The Guns of This August

Don’t go to Paris in August. The place isn’t the same. Everyone’s on vacation – the French folks have left the city for the beaches down south, or up in Normandy. There’s good surfing in Biarritz and there’s the French side of the Alps and campgrounds from Brittany to Provence. There’s no one in Paris. The good places are all closed for the month. Only the tourist traps are open – or definitely go to Paris in August. You won’t have to deal with any pesky French people. Everyone’s speaking English – or Japanese. It’s like being at Disney World – with better architecture – but be sure to leave before La Rentrée. That’s when everyone comes back from their month off and Paris kind of reopens for business – the reentry. Real life resumes in September.

It’s not so here. America is always open for business. Only fools take vacations – Americans don’t. We’re morally opposed to the whole concept of vacation, or afraid our job will be gone when we return – but we do get the idea that not much happens in late summer. Congress does its French thing, taking a six-week recess even if August has only four weeks. They’ve left town.

They get it, but Donald Trump was once morally opposed to the whole concept of vacation, as Jay Willis notes here:

“Don’t take vacations. What’s the point? If you’re not enjoying your work, you’re in the wrong job,” said Donald Trump knowingly in 2004. “Barack Obama played golf yesterday. Now he heads to a 10-day vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Nice work ethic,” observed Donald Trump sarcastically in 2010. “President Obama is about to embark on a 17-day vacation in his ‘native’ Hawaii,” exclaimed Donald Trump incredulously in 2013. “I would not be a president who took vacations,” promised Donald Trump confidently in 2015.

Chris Cillizza notes how things have changed:

President Donald Trump departed the White House on Friday for a 17-day working vacation at his golf club in New Jersey.

Trump’s vacation, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes, is twice as long as the vacation President Barack Obama took to Martha’s Vineyard in his first year in office – and will mean Trump has spent 53 “leisure” days through August 2017 as compared to 15 for Obama through August 2009.

Cillizza, however, wants to cut the guy some slack:

The reason Trump made such a big deal about Obama’s vacations – and golf habits – was because it worked for his own political interests at the time. The Republican base thought Obama was lazy, distracted and ineffective. That he took vacations – and to liberal enclaves like Martha’s Vineyard!!! – played perfectly into that perception.

For Trump, attacking Obama on vacationing was the equivalent of crushing a hanging curveball deep into the left field stands. It was there. So he swung at it. Hard. Again and again.

Ditto Trump’s campaign promise not to take vacations. He was running as the anti-Obama, the tough-talking, hard-deal-making business guy who knew how to run things – not the professor-turned-community-organizer who thought more government was the answer to anything and everything.

If Obama vacationed, Trump wouldn’t. Period.

Like many things Trump says, he didn’t actually mean he wasn’t going to take vacations. Just like he didn’t actually mean he wasn’t going to play golf. He believed it all at the time. But that time is not now.

Thus everyone should relax:

Because of Trump’s hypocrisy on the whole vacation thing, we’re not going to hear the last of the politics of vacation for, at least, four years. But can we make both candidates for president the next time around sign some sort of pledge not to make an issue of the other one going on vacation? Everyone needs it!

That’s fine, and the guy does need a vacation. Jonathan Chait points out that President Trump’s approval rating has dropped by about one percentage point per month and now sits in the mid-thirties, and at the current rate, it would hit zero in September 2020 – which Chait admits is absurd, because political trends are never linear. Still. Chait argues that Trump’s presidency has already collapsed:

Trump’s administration had, through most of July, managed to hold together some basic level of partisan cohesion with a still-enthusiastic base and supportive partners in Congress. This has quickly collapsed.

Signs of the disintegration have popped up everywhere. The usual staff turmoil came to a boil in the course of ten days, during which the following occurred: The president denounced his own attorney general in public, the press secretary quit, a new communications director came aboard, the chief of staff was fired, the communications director accused the chief strategist of auto-fellatio in an interview, then he was himself fired. Meanwhile, the secretary of State and national-security adviser were both reported to be eyeing the exits. (Against this colorful backdrop, the ominous news that Robert Mueller had convened a grand jury barely registered.)

