For the past couple of months, thoughtful people have been quietly worrying that the Trump administration might get us into a foreign policy crisis, maybe even a war.
Partly this worry reflected Donald Trump’s addiction to bombast and swagger, which plays fine in Breitbart and on Fox News but doesn’t go down well with foreign governments. But it also reflected a cold view of the incentives the new administration would face: as working-class voters began to realize that candidate Trump’s promises about jobs and health care were insincere, foreign distractions would look increasingly attractive.
The most likely flashpoint seemed to be China, the subject of much Trumpist tough talk, where disputes over islands in the South China Sea could easily turn into shooting incidents.
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But the war with China will, it seems, have to wait. First comes Australia. And Mexico. And Iran. And the European Union. (But never Russia.)
And while there may be an element of cynical calculation in some of the administration’s crisismongering, this is looking less and less like a political strategy and more and more like a psychological syndrome.
The Australian confrontation has gotten the most press, probably because it’s so weirdly gratuitous. Australia is, after all, arguably America’s most faithful friend in the whole world, a nation that has fought by our side again and again. We will, of course, have disputes, as any two nations will, but nothing that should disturb the strength of our alliance – especially because Australia is one of the countries we will need to rely on if there is a confrontation with China.
But this is the age of Trump: In a call with Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, the U.S. president boasted about his election victory and complained about an existing agreement to take some of the refugees Australia has been holding, accusing Turnbull of sending us the “next Boston bombers.” Then he abruptly ended the conversation after only 25 minutes.
Well, at least Trump didn’t threaten to invade Australia. In his conversation with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, however, he did just that. According to The Associated Press, he told our neighbor’s democratically elected leader: “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
White House sources are now claiming that this threat – remember, the U.S. has in fact invaded Mexico in the past, and the Mexicans have not forgotten – was a lighthearted joke. If you believe that, I have a Mexico-paid-for border wall to sell you.
The blowups with Mexico and Australia have overshadowed a more conventional war of words with Iran, which tested a missile on Sunday. This was definitely a provocation. But the White House warning that it was “putting Iran on notice” raises the question, notice of what? Given the way the administration has been alienating our allies, tighter sanctions aren’t going to happen. Are we ready for a war?
There was also a curious contrast between the response to Iran and the response to another, more serious, provocation: Russia’s escalation of its proxy war in Ukraine. Sen. John McCain called on the president to help Ukraine. Strangely, however, the White House has said nothing at all about Russia’s actions. This is getting a bit obvious, isn’t it?
Oh, and one more thing: Peter Navarro, head of Trump’s new National Trade Council, accused Germany of exploiting the United States with an undervalued currency. There’s an interesting economics discussion to be had here, but government officials aren’t supposed to make that sort of accusation unless they’re prepared to fight a trade war. Are they?
I doubt it. In fact, this administration doesn’t seem prepared on any front. Trump’s confrontational phone calls, in particular, don’t sound like the working out of an economic or even political strategy – cunning schemers don’t waste time boasting about their election victories and whining about media reports on crowd sizes.
No, what we’re hearing sounds like a man who is out of his depth and out of control, who can’t even pretend to master his feelings of personal insecurity. His first two weeks in office have been utter chaos, and things just keep getting worse – perhaps because he responds to each debacle with a desperate attempt to change the subject that only leads to a fresh debacle.
America and the world can’t take much more of this. Think about it: If you had an employee behaving this way, you’d immediately remove him from any position of responsibility and strongly suggest that he seek counseling. And this guy is commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military.