Incoherence is poison

The United States is objectively no less powerful than it was seven months ago. Its military forces, its economy, even its political system are virtually unchanged in that short period. Only the presidency has changed hands, with all that entails in terms of personnel and policy.

But American capacity to effect the changes Washington wants to see in the world are diminished: it is unable to rally support from China and Russia for strict sanctions on North Korea, it has made no progress in countering Russian aggression in Ukraine (not to mention Moldova and Georgia), the squabble among Gulf countries has limited its ability to push back against expanded Iranian presence and influence in the region, and neither Palestinians nor Israelis are inclined to pay the Americans much mind. Adversaries are defiant, allies are nervous, and those in between are hedging.

This weakness is largely the result of incoherence. It is a rare day that President Trump, Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson, National Security Adviser McMaster, and UN Ambassador Haley are even close to being tuned to the same wave length. Far more often they each go their own way, pushing or denying military options, pursuing or dropping diplomatic initiatives, befriending or criticizing dictators.

Why they say what they do is rarely clear, and when clear often illogical. Why refuse to certify that Iran is complying with a nuclear deal that everyone else in the world (including the professionals who staff the State and Defense Departments as well as the US intelligence agencies) says it is complying with? Is that because there is some unwritten “spirit” of the agreement? Or is it just to have an excuse to go to war? Or maybe it’s just a way of fulfilling an election campaign pledge but shedding responsibility for real action to the Congress, as with the elimination of DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals)? No one knows.

Worse: it has become unknowable. The President disdains logic as much as he does facts. What is the logic of threatening the free trade agreement with South Korea when he needs Seoul on board for whatever he wants to do about North Korea? He reacts, based on instinct, and often in different ways on different days, or even different hours. There is really nothing wrong with instinct, or to put it more accurately with heuristics, rules of thumb based on experience. We all use them, including the wisest among us, despite their well-documented distortions. The trouble is the President has no relevant experience. Nor has he read or studied enough to substitute for his inexperience.

This matters as much in politics as it does in foreign policy. Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan have now been sandbagged (in governmentese that means being surprised by an unexpected and often gratuitous move) more than once by this President. Yesterday, he cut a deal with the Democrats on the budget and hurricane relief that the Republican leadership had publicly stated they would not accept. McConnell and Ryan have thus far not responded in kind. I wouldn’t expect that to last. What goes around comes around.

The one subject on which Washington has reached some limited degree of coherence is, ironically, Russia. Congress reacted to the President’s illogical and seemingly unmotivated affection for Vladimir Putin with sanctions that are coherent and difficult to remove. But that limited coherence of course amplifies the greater incoherence. We still have a president hankering for improved relations with Russia even as the State Department closes down its consulate in San Francisco and orders its diplomats out of the US, in retaliation for a draconian cut Putin ordered in staffing of the US embassy in Moscow.

We’ve also got a President who tells DACA kids how much he loves them and will do something ill-defined for them if Congress doesn’t, while he lets an Attorney General who openly advocates limiting immigration on racial and religious grounds announce that DACA is kaput. Not to mention the presidential pardon for a sheriff who physically abused immigrants, often without regard to whether they were documented or not.

America will be weaker still if Jeff Sessions gets his way and begins to deport those 800,000 productive non-citizens who have spent most of their lives, and careers, in the US. Incoherence is not just dissonance. It will sap America’s strength and render a country founded on admirable principles, but unable to implement them effectively, great only in retrospect. Incoherence is poison. We need to get it out of our system.

 

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