But wait, there’s more:

More disturbingly for Trump, Republicans in Congress have openly broken ranks. When the Senate voted down the latest (and weakest) proposal to repeal Obamacare, Trump demanded the chamber resume the effort, as he has before. This time, Republican leaders defied him and declared the question settled for the year. When the president threatened to withhold promised payments to insurers in retribution, Republicans in Congress proposed to continue making them. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley, responding to the president’s threat to sack Jeff Sessions, announced he had no time to confirm a new attorney general. Many Republican senators have endorsed bills to block the president from firing the special counsel.

But wait, there’s more:

The most humiliating rebuke came in the form of a bill to lock in sanctions on Russia, passed by Congress without the president’s consent. The premise of the sanctions law is that Congress cannot trust the president to safeguard the national interest, treating him as a potential Russian dupe. It passed through both chambers almost unanimously. Trump delayed signing the bill for days, then submitted to its passage in the most begrudging fashion possible, releasing a statement that reads less like something a president would publish to commemorate the signing of a law than a petulant handwritten note a grounded teen might tape to the bedroom door. “Congress could not even negotiate a health-care bill after seven years of talking,” wrote the president of the United States. “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected.”

But I built a great company worth many billions of dollars! But I built a great company worth many billions of dollars! So what? That was pathetic. Republicans said nothing about this, probably because they were embarrassed for him, or embarrassed by him, but there’s more:

During his very brief tenure as communications director, Anthony Scaramucci blurted out something very telling: “There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president.” The conviction that Trump is dangerously unfit to hold office is indeed shared widely within his own administration. Leaked accounts consistently depict the president as unable to read briefing materials written at an adult level, easily angered, prone to manipulation through flattery, subject to change his mind frequently to agree with whomever he spoke with last, and consumed with the superficiality of cable television. In the early days of the administration, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then–Homeland Security Director John Kelly secretly agreed that one of the two should remain in the country at all times “to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House,” the Associated Press reported recently.

And the insurrection appears to be creeping outward. When Trump tweeted that he would ban transgender Americans from military service, the Defense Department announced there had been “no modifications to the current policy” and that, “in the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.” When Trump gave a speech to police urging them to rough up suspects, several police chiefs and even the head of his own Drug Enforcement Agency registered their public objections. The accretion of these acts of defiance is significant. The federal government has flipped on its chief executive.

Chait lays it all out in a few brief paragraphs and sees this:

Barring resignation or removal from office – which would require the vote of a House majority plus two-thirds of the Senate – we are stuck with a delegitimized president serving out the remaining seven-eighths of his term.

No wonder the guy needs a vacation, to do the impossible, to regroup, but there’s Robin Wright in The New Yorker with this:

I asked top Republican and intelligence officials from eight Administrations what they thought was the one thing the President needs to grasp to succeed on the world stage. Their various replies: embrace the fact that the Russians are not America’s friends. Don’t further alienate the Europeans, who are our friends. Encourage human rights—a founding principle of American identity – and don’t make priority visits to governments that curtail them, such as Poland and Saudi Arabia. Understand that North Korea’s nuclear program can’t be outsourced to China, which can’t nor won’t singlehandedly fix the problem anyway, and realize that military options are limited. Pulling out of innovative trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will boost China’s economy and secure its global influence – to America’s disadvantage. Stop bullying his counterparts. And put the Russia case behind him by cooperating with the investigation rather than trying to discredit it.

Good luck with that:

Trump’s latest blunder was made during an appearance in the Rose Garden with Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on July 25th. “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah,” Trump pronounced. He got the basics really wrong. Hezbollah is actually part of the Lebanese government – and has been for a quarter century – with seats in parliament and Cabinet posts. Lebanon’s Christian President, Michel Aoun, has been allied with Hezbollah for a decade. As Trump spoke, Hezbollah’s militia and the Lebanese Army were fighting ISIS and an Al Qaeda affiliate occupying a chunk of eastern Lebanon along its border with Syria. They won.

But wait, there’s more:

The list of other Trump blunders is long. In March, he charged that Germany owed “vast sums” to the United States for NATO. It doesn’t. No NATO member pays the United States – and never has – so none is in arrears. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, in April, Trump claimed that Korea “actually used to be part of China.” Not true. After he arrived in Israel from Saudi Arabia, in May, Trump said that he had just come from the Middle East. (Did he even look at a map?) During his trip to France, in July, the President confused Napoleon Bonaparte, the diminutive emperor who invaded Russia and Egypt, with Napoleon III, who was France’s first popularly elected President, oversaw the design of modern Paris, and is still the longest-serving head of state since the French Revolution (albeit partly as an emperor, too). And that’s before delving into his demeaning tweets about other world leaders and flashpoints.

