The embarrassing spectacle of recent days, with President Donald Trump splitting with his intelligence agencies and a broad bipartisan consensus in Washington to deny that Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential election, encapsulates an unprecedented array of problems in the making of U.S. foreign policy.
They leave the United States in its most precarious place on the world stage since at least its isolationist days before World War II, with our allies justifiably worried about the future of America’s post-war global leadership and our adversaries in Beijing, Moscow and elsewhere surely eager to fill any vacuum.
Such uncertainty about America’s future, and its dire implications for global peace and regional security, should prompt anyone in an important position – the administration’s foreign policy team, the foreign policy establishment, lawmakers of both parties and opinion leaders – to do whatever they can on two fronts: bolster America’s global standing at a time of mounting chaos, and convince the president that U.S. leadership matters.
For starters, a president who purports to promote an “America First” policy is really promoting a “Trump Only” policy, for he is dangerously alone on not just Russian meddling but on larger U.S.-Russia relations. And that has huge implications for U.S. policy toward Syria, Iran, North Korea and elsewhere.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump said of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with whom he met briefly during his Asia trip. “I asked him again. You can only ask so many times … Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe – I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
Trump later walked back his most outrageous remarks of recent days. But he had first proffered such warm words for the former KGB official and current Russian strongman while disparaging three former heads of U.S. intelligence agencies that confirmed Russia’s meddling, calling them “political hacks.”
A president who trusts a Russian thug over dedicated U.S. public servants won’t grasp the reality that Washington and Moscow don’t share the same goals and, thus, can’t realistically work together to solve key global problems.
Despite Trump’s hopes, Moscow won’t further Washington’s aims in Syria, where Putin will do whatever he must to keep his regional client, Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, in power; or in Iran, with which Putin is working to support their shared goal of protecting Assad; or in North Korea, where Putin is facilitating Pyongyang’s efforts to bypass global sanctions over its nuclear program.
In his confusion about Russia, the president finds himself dangerously alone at home as well, undermining decision-making within the executive branch as well as executive-legislative cooperation over foreign policy.
Normally, U.S. foreign policy flows through the Oval Office, with the president announcing his initiatives, after which his team in the White House, at the State Department and at other agencies carries them out. Aides may privately debate policy beforehand and try to convince the president that they’re right but, once the president pronounces publicly, aides must, and normally do, fall in line.
But under Trump, policymaking is occurring around, and sometimes in spite of, the president. In response to the controversy of recent days, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that he largely ignores Trump’s tweets – “The tweets don’t run my life; good staff work runs it.” – even though they are presidential pronouncements. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s appointee as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, contradicted him the other day by reiterating the CIA’s finding that Russia meddled in 2016.
The comments of Kelly and Pompeo follow a series of like-minded comments over the course of this year from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and other key administration figures who have contradicted or disowned Trump’s pronouncements on various matters.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, bipartisan foreign policy is emerging not along the preferred route of a president working across party lines with the House and Senate. Instead, it’s emerging across the parties in Congress, with lawmakers increasingly united in opposition to Trump’s unorthodox views.
“There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a K.G.B. colonel over that of the American intelligence community,” Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared in response to Trump’s comments. Meanwhile, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Trump’s comments left him “completely speechless.”
With so much at stake, now’s the time for responsible figures in government and on the outside to do their part to reinforce America’s global role – and help mitigate the misguided impulses of an inexperienced president.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director to Vice President Gore, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.