No Trump Card

It’s probably a given that Donald Trump believes that everyone thinks about Donald Trump all the time. He’s that kind of guy, or it’s his last name – he trumps everyone else. But the name is an accident – he’s just the multimillionaire son of another multimillionaire New York City real estate tycoon – and his German grandfather, Frederick Trump, actually had the name Drumpf. You’d change that too, and Trump was close enough. The family probably didn’t mean anything by it. Or maybe they did.

And of course now with the success, of sorts, of Donald Trump’s television show, The Apprentice, the guy is exploring running for president. And it’s the premise of the show that drives this. You know, bust your butt and sabotage the completion – take no prisoners – and prove you’re the best at some business venture Trump dreams up, or hear the dreaded words – You’re fired! And it’s clear that he doesn’t like thoughtful people, or team players, or even nice or courteous people – he likes winners. And he is not shy about telling this or that hopeful that they’re a pathetic loser – he picks winners and humiliates losers, on national television. So people watch to see who will cut the other guy’s throat, figuratively, and be that last man standing, and thoroughly approved by Donald Trump, and get a minor job with Trump, for now. That’s the prize. And that is why he wants to be president. That’s the way America works, or should work. So it’s just a matter scaling up the television show – that’s how he sees the president’s job, reward the cutthroat winners and humiliate the pathetic losers. Everyone in America wants to have him do that same sort of thing on the national and international stage, or so he maintains.

But as much as it must puzzle him, it seems everyone does not think about Donald Trump all the time. It’s not that Americans don’t love sneering and dismissive authoritarians who love to humiliate others – that’s why we loved George Bush – it’s just that the next election seems a long way off and there are other things to worry about right now. So Trump is out there to remind them of his world view – he appears at Tea Party gatherings and spoke at that CPAC thing and he’s spent endless hours on Rush Limbaugh’s show. For those who believe all of politics and public policy is about humiliating others, and kicking them when they’re down, he’s your man. He’s just reminding everyone he’s out there, if you need someone to sneer for you, as your president. He will, if he’s elected, use those magic words over and over – You’re fired! He’ll just use those words on foreign heads of state, and teachers and the ACLU and scientists who shove that damned data at us about climate change, and so on and so forth. There must still be enough frustrated and resentful folks out there who love authoritarian bullying that he has a chance.

NBC thought so and booked him on the Today Show, where he gave this interview that was about how he’d like to use those magic words on Obama – You’re fired! It was the Libya thing. Obama had it all wrong. Muammar el-Qaddafi is a terrible person, so the obvious thing to do is send in massive ground forces, lots of troops, and tell Qaddafi he’s fired. We just invade, and flood the place with troops, guns blazing, and wipe out the bad guys’ forces entirely – and then we accept the praise and thanks of the locals and get out quickly. He wasn’t asked about how that worked out in Iraq, as that had been the plan there. But heck, he’s not a declared candidate yet – he’s just testing the waters, so to speak. And course it may well be that he’s not serious about the presidency at all, and this is just his way of promoting the new season of The Apprentice – really clever marketing. This is the man who would tell Obama he’s fired – tune in tonight at nine.

But Trump is not all that crazy. The New York Times reports here that the Obama administration has committed itself to a policy of regime change in Libya, and is now quite publicly contemplating military action – “The administration [has] declared all options on the table in its diplomatic, economic and military campaign to drive Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power.” And all the talk is about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya – as if that’s an incremental and moderate step. But Defense Secretary Gates did clarify to Congress that a no-fly zone “begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.” And of course you need to destroy the infrastructure that supports those air defenses – knock out the power so they cannot run, and take out the nation’s communications systems at all levels, so they cannot talk to each other. And that sure sounds like an act of war.

And in Foreign Policy, Paul Miller says Obama lip-syncs a neocon tune on Libya:

On first glance, the move appears to represent a dramatic departure for the Obama administration and, indeed, U.S. foreign policy. Until now the United States did not have a policy of overthrowing governments solely because they violated human rights. If we did, we would be at war with half the world, starting with China. Not even the neoconservatives at their most bellicose had such grand ambitions.