This is not good:

“The sheer scale of his lack of knowledge is what has astounded me – and I had low expectations to begin with,” David Gordon, the director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff under Condoleezza Rice, during the Bush Administration, told me.

This guy really needs a vacation to regroup, which is clearly impossible, and Jonathan Chait sees trouble ahead:

Trump’s obsession with humiliation and dominance has left him ill-prepared to cope with high-profile failure. He seems unlikely to content himself with quiet, incremental bureaucratic reform.

And yet it is difficult to see what Trump can do to reverse the situation. His next major domestic-agenda item, a regressive tax cut, is highly unpopular. He has inherited peace and prosperity. Nobody in the administration has been indicted. It is far easier to imagine conditions changing for the worse than the better.

That leaves this:

Trump could regain public standing through the rally-round-the-flag effect that usually occurs following a domestic attack or at the outset of a war. A miniature version of that dynamic was on display in April, when Trump launched a small missile strike on Syria, garnering widespread praise in the media for his newfound stature. The 9/11 attacks elevated George W. Bush’s approval ratings for three years, long enough for his party to gain seats in the 2002 midterms and for Bush, two years later, to win what is still the Republican Party’s only national-vote plurality victory since 1988.

Expect the same:

Trump’s authoritarian tendencies make the prospect of his rebuilding his legitimacy on the basis of security especially dangerous. The number of Republicans who see Trump as a strong leader has dropped by 22 percentage points since January. Trump’s opportunity lies in exploiting fear to demonstrate strength.

Expect war:

After 9/11, Democrats and the mainstream news media, harking back to the national unity that prevailed after Pearl Harbor, demonstrated their patriotism by supporting their president almost unquestioningly. That choice allowed Bush to escape scrutiny for policies that may have helped enable the attacks to happen. (Before, his administration had deemphasized the fight against Al Qaeda.) Bush’s ground-zero halo gave him a presumption of competence as commander-in-chief that enabled him to launch a war without planning for the occupation. It mostly survived the revelations of the 9/11 Commission Report three years later and did not fully dissipate until the Iraq War occupation had unmistakably descended into a quagmire.

Or don’t expect war:

The ability of a president to gain popularity by launching (or suffering) an attack is not a law of nature. It reflects, in part, choices – by the opposition to withhold criticism and by the news media to accept the administration’s framing of the facts at face value. A chaotic, still-understaffed administration led by a novice commander-in-chief who has alienated American allies deserves no benefit of the doubt. Everything from Trump’s incompetent management of the Department of Energy, which safeguards nuclear materials, to the now-skeletal State Department, to his blustering international profile has exposed the country to an elevated risk of a mass tragedy. A long-term task of the opposition is to prevent the crumbling presidency from transmuting that weakness into strength.

That might work. A stunningly incompetent novice commander-in-chief who has alienated everyone in the world but Sean Hannity doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt – unless he does.

That’s what worries Slate’s Josh Keating, who adds this perspective:

In Barack Obama’s second term, when his domestic agenda was largely blocked by congressional opposition, he increasingly focused on foreign-policy projects. 2015 alone saw a thaw in diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Paris Agreement on climate change…

The reasons for this are obvious. Presidents take office having campaigned on domestic bread-and-butter issues that matter more to voters and therefore focus more on those issues at the outset. Woodrow Wilson, who is today overwhelmingly remembered for his role in World War I and its aftermath, but who campaigned as an economic reformer, remarked before his inauguration in 1913 that it “would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” But sooner or later, presidents find that they have much more freedom to act without interference from Congress in matters of war and peace. There’s also research suggesting that foreign policy success – particularly military success and the resulting boost in popularity – can help a president to get prized legislation through Congress.

So this is a second-term thing, but not with Donald Trump:

There hasn’t been a modern president who has run his domestic agenda into the ground as quickly as Trump has or one as impatient for quick wins. With nothing doing on Capitol Hill, Trump may increasingly start looking for successes overseas.

