As President Donald Trump starts his reelection campaign in earnest, a major segment of his 2020 platform remains ambiguous. In the field of foreign and security policy, the next five or six months present Trump with the last opportunity to become his former self: to reverse some of his many surrenders to the neoconservative agenda, and to repudiate the global strategy of full-spectrum dominance he was elected to disavow. Corrections need to be made, in strategy and personnel, and the value rediscovered—both electoral and intrinsic—of candidate Trump’s noninterventionist, America First approach.
It is uncertain whether Trump will be able to act accordingly. Worse still, it is not clear whether he grasps the necessity of acting decisively and immediately. His last-minute order to cancel U.S. air strikes against Iran on June 20 offered a glimmer of hope.
If Trump grasps that this decision was the “high point of his presidency,” as Fox News host Tucker Carlson called it, then he may also think of a scheme to dismantle the box into which Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and especially John Bolton have tried to push him. His self-liberation should start with the awareness that these three have been goading him into rushed military choices which would have opened a new quagmire abroad and assuredly destroyed his presidency at home.
If Trump does not realize that he is at a crossroads of historic significance, then he will go on granting unwarranted favors to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Ukraine, and others abroad, and to corporate plutocrats and the military-industrial leviathan at home. He won’t seal the Mexican border, either by building his wall (except a few token portions) or by using America’s massive military resources actually to defend America. There will be no complete U.S. withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan. We won’t see improved relations with Russia, not even in obvious areas of common interest like arms control or cybersecurity.
As pointed out by my friend Jim Jatras, a former U.S. diplomat and GOP foreign policy advisor, Trump’s failure to make a fresh start may lead to a major war at some future date, but that has little to do with his reelection chances. “On the border with Mexico,” Jatras told me, “his Deplorable base thinks he’s winning because he tells them so in his tweets and rally speeches.”
As for the rest, nobody much cares either way. Even if in Trump’s inner core—assuming he has one—he wants to do what he pledged in 2016, it’s not clear he would know how to go about it. And even if he did, his appointees are the wrong human material for the job. It would be like trying to install a new plumbing system with an electrician’s toolbox.
Trump’s base would care, and object, if before the election he stumbles into a new war against Iran or some other optional enemy. This he has managed to avoid so far, as the episode of June 20 illustrates, despite having a foreign policy team that rivals the worst of Obama’s in Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, and of Bush 43’s in Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The fire-and-fury bluster in North Korea has yielded to a cold peace and protracted jaw-jaw. The regime-change blitz in Venezuela has fizzled out. Let’s hope that the similar fever pitch on Iran will have followed the same pattern by the time these lines appear.
If cranking up the war rhetoric without the final, fateful follow-through is the best Trump can manage, the danger of his succumbing to the hawks at some future date will remain. On the other hand, if there is a method to his unpredictability, its eventual articulation into a coherent grand strategy may help secure Trump a second term. It would also provide America with five more years of peace, which the country needs to halt her cultural breakdown and moral decline.
The litmus test will be whether Trump fires some of the enemies inside the gates. People are policy, and the mindset of unstable warmongers like Bolton and apocalyptic millenarians like Pence and Pompeo is more perilous than any Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders. They are a real and present threat to America’s constitutional order and global stability. They are intoxicated by power for its own sake and its unhindered exercise, thus sinning against God and man. The end of such mania must be the same as the end of the Soviet empire, or that of the Thousand-Year Reich.
It’s still possible President Trump grasps the magnitude of this threat, but speculating on what he might do in the course of his reelection campaign, let alone in his second term, is an exercise in frustration.
A realist conclusion nevertheless seems clear. If Trump survives the next 15 months in office and wins, at worst what we have seen so far is what we shall get in the ensuing four years. At best he will fight to regain proper presidential authority over the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, and prevail. The odds are roughly 2-to-1. That things could be far worse is more the pity for America and her abiding interest.
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