Home / foreign policy / The Great Unravelling? It’s “Lights, Cameras, Action!” again for American Geopolitical Suicide.

The Great Unravelling? It’s “Lights, Cameras, Action!” again for American Geopolitical Suicide.


If you’d asked me about the fate of the American-led international system a few weeks ago, I would have said that Trump has done enormous damage to US leadership and national security, some of that damage is permanent, but much of the infrastructure remains capable of being patched back together.

For example, the longer that Washington is passive or enabling in the face of the rise of right-wing extremism and globalized authoritarianism, the harder it will be to prevent the good parts of liberal order from falling apart. This matters not just in terms of the resilience of western democracies for decades to come, or of the ability of progressives to harness American infrastructural power to realize key policy goals, but also with respect to how dangerous ongoing shifts in global wealth and power turn out to be. We need to avoid a situation where current global and security governance arrangements simply collapse, leaving instability and arms races in their wake. Such conditions would also, I fear, encourage Washington to turn even more to military instruments in an effort to conserve American spheres of influence and global power. Indeed, this is the natural end point of Trump’s policy preferences: major increases in defense spending coupled with diminished capacity for multilateral security cooperation and reduced diplomatic capital.

We’re also losing precious time to deal with the existential threat posed by climate change. The rest of the world is moving forward while keeping the door open for American reengagement, but I am not confident that this will be enough in light of the severity of the threat and the limited window we have to make painful adjustments.

Indeed, if Trump wins reelection, though, that window will close on our ability to deal with a wide range of pressing global challenges. Those allies hoping that the United States will revert to its foreign-policy mean will have to move from contingency planning to active measures to decouple their economic, environmental, and military security. Those seeking exit from liberal order will be emboldened by the success of an ideological ally at the highest levels of American government. And, of course, the United States will face another four years of gross mismanagement.

I still think that this is the case: that 2020 offers a chance to put together a post-Trump international order that secures key American interests and values. But the development of the last few days leave me more pessimistic about what 2019 and 2020 will bring.

First, whatever one things of US involvement in Syria, the decision-making process (I use this phrase loosely) that reportedly led Trump to order American withdrawal should terrify you. Yes, it combines his usual mix of impulsiveness, ignorance, and idiocy. Yes, Trump can’t keep the explanation for his decision coherent for more than twenty-four hours. But also suggests that the guardrails have collapsed.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arranged the Dec. 14 call a day after he had unsuccessfully sought clarity from Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu about Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based.

Pompeo, Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Trump to tell Erdogan to back off, the officials said.

But the officials said Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put U.S. troops at risk, ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan.

The officials said the conversation set off a frantic, four-day scramble to convince the president either to reverse or delay the decision to give the military and Kurdish forces time to prepare for an orderly withdrawal. Trump, however, was unmoved, they said.

“The talking points were very firm,” said one of the officials, explaining that Trump was advised to clearly oppose a Turkish incursion into northern Syria and suggest the U.S. and Turkey work together to address security concerns. “Everybody said push back and try to offer (Turkey) something that’s a small win, possibly holding territory on the border, something like that.”

Erdogan, though, quickly put Trump on the defensive, reminding him that he had repeatedly said the only reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State and that the group had been 99 percent defeated. “Why are you still there?” the second official said Erdogan asked Trump, telling him that the Turks could deal with the remaining IS militants.

With Erdogan on the line, Trump asked national security adviser John Bolton, who was listening in, why American troops remained in Syria if what the Turkish president was saying was true, according to the officials. Erdogan’s point, Bolton was forced to admit, had been backed up by Mattis, Pompeo, U.S. special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey andspecial envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk, who have said that IS retains only 1 percent of its territory, the officials said.

Bolton stressed, however, that the entire national security team agreed that victory over IS had to be enduring, which means more than taking away its territory.

Trump was not dissuaded, according to the officials, who said the president quickly capitulated by pledging to withdraw, shocking both Bolton and Erdogan.

Caught off guard, Erdogan cautioned Trump against a hasty withdrawal, according to one official. While Turkey has made incursions into Syria in the past, it does not have the necessary forces mobilized on the border to move in and hold the large swaths of northeastern Syria where U.S. troops are positioned, the official said.

The call ended with Trump repeating to Erdogan that the U.S. would pull out, but offering no specifics on how it would be done, the officials said.

Second, Mattis’s departure leaves the national-security leadership without serious counterweights to “America First” ideologues.