Trump has already found Obama’s foreign policy initiatives easier to undo than this domestic ones: Contrast the agonizing Obamacare repeal fight with the ease with which Trump removed the U.S. from the Paris climate accords, reinstated the anti-abortion Mexico City policy, and partially rolled back the opening to Cuba.

Now Trump may have something more ambitious in mind, which is where things get troubling.

That’s the worry:

It’s theoretically possible that Trump’s big foreign policy initiative could take the form of a diplomatic agreement, but it seems unlikely – and not only because of the general disdain this administration holds for diplomacy.

Judging by recent events, the process of reaching what Trump called the “ultimate deal” for Israeli–Palestinian peace seems to be going slowly. In an ideal world, Trump might want to strike some sort of grand bargain with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over Syria or Ukraine, but the ongoing Russia investigation as well as just-passed sanctions legislation (designed specifically to prevent Trump from lifting sanctions) make that all but impossible. Trump despises most trade deals, and his plan to renegotiate NAFTA is likely going to require a long and frustrating battle with Congress.

Military action seems more likely to generate the kind of public support that Trump craves.

And the current wars just won’t do:

Unfortunately for Trump, America’s current armed conflicts don’t hold out much prospect for glory. There won’t be any parades for the defeat of ISIS: In the next few months, ISIS will be routed from its capital in Raqqa but will then transition from a territorial power to a still extremely dangerous underground insurgent group – all while Syria becomes an even more chaotic regional conflict. In Afghanistan, Trump is skeptical, with justification, that sending more troops would finally stabilize that country or lead to anything resembling “victory” in America’s longest-running war.

Trump inherited these wars from Bush and Obama, so the alarming prospect is that in an effort to distinguish himself from his predecessors, he will want one of his own.

He may just get one:

Trump only reluctantly certified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal in July, and he has reportedly instructed his national security team to find a rationale for declaring that Tehran is in violation, even though international inspectors and his own intelligence agencies affirm that it is. The endpoint of Trump’s backward logic – that Iran should be declared noncompliant and then pretext found to back up that position – can only increase the risk of armed conflict.

Then there’s North Korea, which U.S. officials believe is nearing the threshold of developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. The U.S. flew B-1 bombers over the Korean Peninsula on Sunday, following the North’s most recent missile test, as Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley declared on Twitter that the U.S. is “Done talking about North Korea.”

So worry:

It not clear how much of this is bluster. But at the moment, the risk of a small provocation leading to a confrontation that could put thousands of lives in peril is high, and the president is not exactly known for biding his time or choosing his words carefully. Last week, for instance, Trump tweeted, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow…” then waited nine minutes before the next tweet declaring that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military. BuzzFeed News reported that at the Pentagon, the initial tweet “raised fears that the president was getting ready to announce strikes on North Korea or some other military action.”

The reason fears were raised was probably that declaring war via tweet amid a week of political setbacks would not be out of character for this president. As Trump’s frustrations in Washington continue to mount, the risk only grows greater.

That’s what makes Trump’s August vacation troubling. Consider the start of the First World War – July 28, 1914, the day the Austro-Hungarians fired the first shots in their invasion of Serbia, then Russia mobilized, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg, and then moved on France, leading Britain to declare war on Germany, and so on. Nine million died. Consider The Guns of August – that’s the famous Barbara Tuchman book about how that war started, and then snowballed into a worldwide mess. The trigger was one event on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo – a single Serbian hothead assassinated the heir-apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which seemed a kind of minor event but wasn’t. There were alliances and geopolitical ambitions, and fears, and one thing led to another, quickly. The world was at war within a week of that assassination, thus the title of the Tuchman book.

Tuchman explains, in detail, how one thing led to another, but she doesn’t address how everyone could be so stupid. She’s descriptive, not judgmental, but a single event can plunge the world into war.

A single tweet can do that too – from a frustrated easily angered president, prone to manipulation through flattery, subject to changing his mind frequently to agree with whomever he spoke with last, and consumed with whatever was on the Fox News morning show that day. He may be on vacation but that doesn’t matter much. He can tweet.

In France there’s La Rentrée – everyone comes back from their month off – the reentry. Real life resumes in September. This year it might not.

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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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