Russia and the United States are now engaged militarily on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, a complicated war zone where a simple miscalculation or bad piece of intelligence could touch off a shooting war between them. Things are even more touchy on the other side of the world, where the United States and a nuclear North Korea are swapping increasingly serious threats of military action that leave neither party with an obvious, peaceful exit path.
“Either China will deal with this problem, or the United States and its allies will,” as Vice President Pence recently warned, adding helpfully that President Trump has already demonstrated a quick trigger finger in Syria and Afghanistan.
Under ordinary circumstances, this would be cause for significant concern. Brinksmanship is a time-honored and often useful tactic, but by its nature it is also inherently dangerous and requires sophisticated and carefully calibrated diplomacy to pull off successfully. Not to worry though. According to White House spokesman Sean Spicer, we’re in capable hands.
“I think when you look at the quality of the national security team that’s surrounding (President Trump) — by all accounts probably the best in our nation’s history in terms of all across the board — you know that the president is getting unbelievably sound and strategic advice on how to protect our national interests,” as Spicer told us in Monday’s press briefing.
Personally, I don’t find that at all comforting. In an administration already infamous for inventing whatever reality it wishes to inhabit, to now be told that its national security team is “by all accounts probably the best in our nation’s history” compounds the sense of unease. Because no: The Trump national security team is by nobody’s account the best, and by most accounts easily the worst in at least the last century of American history. It is a motley collection of fringe characters and smug amateurs chosen not for their wisdom or knowledge but for their sycophantic loyalty to Trump, along with a pitiful few seasoned professionals who are no doubt doing their utmost in the Alice in Wonderland world they are forced to occupy.
— Trump’s first pick as national security adviser was forced to resign after three weeks and is now under criminal investigation for unrevealed financial ties to foreign interests and for possible collusion with Russia.
— His deputy national security adviser is a former Fox News personality and Trump family friend who herself is being pushed out the door because she’s a paranoid fruitcake.
— A few weeks ago, Trump gave a permanent seat on the National Security Council to his top political strategist, a self-indulgent chaos agent by the name of Steve Bannon who believes that the fastest way to make things better is to blow them up. And while Trump was later forced to rescind that official appointment, Bannon continues to attend NSC meetings.
— Trump’s secretary of state is an oil-company executive who didn’t want the job and shows no sign of sudden enthusiasm for its duties, and who has left important leadership posts in the State Department still vacant because really, what could experienced, well-informed and well-trained personnel have to teach someone who is none of those things?
— Trump’s proposed 2018 budget slashes foreign aid and the State Department and just about anything else that might be useful in making progress by non-military means, and instead adds billions to the U.S. military — “my military”, Trump fondly calls it. “It is not a soft-power budget,” bragged Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney. “This is a hard-power budget.” Even the cowboys who ran foreign policy under President George W. Bush are aghast at the rampant militarism.
— In any given hour, Trump’s secretary of state might publicly disagree about policy with his U.N. ambassador who might disagree with his national security adviser who might disagree with his vice president, at least until the president sets them all straight with his latest policy pronouncement via Twitter, at which point the game of telephone begins all over again.
— In defense of that operating style, Trump continues to sell himself as unpredictable, as if it were a conscious, strategic choice on his part. It is not. He is unpredictable because he is incapable of being otherwise, because his personality and short attention span cause him to lurch from position to position based on the last surprising fact or “fact” that he learned. “Unmoored” might be a better adjective than unpredictable.
Again, brinksmanship has its uses. But those uses should be rare, not constant. It should be part of a strategy that is thought through carefully, with full recognition of the many ways it which it might go wrong. It must be run by people who know where the exit ramps are located and are willing to take them. And with this bunch, none of those conditions has been met.