I apologize in advance for writing this piece without a clearly structured set of thoughts for it. But the gnawing gut feeling I have about America’s foreign policy at the moment compels me to jot just a few thoughts into the ether, in the manner of an old-school freeform 2000s-era blog post rather than the op-ed style I’ve become accustomed to writing here.
So, without further ado, let me be frank: I’m scared. And yes, I acknowledge all the privilege that goes into that statement—the fact that immigrants, women, people of color, LGBT people, and others have been frightened and worse since the day Donald Trump rode down that escalator. Acknowledged, heard, and understood. It’s not that I’ve escaped the ire of the alt-right—as a semi-public figure I’ve been subject to death threats and harassment from right-wing trolls as well and insulted for my physical characteristics hundreds of times. But, of course, as a white man I know I can’t intrinsically feel the fear as palpably as someone from the perspective of a more disadvantaged identity. And yes, our democracy is under threat—the guardrails are failing and the president is a basketcase and a would-be despot.
But Trump’s foreign policy issues scare me at a deeper level. That’s because Trump doesn’t really care about foreign policy in a meaningful way; he views foreign relations with the attitudes of a 17th century monarch, and he has surrounded himself with a group of extremely dangerous and corrupt crackpots. This means that, unlike Trump’s domestic policy, Trump’s foreign policy is deeply unpredictable in potentially devastating ways—and as president, Trump has far more powers at his disposal than on the domestic front.
Trump’s choice of John Bolton as national security adviser is of particular concern here. It was an odd choice, especially given that Trump ran for president as an anti-war isolationist with a fondness for Putin and Russia, while Bolton is an aggressive militarist imperialist and noted Russophobe. But then again, Trump ran on a fairly liberal (for a Republican) economic platform before ceding control of his entire domestic economic agenda (outside of trade) to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. While that ironically made Trump’s domestic economic policy vaguely “normal,” if cruel and heartless, it has made his foreign policy a chaos.
Bolton’s instincts on North Korea are militaristic. But Trump loves and feels a personal affinity for Kim Jong Un. So relations with North Korea veer from bizarrely chummy to angry and antagonistic—depending on the day. And we get the spectacle of the president of the United States throwing fellow Americans under the bus in commiseration with the North Korean dictator, even as his actual foreign policy apparatus is headed by a man who would just as soon launch a horrific first strike as blink.
On Iran, the Trump Administration is drumming up for a catastrophic war in a nearly direct repeat of the build-up to the Iraq invasion. The only reason this isn’t being treated with the alarm it deserves (beyond the daily distractions of everything else in Trumpland) is that Trump himself has repeatedly condemned the invasion of Iraq, and seems to have only been ramping up aggression with Iran and scuttling an arms-control agreement with Tehran less out of a direct policy interest than a simple racist desire to undo what his African-American predecessor accomplished. Indeed, Trump is telling people he does not want a war with Iran, generally confusing everyone who works on the issue.
This is more terrifying than Trump’s concerted domestic actions, if only because his domestic actions are predictable. He’s a bigoted would-be tyrant. There are things that can be done to combat that, as long as the opposition party and the legal system remain robust in their resistance.
But there isn’t much that can be done when a careless and decompensating chief executive and a bloodthirsty ideologically misaligned national security advisor are calling the shots on war and peace in a cloud of chaos and distraction.
That should scare all of us, and we aren’t talking about it enough.