Mr. Mattis, a retired four-star general, prided himself on spending four decades preparing for war while nurturing the alliances needed to prevent conflict. He was more than the competent grown-up in the Situation Room, quelling talk of unilateral strikes against North Korea. In fact, he was the last senior official in the administration deeply invested in the world order that the United States has led for the 73 years since World War II, and the global footprint needed to keep that order together.

The breaking point was Syria, where Mr. Trump decided over his defense secretary’s objections to pull all Americans troops, and Afghanistan, where the president seems determined to reduce the American presence by half in the next few months. By the time Mr. Trump made clear he would delay those actions no longer, Mr. Mattis was isolated.

He was not alone: Most of the advisers Mr. Trump once called “my generals’’ also believed in the system Mr. Trump has long rejected. And now, headed into his third year in office and more convinced than ever that his initial gut instincts about retreating from a complex world of civil wars and abstract threats was right, Mr. Trump has rid himself of the aides who feared the president was undercutting America’s long-term national interests.

Now the president appears determined to assemble a new team of advisers who will not tell him what he cannot do, but rather embrace his vision of a powerful America that will amass a military that will enforce national sovereignty and bolster American deal-making — but not spend time nurturing the alliance relationships that Mr. Mattis, in a remarkable resignation letter, makes clear are at the core of American power.

To Mr. Mattis, alliances were a force-multiplier. To Mr. Trump, they are mostly a burden.

“I think the question for any future secretary of defense — or any of those going onto the Trump team now — is whether they want to be like Jim Mattis and try to defend the principles he defended, starting with alliances, or get on board with the President’s approach,” Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary, C.I.A. director and White House chief of staff during a long career, said by telephone Thursday night. “While the president tweeted, Mattis went around the world reassuring people that they could wink at the statements and know that America was going to be there to steady the ship.”

Mr. Panetta paused. “Until he couldn’t keep that going any more,” he said.

Third, from Whitaker to DeVos to Carson to Miller, Trump’s team looks increasingly like the motley collection of grifters, charlatans, and ignoramuses that the President is disposed to surround himself with. Even Pompeo, who actually seems to care about the health of the institutions he runs and the interests of the country, often appears pretty out of his depth when it comes to policy concerns. Perhaps that’s because he is, but it may simply be the case that the contortions required to satisfy Trump are just too much for anyone.

Consider the purpose of my last post here: directing some snark at Pompeo’s big speech in Brussels. This speech was supposed to craft a vision of Trump foreign policy that can chart a course forward for the US and it allies. It was, as I understand it, the product of serious intellectual work within Pompeo’s policy team at State. It was a total failure. Stewart Patrick called it “ridiculous.” As Patrick explains in detail, the speech contained not just eyebrow raising ideological claims, but straight-out factual inaccuracies:

Much of Pompeo’s address was a selective and tendentious critique of international institutions that depicts them as invariably antithetical to national sovereignty. Sure, he conceded, the European Union has “delivered a great deal of prosperity to the continent.” But it has since gone badly off track, as the “political wake-up call” of Brexit showed. All this raised a question in his mind: “Is the EU ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats and Brussels?”

The answer, as one listener shouted out, is “Yes!” The secretary, like many U.S. conservative critics of European integration, is unaware that EU member states continue to hold the lion’s share of power in the bloc, which remains more intergovernmental than supranational. Pompeo seems equally unaware of how disastrously Brexit is playing out. With each passing day, the costs of this catastrophic, self-inflicted wound are clearer. In its quest for complete policy autonomy—on ostensible “sovereignty” grounds—the United Kingdom will likely have to accept, as the price for EU market access, an entire body of law and regulations that it will have no say in shaping. So much for advancing British sovereignty.

Pompeo similarly mischaracterizes the World Bank and IMF as having gone badly off track. “Today, these institutions often counsel countries who have mismanaged their economic affairs to impose austerity measures that inhibit growth and crowd out private sector actors.” This is an odd, hybrid critique. It combines a shopworn, leftist criticism from the 1990s—that the international financial institutions (IFIs) punish poor countries with structural adjustment programs—with the conservative accusation that the IFIs are socialist, big-government behemoths. Both are ridiculous caricatures. They ignore how much soul-searching the IFIs have done since the 1990s, as well as how focused they are on nurturing an enabling institutional environment for the private sector in partner countries.

Now, a speech is just a speech. But it illustrates how difficult it is to reconcile Trump’s understanding of the world with anything resembling the facts on the ground. Mattis didn’t really try very hard. Now he’s gone.

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