The week ended with a news story of vast historical importance that wasn’t particularly noticed, because all the other news buried it – the Epstein suicide, if it was that, Trump and Netanyahu declaring that all Democrats hate Jews and hate Israel and Israel will never deal with them again, the stock market crashing and sort of recovering, but not really, as no one knew what was coming next, and Trump’s sudden idea that the United States should buy Greenland from Denmark, or he should, or something. No one noticed our eighteen-year war in Afghanistan will now end and the president has no idea why:
President Trump met with top national security officials on Friday to review near-final plans for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, a prospect that has already prompted fierce political debate but could offer Mr. Trump a compelling talking point for his 2020 re-election campaign.
The president and his advisers gathered at his golf club in New Jersey to assess a deal reached with Afghan insurgents by his special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, during several weeks of negotiations in Qatar. Mr. Trump is a longtime skeptic of the United States’ 18-year military presence in Afghanistan and campaigned against expensive foreign interventions.
In short, geopolitics and national security don’t matter all that much. Trump’s reelection is what matters. But that’s the problem here:
His decision point on Afghanistan – and the widespread belief that he is impatient to begin a withdrawal before the next election – has already kicked off an argument in Washington about whether an exit would amount to a premature retreat or a crucial step toward long-overdue peace. That debate scrambles partisan lines, with some prominent Republicans warning that leaving would be reckless, while top Democrats applaud the idea of concluding the war in Afghanistan, a goal that eluded President Barack Obama.
But the president may not be taking part in those discussions:
For Mr. Trump, initiating a departure from Afghanistan would allow a president who once promised to “bomb the hell out of” terrorists and has spoken of wiping Afghanistan “off the face of the earth” to present himself as a peacemaker.
That could be particularly useful at a moment when his nuclear diplomacy with North Korea has achieved little tangible promise and his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has failed in its goal of bringing Tehran to the negotiating table.
He needs something – anything – to go the way he said it would go. This could be it, or not:
Skeptics of the agreement – which has not been finalized and could still fall apart or be rejected by Mr. Trump – fear it is meant more for the American political calendar than for the complex realities of the Afghan conflict and the enduring terrorist threat against the United States, and warn that it could end in disaster for both countries…
Even if the Taliban reach an agreement with the Afghan government, current and former government officials fear it may be only a matter of time before they seek to reconquer the entire country, as they did in the 1990s, creating a radical religious government that provided safe haven to the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden….
This could be a disaster, but this can be fixed:
Supporters of an extended troop presence in Afghanistan are trying to remind Mr. Trump of Mr. Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Iraq’s security forces were unprepared to fight on their own and, three years later, the Islamic State rampaged through the country, capturing major cities and plotting attacks against the West.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed article last week, David H. Petraeus, a retired Army general who commanded United States forces in Afghanistan under Mr. Obama, warned that a “complete military exit from Afghanistan today would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq.”
This is just what Obama did! Everyone knows Trump. Say that and Trump will do the opposite. Geopolitics and national security don’t matter. There are those magic words – “Obama did that.”
That may solve that problem, but Michelle Goldberg is more concerned about the threat of armed conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir:
India and Pakistan have already fought two wars over the Himalayan territory, which both countries claim, and which is mostly divided between them. India recently revoked the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of the part of Kashmir it controls and put nearly seven million people there under virtual house arrest. Pakistan’s prime minister compared India’s leaders to Nazis and warned that they’ll target Pakistan next. It seems like there’s potential for humanitarian and geopolitical horror.
That might be because these are two really big countries with really large militaries, both with massive nuclear capability, and with a long history of conflict. Trump may want to think about this, or think about a few other things:
All over the world, things are getting worse. China appears to be weighing a Tiananmen Square-like crackdown in Hong Kong. Hostilities between India and Pakistan ratcheted up further; on Thursday, fighting across the border in Kashmir left three Pakistani soldiers dead. (Pakistan also claimed that five Indian soldiers were killed, but India denied it.) Turkey is threatening to invade Northeast Syria to go after America’s Kurdish allies there, and it’s not clear if an American agreement meant to prevent such an incursion will hold.
North Korea’s nuclear program and ballistic missile testing continue apace. The prospect of a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine is more remote than it’s been in decades. Tensions between America and Iran keep escalating. Relations between Japan and South Korea have broken down. A Pentagon report warns that ISIS is “re-surging” in Syria. The U.K. could see food shortages if the country’s Trumpish prime minister, Boris Johnson, follows through on his promise to crash out of the European Union without an agreement in place for the aftermath. Oh, and the globe may be lurching towards recession.
How the hell did all that happen? Goldberg suggests this:
In a world spiraling towards chaos, we can begin to see the fruits of Donald Trump’s erratic, amoral and incompetent foreign policy, his systematic undermining of alliances and hollowing out of America’s diplomatic and national security architecture…
To be sure, most of these crises have causes other than Trump. Even competent American administrations can’t dictate policy to other countries, particularly powerful ones like India and China. But in one flashpoint after another, the Trump administration has either failed to act appropriately, or acted in ways that have made things worse.
“Almost everything they do is the wrong move,” said Susan Thornton, who until last year was the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, America’s top diplomat for Asia.