There aren’t enough trump cards in our deck for that, of course. And only Dick Cheney had the dream of traveling the world and saying to most every government that now and then irradiated him – You’re fired! And Miller says Obama probably isn’t thinking that way anyway:

More likely, Obama is moving against Libya because Qaddafi’s actions have shocked the world’s conscience and Obama felt the United States, as leader of the free world, ought to act.

In other words, his attempt to overthrow the Libyan government is not a principled stand for liberty; it is an opportunistic attempt to stay in the good graces of world opinion. It is otherwise unclear what U.S. interests Obama thinks are at stake in North Africa that would justify military force and regime change. It cannot be human rights: nothing in the administration’s record would suggest it values human rights highly enough that their violation would prompt the overthrow of a government.

But Miller adds this caveat:

Don’t get me wrong: toppling autocrats is a fine policy, in the cause of which sanctions, freezing assets, rhetorical support, even limited material support to the rebels and protesters is understandable, but I see no justifiable cause (yet) to get involved militarily.

This is not a job for Donald Trump, you see. But still, Miller is unhappy:

Equally worrying is the administration’s apparent beliefs about how to wield military force. Again, according to the Times, “Officials in Washington and elsewhere said that direct military action remained unlikely, and that the moves were designed as much as anything as a warning to Colonel Qaddafi and a show of support to the protesters.”

In other words, the United States will pretend to threaten a military option in the hopes that Qaddafi, whom the administration apparently believes has the guile of Forrest Gump, will not read the New York Times, not call our bluff, and will obligingly surrender without a shot fired. Whoever suggested this policy option did not study Qaddafi, failed to war-game what happens after he calls our bluff, and has forgotten the Kosovo War and Milosevic’s stubborn refusal to follow our script.

So it comes down to this:

The administration looks to me like it is being driven by the CNN effect. Libya is in the headlines, dramatic events are afoot, so the administration believes it must do something, it must act, probably to demonstrate resolve, or exercise leadership. It isn’t leadership to let the media drive your foreign policy. If the exact same thing were happening right now in Equatorial Guinea, no one would care and we would not be contemplating a no-fly zone.

And that is just not a good situation:

The administration is blundering into an unnecessary crisis, setting unrealistic expectations about our ability to drive events in Libya, and exposing itself to the dangers of unplanned escalation and mission creep. If we’re to have a grand strategy centered on building the liberal democratic peace – which is not a terrible idea – it should start from more considered reflection, not lurching overreaction to a crisis over which we have little control. Secretary Gates, ever the pragmatist, appeared to be walking back the administration’s aggressiveness on Wednesday morning. He is probably aware that using foreign policy to bolster one’s public standing has a venerable pedigree, but that does not make it wise.

And David Sanger and Thom Shanker in the New York Times cover that:

With rebels in Libya calling for Western airstrikes on forces supporting Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates warned Congress on Wednesday that even a more modest effort to establish a no-flight zone over Libya would have to begin with an attack on the country’s air defenses and would require “a big operation in a big country.”

Mr. Gates’ caution illustrates the chasm between what the rebels and some leading members of Congress are calling for and what President Obama appears willing to do in Libya. Mr. Obama and his aides have argued that it is not yet clear that the insurgents need the help – and they have warned that the use of American airpower could fuel the arguments of those in the Middle East who see a Washington conspiracy behind homegrown uprisings.

This is trickier than Donald Trump could ever imagine:

But over the past day or two, American military officials, even while positioning ships off Libya, have warned that a no-flight zone would not be as antiseptic as it sounded, and that the diplomatic and international political hurdles would be difficult to overcome. It is unclear if it would require an authorization from Congress to use force, the first since the authorization to use force against Iraq passed nearly a decade ago, or authorization by the United Nations.

Such authorization is missing from the United Nations Security Council resolution passed last week, and so far there is no movement in the Council to toughen that resolution.

No one likes giving us a blank check anymore – once burned and all that. And Gates is wary too:

Gates, the most prominent Republican in the administration, was even blunter than usual as he approaches the end of his time in office. His testimony came days after he gave a speech warning that America should avoid another big, intractable land war like those under way in Iraq and Afghanistan. His testimony on Wednesday before the House Appropriations Committee was given just as Libyan forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi bombed insurgents outside of Tripoli.

“Let’s just call a spade a spade,” Mr. Gates said. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.”

