It keeps getting worse
The problem today is not Charlottesville. The problem is the White House, starting at the top. The President can’t bring himself to denounce white supremacists, or even to say that Nazi flags have no legitimate role in American politics, even if the constitution protects their display. His acolytes likewise willfully ignore white supremacists who have killed many more Americans since 9/11 than Islamist extremists have.
If you put America first and want to protect its citizens, you would deal with the violent protesters in Charlottesville first and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria later. Or at least you would pay some attention to denouncing the thugs who think you are their leader–they gleefully shout “Heil Trump”–and skip the bromides about unspecified violence and vague “unity.”
You would also want to maintain America’s international credibility. Trump has spent the week shredding it. After threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” and claiming we are “locked and loaded,” it appears virtually none of the necessary preparations for military action against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs have been taken. Forces have not been deployed, civilians have not been evacuated, and the Pentagon is denying that the use of force–notably not yet authorized by Congress–is imminent.
To top it off, Trump threatened military action also against Venezuela, where we would almost surely be better off to let nature take its course in ending President Maduro’s shambolic governance.
Trump’s threats are not credible, which means it will be far more difficult to mount a credible threat in the future. We are already at the point that many in the US government are ignoring the president: the Pentagon is not implementing his ban on transgender people, Secretary of State Tillerson is trying to stifle talk of war with North Korea, Republicans in Congress are heading towards a compromise on maintaining Obamacare. Other governments are laughing at Trump’s obsession with undoing whatever his predecessor did. If Trump fails to follow through on his threat against North Korea, and the North Koreans continue to test missiles and nuclear weapons, how much credibility will the United States have in the future?
Of course it is possible Trump will follow this week’s bluster with a cruise missile attack on North Korea, hoping to reproduce the applause he got after the attack on a Syrian air base in April and distract attention from the investigation of Russian interference in the election. But that attack was a one-off that has had little impact. Assad has continued to use small quantities of chemical weapons and to prioritize attacks against the relatively moderate opposition in Syria. A similar one-off against North Korea would predictably have no serious impact on its well-dispersed and hidden missile and nuclear programs.
Nor will many applaud. North Korea might strike back, most likely against Guam, but possibly also against Seoul or even Tokyo. How long do we think America’s friends and allies will remain friends and allies if Washington is seen as having started a war from which they will suffer the most? What are the odds that NATO could be held together once the Europeans conclude the President is rash, unreliable, and likely to provoke adversaries?
The Europeans can be sure of one thing, however: the adversary Trump will never provoke is Vladimir Putin. The reason is increasingly apparent: Russian money sustains Trump’s real estate empire, which was likely used to launder ill-gotten gains of Putin’s best friends. Trump can never turn on Putin, lest Putin pull the plug on Russian financing. This is blackmail, not collusion. We needn’t worry too much about Trump intentionally coming to blows with Moscow, which is using its leverage over the President to gain advantages in Syria.
Can Ukraine be far behind? My guess is that the Administration is busily trying to cut a deal on Ukraine, one that it could argue should lead to lifting of the sanctions on Russia. Fortunately, sharp eyes in Congress will examine any such proposition. It will be difficult for Trump to sell the Ukrainians short, the way he did the Syrian opposition.
The United States matters to friends, allies, and enemies less today than at any time during my lifetime, which corresponds to the entire post-World War II period. The damage to our web of alliances, our international credibility, and our position of leadership in the past seven months is gigantic. Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster are proving incapable of blocking the President from his worst instincts. The only relief will come when Trump is gone. But none of us can tell when that might be. It keeps getting worse.
PS: It got worse within minutes of my publishing this piece. Trump said, in response to a car plowing into peaceful counterprotesters: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.”