Presidents rarely campaign for office on fighting wars. Woodrow Wilson initially pledged to keep the United States out of the carnage of World War I and abstained even after the sinking of the Lusitania; he deployed troops only when Germany was caught interfering in Mexico. More recently, George W. Bush scorned overseas nation-building during the 2000 presidential campaign, only for his subordinates to buffalo him into invading Iraq in 2003.
This is why I’ve always been respectfully puzzled at those who pulled the lever for Donald Trump in the hopes of avoiding another war. It’s true that Trump has expressed contempt for America’s involvement in Iraq and Libya, and pledged to stop arming the rebels in Syria. But presidential candidates say a lot of things.
There are more relevant questions here than what bubbles out of Trump’s considerable mouth. Like: Does Trump have a temperament compatible with keeping the peace? Does he have the patience not to go chasing after every monster abroad? Does understand geopolitics? Does he surround himself with levelheaded advisors who will restrain his more belligerent impulses?
So far, so good with the advisors, but the rest of those answers are not encouraging. Even gloomier has been the latest edition of Trumppolitik, set in motion over the past week with a round of calls to world leaders that went catastrophically.
The worst of the worst was Australia, an indispensable ally, whose prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, chatted on the phone with Trump last Saturday. Turnbull is a manicured center-center-center-right type—his American analogue would be someone like Lindsey Graham—so it was always unlikely he and Trump were going to see totally level. But the call, by all accounts, went more calamitously than ever could have been expected, with Trump objecting to a refugee swap that Barack Obama had struck with Australia, Turnbull pushing back, and Trump reportedly hanging up far earlier than scheduled. Trump later infected the injury by commenting that of all his calls that day, Turnbull’s had been “the worst by far.”
So crumble America’s bridge to the Antipodes, even though Australian soldiers are assisting mightily in the fight against ISIS. Trump is hot to counter China, yet so far he’s walked away from the Beijing-deterring Trans-Pacific Partnership and galled a major power in the South Pacific. It pains me to give The Atlantic credit for anything, but their dubbing this the “blunder down under” was perfect.
Other tractor-trailer crashes of diplomacy followed. According to the Associated Press, Trump told the Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto on a call that “I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it,” and by “it,” he meant—quoting the American president talking to the Mexican president—”bad hombres.” Nieto later denied that Trump had threatened to invade Mexico (see, he is anti-war!) but the AP is not exactly a wellspring of fake news. Ask yourself: can’t you just hear Trump saying that? And doesn’t it make sense that Nieto would lie about it given that his approval rating is 12 percent and one reason is the perception that he’s wobbly around Trump?
Is this to be our lives for the next four years? Assaulted by surreal stories with no way of knowing what to believe? Waking up every morning dreading to switch on the TV and learn what he’s done now? Scarcely even noticing the relatively minor flaps that in any other administration would be major ones, like Trump’s ill-conceived military strike in Yemen (still anti-war!), or his whittling away at relations with Iran, improving under Barack Obama, now plummeting back into the hardline abyss thanks to new policies and threats?
This unpredictability from the world’s most powerful country may eventually be seen as a threat in itself. In seeking to nudge our allies, Trump will end up shoving, and they’ll back away, perhaps towards Germany, perhaps towards China, while our enemies notice and aggress.
This is not the ideal start to a peace presidency, wouldn’t you say?