Can Trump Learn?
And is the National Security Council shake-up the beginning of the end for Steve Bannon?
Based on the available evidence, Donald Trump is an odious person, self-absorbed, ethically challenged, and lacking the temperament to be president of the United States. His first two-and-a-half months in office have also demonstrated that he is an awful manager who has surrounded himself with a very mixed bag of advisors that includes some who are corrupt, others who are profoundly misguided, and a couple who may actually be just downright evil. His immigration policies are un-American. His climate policies put the world at risk. His regulatory approach serves only corporate fat cats. His health care initiative was an abject failure. His foreign-policy blunders have been so many and so extreme that they would be an embarrassment to a president who had served two full terms in office.
All this and he and his team are likely involved in the biggest political and spy scandal in American history.
This raises the question: Can it get any worse? Or, alternatively, can it get any better? Is he irredeemable? Or can he learn, and would that help?
This week, we have been offered answers that are marginally encouraging and that are deeply disturbing — which on balance, even Trump critics must admit, is better than usual.
On the positive side, Trump approved a shake-up in his National Security Council that is both welcome and smart. His new national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, has managed to right a significant number of wrongs in the national security structure, and Trump has approved the changes. The most buzzworthy of these is, of course, the fact that Trump’s Rasputin in Steve Bannon, a man who had no business having anything to do with U.S. national security, has been removed from his seat on the NSC. Bannon was incompetent at the job and held (and presumably still holds) views that should have disqualified him from any office at all — from his Islamophobia to his reported anti-Semitism, from his attacks on a free press to his desire to gut much of what is good and essential about the government. He should never have been on the NSC, and, no doubt, Trump probably deserves as much credit for removing such an awful choice as a wife-beater would for no longer abusing his spouse.
That said, he did it. He acknowledged, at least implicitly, a mistake and corrected it. But the other corrections he also accepted — restoring the national security advisor to the position of truly leading the NSC process, restoring more permanent representation on the NSC to the leaders of the military and intelligence communities, and subordinating the homeland security functions within the NSC — were all clearly needed and should be welcome by anyone with U.S. national interests at heart. What they do is restore the national security structure to a more traditional shape and in so doing also show that not only does McMaster have his head screwed on right but that he is deft enough to set a course and implement it. What’s more, he did it in a way that worked, for this administration and for Washington. He kept his head down. He avoided unnecessary publicity. He did not embarrass his boss. And he got it done. He was advertised as one of Trump’s “grown-ups” and a man who could speak truth to power — and he is living up to his billing. The changes that have been put in place are sound. But more encouraging is that apparently someone in charge of this policy process is the kind of smart professional we need.
It should be noted that this view is supported by other moves he has made, from the easing out of Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland to a number of solid hires he has made from the best and brightest of the mainstream Republican policy community. In a White House that has thus far offered up a choice between dangerous chaos and a public relations clown show, this is refreshing. But given the stakes involved, it is also comforting.
Of course, the key to a functioning NSC process is a president who respects it. And nobody knows whether Trump will respect Wednesday’s personnel changes. He is a mercurial man who makes impulsive decisions and then tries to correct them with other impulsive decisions. He cannot do that here. He must let the process work, develop policy options for him, brief him, and he must listen and take advice. There’s very little evidence that he has ever done that well in his life. But the first step is acknowledging he has a problem, which he seems to have done Wednesday — so we can hope (even if we remain deeply skeptical).
That said, at the end of the day, process is only part of the equation. Personalities, as noted above, for better or for worse, are part of it. (Bannon has to be kept from establishing an “informal” back channel. Overdependence on presidential son-in-law and “Secretary of Everything” Jared Kushner also remains extremely worrisome; it is unlikely a team of George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Henry Kissinger could handle the agenda he has been asked to handle with the kinds of day-to-day responsibilities and lack of staff, not to mention lack of knowledge, that constrain him.) But, of course, policies matter, too. And this week we have seen yet again that the Trump administration lacks a coherent foreign policy and that where there are hints of one, they are disturbing.
