Following the misadventures of our president is something like watching a bad movie in which you know that there is going to be an awful ending but you don’t know just when it will come or exactly what it will be. In watching such a movie, however, one generally has the comfort of knowing that, no matter how terrible the ending, it will not blow up the theater. In Trump’s case, we cannot be so sure, as James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence reminded us this week. Clapper specifically expressed his concern about the President’s access to the nuclear codes.
[If] in a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong Un, there’s actually very little to stop him. The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.
The Trump movie is, to be sure, seldom boring and Trump has done his best to make it entertaining by playing several roles. While not quite the tour de force of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, it is nonetheless something to behold.
In his speech on Afghanistan, Trump essayed the role of George C. Scott in Patton, sternly urging his listeners on to victory. Trump is no Scott, let alone a Patton, but he did his best to capture their spirit while papering over his own doubts and uncertainty:
We will push onward to victory with power in our hearts, courage in our souls, and everlasting pride in each and every one of you.
Putting aside style and histrionics, there was at least some merit to be found in Trump’s Afghanistan speech. His decision to continue and increase United States military presence in that country can be fairly debated, but it was supported by substantial reasons. Indeed, the core of Trump’s analysis was quite similar to that offered in Blog No. 147, “Afghanistan: The Return of the Forgotten War”.
As Trump put it:
[T]he consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists.
A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before Sept. 11. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq….We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.
Trump was also correct in rejecting a timetable for the support he was committing, thus correcting the mistake by President Obama that undermined the effectiveness of the surge he had ordered.
The principle flaw in Trump’s presentation was his repeated promise of “victory,” without defining the term or clearly indicating how it will be achieved, particularly within the limits of the resources that the United States is willing to deploy. It may be more likely that some sort of stalemate is inevitable for a period of years. And while Trump promised “integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome,” it is far from clear what that will mean in practice.
Trump followed the current fashion in rejecting “nation building,” but if Afghanistan is to survive in any satisfactory form, some nation building may be an essential ingredient. Max Boot, writing in the Washington Post, titled his op-ed essay “Back to Nation-Building in Afghanistan. Good,” and argued the point forcefully:
The United States will never achieve any lasting success in Afghanistan unless it can prevail in the inglorious and frustrating business of making Afghanistan’s government work better. These efforts have never received the same level of backing from Washington that combat operations have. The American military has had to take the lead in expanding the Afghan government’s capacity because our civilian agencies have been ineffectual.
Mr. Trump must direct the United States government to do this job better. That is nation-building, but as long as he does it, the president can just call it a “win.”
On balance, far short of Patton, but maybe worth a 3-star review.
Two days later, at a campaign rally in Arizona, Trump delivered a bombastic rant that outdid Broderick Crawford’s portrayal of Willie Stark, the demagogic governor in Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men. Perusing Trump’s Arizona performance one looks in vain to find a single point of substantive merit. Trump attacked the media, Congress, and fellow Republicans while variously attempting to defend his responses to Charlottesville (and misquoting himself in the process), his ill-conceived border wall, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and statues of Confederates heroes. And it all delighted a crowd that, at different points, gleefully chanted some of the unofficial mottoes of last year’s presidential campaign “USA!,” “Drain the swamp!” and “Lock her up!” It is not difficult to see why campaign rallies rank even above Twitter as Trump’s favorite métier.
Hours later, Trump returned to the care of the teleprompter in a speech to an American Legion convention in Reno. Here Trump heralded some bi-partisan legislation intended to improve the performance of the Veterans Affairs Department, and then launched into his appeal for unity, saluting “the common values that unite us.” It was a relatively routine performance that would have generated little attention from the media but for the contrast with what had gone just hours before. Taken together his performances were, as a story in The Hill observed, enough to give the public whiplash. In making his plea for unity, Trump conveniently ignored his own signal contributions as Divider-in Chief, having successfully split apart the country, the Republican Party and even his own White House staff. The hypocrisy of his paean to unity recalled Burt Lancaster’s lecherous preacher, Elmer Gantry, cautioning against “carnal love” — but Lancaster was more convincing.
Finally, on Friday Trump delivered on his promise to take care of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, as he pardoned Arpaio from his conviction for criminal contempt. It was a conviction earned by the sheriff’s refusal to obey a court order protecting the constitutional rights of immigrants (or in Trump’s view, his “just doing his job”). Trump’s action was one that, to say the least, hardly celebrated the “common values” to which he had paid tribute two days before. On the whole, it was another dizzying and depressing week, and there was little reason to hope that the next reel of the movie would be any better.