Friday, December 21, 2018

Presidency in a Tailspin by Nicholas Kristoff N.Y. Times

bout 20 years ago, I was in a small plane that was forced to crash-land in Uganda. We knew that we were in trouble and that the pilot had lost control and we assumed the brace position during that terrifying descent — and that’s what the Trump presidency feels like to me today. When Trump took office, one theory was that he would be surrounded by smart people, learn about the issues and grow into the presidency. The other was that he would gradually become more confident and more crazy, and that’s what has happened.
Domestically, we see a series of self-inflicted wounds, from government shutdown threats to the gyrating stock market, to revenue shortfalls, to trade and immigration chaos. But at least domestically a president faces real constraints on policy making. Trump has managed to appoint far right judges and issue regulations undermining the environment and public health, but most of his agenda has been foiled (and he will be even more stalemated domestically by the Democratic House next year). But a president faces fewer constraints internationally, and that’s why Jim Mattis was so important as SecDef. Mattis was a champion Trump tamer, managing to get the president to back away from torture, a military parade, threats to leave NATO, his transgender ban, etc. Most alarming, Trump was pushing the Joint Chiefs a year ago toward military strikes on North Korea, which would have been catastrophic, and Mattis was heroic in resisting them.
So now what happens without Mattis? Yes, it’s reasonable to worry. As Jeffrey Toobin put it, Trump has been found unfit to operate a charity in New York, but is somehow fit enough to hold the nuclear codes.
Mike Pompeo is smart and knows the world, but he is also proving to be a Yes Man rather than one willing to push back. John Bolton is smart and willing to push back, but he’s also extremely hawkish, particularly toward Iran. And Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump’s buddies, would both be happy to have us clash with Iran.
I should say that Trump isn’t crazy to want to pull troops from Syria and Afghanistan; what was crazy was the impetuous way he went about it. In Syria, he is betraying (once again) the Kurds, and in Afghanistan the reports of a pullout may make it harder to reach a peace deal with the Taliban (which should be the all-out focus, since that would be the way to provide for Afghan stability leading to a pullout of U.S. forces).
One open question is how congressional Republicans will react in the coming months, and whether they will show more independence. It was striking that they have been praising Mattis, even as Mattis has been saying that he completely disagrees with the president. The implication is that the congressional G.O.P. completely disagrees with Trump on foreign policy, although of course no one will put it that way. Unfortunately, no one has made money in recent years betting on congressional G.O.P. backbone.

Patrick Chappatte

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