Most administrations struggle with foreign policy in their early days. Some, like the George W. Bush administration, are shocked into shaping one. Others, like the Barack Obama administration, start out with a “not what the last guy was doing” sort of policy. Mostly though, they try things, make a mess, see who emerges as leaders on their team, and take a while to get their footing and establish the doctrines and parameters that then define them and upon which the world can depend. (Often I think, there is less coherence than policy pros or analysts will admit, even late in administrations. Governments are often about reaction and seldom have the time or the inclination to really fit all the pieces of the foreign-policy puzzle together. So they end up being defined by a few key traits — Obama’s caution, Bush’s unilateralism, etc. — that oversimplify and don’t prove helpful for anyone except pundits lacking imagination.)
With Trump, there is certainly a “not what the last guy was doing” element to things associated with relaxing constraints on the military and intelligence community in the Middle East, giving them more autonomy (and producing the kind of collateral damage and civilian casualties that have gone along with that). There also have been things that were pure Trump: bluster and the failed immigration and “Muslim ban” initiatives, bungled relations with allies, tough talk on NATO and China that had to be walked back, and so on. Sending mixed signals has been another pattern. Trump tweets. James Mattis and Nikki Haley offer different views. Rex Tillerson runs the gamut of responses from a whisper to his typical “in space, no one can hear you scream” silence. (The North Koreans are no doubt still trying to figure out his “I’m done talking about this” reaction to their missile launch this week.) And always, eventually, Sean Spicer spins. Badly. With his nervous smile and sweaty upper lip. And all that is a sign not so much of a foreign policy as a lack of one.
There are some clear trends. Trump likes deals. He likes “winning.” He seeks “victories” that he can crow about. And he really is not bogged down by scruples or ideals or values. The celebration this week for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi underscored that we are very unlikely ever to hear this administration use the term “human rights.” They just don’t seem to care. (See Trump’s willingness to embrace Vladimir Putin; his early tolerance, wavering this week for the cameras, of Bashar al-Assad; his past dealings with hoods and crooks and potentates.) This approach goes beyond the pragmatism of realpolitik. It is a purely transactional foreign policy driven by a president asking, “What’s in it for me?” In honor of its author, let’s call it: dealpolitik.
This approach will be welcomed by visitors like Chinese President Xi Jinping who will no doubt promise investment in the United States; give Trump the photo op he wants; toast his colleagues when human rights never come up; offer some vaguely worded reassurance that they’ll work together on North Korea; marvel at the vulgarity of Mar-a-Lago; and then go home with a smile on his face, confident that his role as the most powerful person in the world is not at risk.
As foreign-policy stances go, it’s crass and unlikely to get much for the United States. But it will make some allies (the more autocratic ones) and some rivals (from Russia to China) absolutely delighted. And that may actually strengthen some relationships and avoid conflicts with others. It may also lead to the United States getting played and plenty of situations worldwide deteriorating because of lack of American interest and engagement and moral fiber or standing. But Trump won’t care much because they won’t report that stuff on Fox & Friends.
This is what we have learned so far. But of course, given the volatility of the president, we don’t know if this is progress toward something consistent or just a pattern we are pretending to see in the entrails of Team Trump’s first 10 weeks of activity. We don’t know if Bannon has really been contained by McMaster or whether this is all just sleight of hand and he’ll remain the bwuhaha-ing power behind the throne. We don’t know if McMaster can impose some discipline over the long haul on his thus far spectacularly undisciplined boss. We don’t know if members of the Trump team — from Paul Manafort to Carter Page to Michael Flynn to Kushner to Trump himself — will end up in the big house. But you see, to the rest of the world, that is all at the margins. Life goes on. Heads of state visit and get embarrassed (if they are our allies) or pleased (if they are not). And, as Trump is discovering, when you are president, foreign policy happens whether you are ready for it or not.
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