And where that leads is the problem, of course. And Obama is stuck:

Now the White House finds itself caught between Mr. Obama’s own sense of caution and critics on both the left and the right – who believe that the president should be more forceful in aiding the rebels, protecting the population and helping engineer Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster. His aides have said that any overt American military intervention could play into Colonel Qaddafi’s narrative that the uprising is a Western-led plot to occupy Libya and seize its oil.

Many instinctively want to do the Trump you’re-fired thing – humiliate the guy – but the cost is high:

“There’s a great temptation to stand up and say, ‘We’ll help you rid the country of a dictator,'” one senior administration official said, insisting on anonymity because of the delicacy of the discussions. “But the president has been clear that what’s sweeping across the Middle East is organic to the region, and as soon as we become a military player, we’re at risk of falling into the old trap that Americans are stage-managing events for their own benefit.”

And the no-fly-zone thing isn’t as easy as folks think:

Officials interviewed said they believed that Colonel Qaddafi – who has been defiant during the crisis – would actively oppose a no-flight zone, perhaps even firing on American or other Western aircraft. That would force the West to respond with attacks on Libya’s surface-to-air missile sites, air defense radars and combat aircraft. The whole operation would require hundreds of aircraft, based on American aircraft carriers and perhaps neighboring NATO countries. Even though Libya’s air force would be no match for American piloting skills and warplanes, Libya’s Soviet-designed surface-to-air missiles present a significant risk. During the 1986 bombing of Tripoli, at least one American plane was shot down.

American air patrols to impose no-flight zones over northern and southern Iraq, and across the former Yugoslavia, have proved effective at preventing dictators from using warplanes to bomb civilian populations. Yet doing what the rebels asked for – a bombing campaign – would be even more complex, with the possibility of significant civilian casualties.

But shouldn’t the president show some leadership here, and make us the good guys? Jonah Goldberg thinks so:

Another oddity, particularly given Obama’s high regard for the power of his own rhetoric, is that you’d think he’d be looking for ways to take credit for, and guide, the forces of reform in the region.

Daniel Larison wonders about that:

It seems to me that this gets to the heart of what bothers so many people, especially conservatives, about Obama’s response to events in Libya. For them, American Presidents are supposed to want to exploit, appropriate, and control foreign political crises. Not doing this amounts to “dithering” or “failing to lead.” It may be that it really doesn’t occur to these critics that it is not the responsibility of the President of the United States to take credit for political forces that have nothing to do with him, much less to guide the political development of other countries.

And Andrew Sullivan adds this:

This is indeed the core of one deep disagreement about this presidency. What I find refreshing about Obama is precisely his understanding that, even if he were in some way responsible for enabling the Arab 1848, he knows it would be counter-productive to say so. Yes, he made a speech in Cairo calling for more democracy a year or so before the uprising. More important, his very election and outreach to the Muslim world detoxified the West’s image in the Arab world in a way that probably helped the next generation to be less distracted by the usual anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel rhetoric and more focused on their own governments’ responsibility for the backwardness and stagnation of the region. (He has failed in one area only in this respect: saving Israel from its slow suicide. But one suspects he is biding his time in exactly the same way. Only when Israelis realize he is right will his vision come to fruition. Right now, they prefer fear to hope.)

What’s striking about Obama is his willingness not to take credit, not to constantly mouth off every news cycle, not to “guide” forces that need to reach their own conclusion first. Part of this restraint comes from the huge damage the previous administration did to America’s hard and soft power – by demonstrating hard power’s profound limits in Iraq and Afghanistan and wrecking the West’s moral standing by embracing torture. But part is also in his nature.

No sudden moves. He waits until those he needs to engage have played their hand. Then he moves. And not before.

But Donald Trump would probably fire him for that. He who hesitates is lost, or is a pathetic loser. Everyone knows that is true.

But the funny thing is that this has never been true in matters of any complexity at all. It’s only true on Donald Trump’s television show. Life isn’t like that, and that Trump fellow with the odd hairdo may not have the appropriate transferrable skill set for much of anything but being arrogant and buying and selling real estate. Maybe that’s all Americans have done for the last decade or two, but that’s probably not something we should scale up. There is no trump card in this case.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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