You may have read that Trump’s UN ambassador “hit Russia hard on Ukraine”—CNN’s headline. Or maybe The New York Times’s report to the effect that “Russia sanctions are firm.” See? Haley is loyally hostile. A breach in a discombobulated administration must be in the offing.
This is what I mean by “created reality.” While repeating the official position as it now stands, Haley said she regretted the incessant hostility of Samantha Power, her impossibly righteous predecessor; supported Trump’s détente line; and urged a settlement in Ukraine according to the 2015 cease-fire accord known as Minsk II. She was perfectly legible on these points. Here is an astute commentary by Alexander Mercouris, an analyst of Greek background who writes often for publications that do not enjoy the imprimatur of the orthodox. If you decline to read such publications, fine: Remain in Washington’s fog on Ukraine if you like.
The fallout since the Trump–Putin exchange and what followed has been considerable, as anyone could have predicted. And from all that has been said, we can infer a couple of other things about Trump.
One, he is not an exceptionalist. This is big, well beyond a conceptual abstraction. In substance, he is likely to oppose imperial adventures—a logical corollary of his “America First” theme. This, too, puts him up against the imperial edifice and all its janitors: the generals, the defense executives, NATO brass, the think-tank set, the press. OK, he has just said in so many words: Let’s see about all these interventions.
Two, as of the morning press programs last Sunday, Trump and Vice President Pence have begun tearing the lid off one of the mythologies that wall in most of the American citizenry. Trump belched in chapel when Bill O’Reilly said on Fox News, “But Putin’s a killer,” and the president replied, “What, you think our country’s so innocent?” Scurrying to avoid this very fine question—I have not yet seen a single reply—the press contorted this matter into one of “equivalence” and America’s “moral superiority,” with Trump and Pence accused of denying the latter.
Who would have expected this?
Some retired general asserted on television afterward that Trump’s remark was the worst thing a president has ever said. Wow. Serious contenders are overlooked, but that is another conversation. One could not disagree with the general more diametrically. It is excellent, excellent, that a president at last puts the question of American innocence—the answer to which must be self-evident—very publicly before us. We as a nation have flinched from this for decades and so landed ourselves in all kinds of disgrace before others. As to “moral superiority,” this is for the record: Americans have no claim whatsoever. Who can take the ensuing outrage seriously? Are we all aging residents in a rest home?
One more matter in this line: “Putin’s a killer.” I do beg pardon. Apart from the sheer nonsense of O’Reilly’s assertion—“Hitler!” seems to have lost its appeal—Americans ought to stay away from this one. How many millions must we—yes, we, all of us—accept responsibility for in this century alone (as compared with how many imperial wars Russia has waged at what human cost)? Bringing it down to the ad hominem, as the press loves to do, how many ticks did our just-departed president make on the assassination lists placed on his desk every Tuesday morning?
Here I have to single out John Dickerson, who, when he is not toasting marshmallows with the rest of his Scout troop, hosts Face the Nation. His grilling of Pence last Sunday was without parallel as measured by shame and shock value. After Pence protested, “There was no moral equivalency in what the president said”—a self-evident point—Dickerson sent my mind back to old footage of the McCarthy hearings: “Do you think America is morally superior to Russia?… But America is morally superior to Russia, yes or no?… Shouldn’t we be able to just say yes to that question, though?… That America is morally superior to Russia?”
What is this? Not journalism, that is for sure. Read the transcript. Everyone has changed places. This is where American liberalism comes out. Behind the insistence on moral superiority—anyone know what that is?—lies the liberal interventionists’ righteous agenda abroad: “regime change,” assassinations, Special Forces deployments, covert operations, and so on—all in the name of doing the good we are on earth to do.
Think about these two things: Since 2001 there has been no substantial break in the premises, direction, or objectives of American foreign policy. In the same period, the American press has eagerly assisted in creating the phantom “realities” necessary to sustain this policy. Shame and banishment for anyone who speaks of reality without quotation marks.
Elsewhere in the news, as they say, there are many other things to think about. For now I will mention two, and briefly.
Trump said he would deep-six the Iran nuclear accord, and he is going to try. The proposal is to renegotiate, as with the North American Free Trade Agreement. Compounding the case, Treasury announced new sanctions a matter of days after Iran conducted another ballistic-missile test late last month. “As of today,” Michael Flynn announced, “we are officially putting Iran on notice.” It has no meaning, as many have remarked, except to notify all that Washington’s longstanding hostility has not gone anywhere.
Not good, but nothing new: This is mere continuity. The Obama administration set about sabotaging its celebrated accord with Tehran as soon as it was concluded. Obama’s people drafted the sanctions just announced. In my read, this question will resolve itself—barring a calamity, of course. Obama and John Kerry, his secretary of state, broke their picks claiming the missile tests violated the nuclear pact and then—second try—an earlier UN resolution. They do not. As to a renegotiation, Iran is on record rejecting the thought, and five other nations are signatories. There’s not a chance in hell they will go back to the table, either. Sooner or later Washington will have to accept, as most others do, Iran’s right to defend itself against a nuclear-armed neighbor governed by, arguably, the most dangerous man in the Middle East.
Across the Pacific, Defense Secretary James Mattis just toured Japan and South Korea and vigorously reassured both of Washington’s continued commitment to the security role it assumed more than 70 years ago. In Seoul, where a proposed missile-defense system is a highly contentious political issue, Mattis was pointed as he urged it upon a nation nervously eager to avoid escalation. Predictable: This is what the Pentagon does, and the Pentagon has run policy in Asia for all of those 70-odd years.
Look a little more closely. Mattis, who famously knows war firsthand, favors diplomacy over it. In this he is a vast improvement over his quietly paranoid predecessor, Ashton Carter, who never missed a chance to sabotage John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts across either ocean. Without saying so, Mattis also countered the reckless threats to China dispensed by Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearings as Trump’s designated secretary of state. For once and for now and maybe not for long, we are marginally better off with the Pentagon running policy across the Pacific.
Mixed picture so far: Some good things in Trump’s foreign-policy chest, some middling things, some bad. Here is what I want to know: Why does one look to a figure such as Donald Trump as the best chance out there for a new direction? Who is responsible for this? Somebody failed to report for duty. Who?