The Danger of Making Foreign Policy on the Fly

Trump’s staff turnover makes it impossible to craft a coherent strategy.

As the nuclear clock ticked to the fifty-ninth minute during the Cuban missile crisis, with his military advisors pressing for strikes to take out Soviet missile batteries in Cuba, John F. Kennedy turned to his brother Bobby and said, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [and call it] The Missiles of October.” He was referring to Barbara Tuchman’s iconic book on World War I, The Guns of August, in which she chronicled how the European powers zombie-walked into a conflagration that cost some 20 million lives.

We are saddled today with a commander-in-chief who neither reads nor possesses any sense of history, whose sources of information are confined to popular right-wing media, who has little use for expert advice, and who’s dismissive of process and acts on impulse. Let it be no surprise, then, that his short-sighted actions are zombie-marching us toward conflict with a nation of more than 80 million people, with a capable military adept at asymmetrical warfare.

An armed conflict with Iran would turn into another forever war, a quagmire that would eclipse the mess George W. Bush left in Iraq. It would cost untold casualties, deplete our treasury, and disrupt our alliances and the globe’s oil supplies. Moreover, the damage Trump is already wreaking on our foreign policy through his incompetence will have serious repercussions for the nation’s security for years to come.

Trump’s Rasputin pushing for a military confrontation was, until last week, his third national security advisor in three years: John Bolton. Having dodged military service in Vietnam, like his boss, Bolton had no compunction about sending other people’s loved ones to war. Trump himself once joked that if U.S. foreign policy was decided by Bolton, “We’d be in four wars by now.”

It was, after all, Bolton who pushed the president into authorizing a military strike against Iran in June—aborted at the last minute in a rare grasp of reality by Trump—and Bolton who had earlier pushed his boss into fomenting a failed popular uprising against the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

To his credit, Bolton sought, however futilely, to rein Trump in from his naïve bromance with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un and his comradely devotion to Vladimir Putin. He helped derail Trump’s ill-advised plan to host the Taliban at Camp David on the eve of 9/11. Predictably, Bolton has now joined the swelling ranks of the 78 percent of Trump senior officials forced out of office.

So, what now?

Anything goes, with potential long-term damage to our national security. Here’s why.

Bolton compounded the damage Trump has wrought on the generally well-functioning U.S. foreign policy machine that’s been in place since the Truman administration. The president has displayed very little interest in the counsel of his national security agencies; he bizarrely attacks the intelligence community; and he frequently makes head-snapping policy zig-zags with a flick of his twitter finger. Normal policymaking process is nearly non-existent in this administration.

The best national security advisers have acted as honest brokers in presenting agencies’ views to the president. The adviser normally chairs “principals” meetings of cabinet-level officials to debate policy options and puts together the National Security Strategy, a road map that helps guide policymakers. Bolton helped Trump toss all of this “process” out the window. “I don’t view writing strategy papers as big accomplishments,” he once told an Atlantic reporter. In addition, he virtually scrapped the principals meetings and shut out agencies altogether, instead presenting the president with options that confirmed and advanced his own biased views.

But now that Bolton’s bellicose recommendations have gotten us within a hair trigger’s breath of a shooting war with Iran, Trump, with an eye on the 2020 elections, decided it was time for a change.

Yet with record-level staff turnover, there are now numerous vacancies in the top jobs at the NSC, DHS, DNI, and ICE. Many key second- and third-tier positions remain unfilled. Any of Trump’s foreign policy is made on little more than a whim inside a vacuum. Bluff, bluster, and bullying may yield results in Manhattan real estate, but in statecraft, the consequences can be catastrophic.

For the past seven decades, the Korean peninsula has been like a vat of nitroglycerin. A single rattle can set off a conflagration leading to the death of millions. While episodic diplomatic initiatives over the years have eased tensions somewhat, it has been the unwavering resolve by the U.S., South Korea, and Japan that has kept the monstrous Kim regime in its box. While Trump’s overtures to Kim have opened welcome communications, the latter’s ongoing missile testing and nuclear weapons expansion underscore the continuing risk of war. All it would take is for one of Kim’s missiles to go astray, or some other provocative act to spark a Guns of August-type cascade toward a quickly escalating conflict. Trump, relying solely on his self-regarded personal charisma over process and coordination with allies, could easily make a wrong decision that has massive ramifications.

Likewise, conditions redolent of August 1914 confront us with Tehran—a needless conundrum brought on by the scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal and ramping up of harsh sanctions. The Iranian leadership, facing an existential threat, is lashing out desperately (likely by proxy), as the alleged strike against Saudi oil facilities indicates.

While our capabilities are far greater than Iran’s, a 2002 Pentagon war game showed the U.S. would lose sixteen U.S. Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier, in a war with the Islamic Republic. A land invasion could cost 10,000 U.S. casualties. The closing of the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil supply passes daily, would cripple the global economy. A conflict with Iran would go on for years. To make matters worse, the U.S. could not rely on any of its NATO allies, as it did in the previous Gulf Wars, given our withdrawing from a deal by which Iran was abiding. A group of retired military officers has urged Congress to pass legislation to block the president from attacking Iran without congressional authorization. “We know that war with Iran would require hundreds of thousands of American service members to deploy and could result in even larger numbers of American casualties,” they wrote.

Equally disconcerting, Trump’s lone wolf approach to Russia also carries high risk. As he warms up to Putin, he signals that the U.S. is okay with Russian aggression against Ukraine and Georgia, and its troublemaking in Syria. This soft-pedalling only encourages Putin, who has a temperament closer to that of a czar of yore than a modern-day leader. Should Russia invade a Baltic state, and Washington waffles, it could spell the end of the NATO alliance. Whatever goods Russia’s political-criminal cartel may have on Trump haven’t been revealed. Unless and until they are (it’s bad enough that we have to speculate), he is under few constraints to sell out his country.

This week, President Trump named State Department hostage negotiator Robert C. O’Brien as his fourth national security advisor. O’Brien’s chief accomplishment to date has been the release of a street brawling American rapper from Swedish custody. He is a sober-minded, career attorney whose judiciousness may provide a much-needed steady hand at the helm of national security decision-making. But nothing can compensate for a commander-in-chief whose runaway incompetence is compounded only by his ignorance of history. As Tuchman noted, “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” At no point in its modern history has America made itself so vulnerable.

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.