And to get specific, there’s this:
Consider Trump’s role in the Kashmir crisis. In July, during a White House visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump offered to mediate India and Pakistan’s long-running conflict over Kashmir, even suggesting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to do so. Modi’s government quickly denied this, and Trump’s words reportedly alarmed India, which has long resisted outside involvement in Kashmir. Two weeks later, India sent troops to lock Kashmir down, and then stripped it of its autonomy.
That may not have been a coincidence:
Americans have grown used to ignoring Trump’s casual lies and verbal incontinence, but people in other countries have not. Thornton thinks the president’s comments were a “precipitating factor” in Modi’s decision to annex Kashmir. By blundering into the conflict, she suggested, Trump put the Indian prime minister on the defensive before his Hindu nationalist constituency. “He might not have had to do that,” she said of Modi’s Kashmir takeover, “but he would have had to do something. And this was the thing he was looking to do anyway.”
But there’s more to it than that:
At the same time, Modi can be confident that Trump, unlike previous American presidents, won’t even pretend to care about democratic backsliding or human rights abuses, particularly against Muslims. “There’s a cost-benefit analysis that any political leader makes,” said Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama national security aide. “If the leader of India felt like he was going to face public criticism, potential scrutiny at the United Nations,” or damage to the bilateral relationship with the United States, “that might affect his cost-benefit analysis.” Trump’s instinctive sympathy for authoritarian leaders empowers them diplomatically.
On the other hand, things might work out:
Obviously, India and Pakistan still have every interest in avoiding a nuclear holocaust. China may show restraint on Hong Kong. Wary of starting a war before the 2020 election, Trump might make a deal with Iran, though probably a worse one than the Obama agreement that he jettisoned. The global economy could slow down but not seize up. We could get through the next 17 months with a world that still looks basically recognizable.
But don’t count on it:
The most powerful country in the world is being run by a sundowning demagogue whose oceanic ignorance is matched only by his gargantuan ego. The United States has been lucky that things have hung together as much as they have save the odd government shutdown or white nationalist terrorist attack. But now, in foreign affairs as in the economy, the consequences of not having a functioning American administration are coming into focus. “No U.S. leadership is leaving a vacuum,” said Thornton.
We’ll see what gets sucked into it.
That’s a bit frightening, but Paul Waldman says that the problem now is something else entirely:
President Trump is gripped by fear.
That is the message coming through from his public statements, his recent policy decisions, and reporting from inside the White House that paints a picture of a president increasingly rattled and irrational, striking out wildly as he searches for an argument that will frighten Americans enough to reelect him.
That’s his thesis and here’s some evidence:
Trump told his fervid supporters at a rally Thursday that if he is not reelected, the economy will crash. “You have no choice but to vote for me because your 401(k)’s down the tubes. Everything is going to be down the tubes. So whether you love me or hate me, you’ve got to vote for me.”
Amid growing signs of a coming economic downturn, he is reportedly experiencing a combination of denial and rage. “Trump has a somewhat conspiratorial view, telling some confidants that he distrusts statistics he sees reported in the news media and that he suspects many economists and other forecasters are presenting biased data to thwart his reelection,” the Washington Post reports. But he has also “told aides and allies that Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell would be a scapegoat if the economy goes south.”
Actually, that Washington Post item reported much more than that:
Despite gyrations in the U.S. stock market and economic slowdowns in other countries, officials in the White House, at the Treasury Department and throughout the administration are planning no new steps to attempt to stave off a recession. Rather, Trump’s economic advisers have been delivering the president upbeat assessments in which they argue that the domestic economy is stronger than many forecasters are making it out to be.
In turn, Trump has sought to use his Twitter pulpit to drown out negative indicators. On Thursday, he promoted the U.S. economy as “the Biggest, Strongest and Most Powerful Economy in the World,” and, citing growth in the retail sector, predicted that it would only get stronger. He also accused the news media of “doing everything they can to crash the economy because they think that will be bad for me and my re-election.”
This is not good. Delusion and defensiveness never mix well, but it’s not all delusion:
Privately the president has sounded anxious and apprehensive. From his golf club in New Jersey, where he is vacationing this week, Trump has called a number of business leaders and financial executives to sound them out – and they have provided him a decidedly mixed analysis, according to two people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the conversations were confidential.
But he won’t hear that analysis:
Trump has a somewhat conspiratorial view, telling some confidants that he distrusts statistics he sees reported in the news media and that he suspects many economists and other forecasters are presenting biased data to thwart his reelection, according to one Republican close to the administration who was briefed on some of the conversations.
“He’s rattled,” this Republican said. “He thinks that all the people that do this economic forecasting are a bunch of establishment weenies – elites who don’t know anything about the real economy and they’re against Trump.”
So, imagine Trump wandering the halls of the White House late at night, alone, muttering to himself – “Establishment Weenies, Establishment Weenies…”
Expect those in a supermarket near you soon, or expect this:
In the past, world leaders have come together to try to assure the public about a unified approach to confronting global economic turmoil. But Trump has threatened to slap tariffs on Japanese and German cars and on French wine, and has encouraged newly minted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s call to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union, even if it means a violent breakup that threatens the economic standing of multiple countries.
Obviously something is wrong here, like this:
Lawrence H. Summers, a former treasury secretary and National Economic Council director who helped lead the Obama administration’s efforts to end the Great Recession a decade ago, said no president is immune to a recession and the government ought always to be planning for and guarding against one.
“When the economy turns down, one of the important resources we have is policymakers’ credibility,” Summers said. “Ludicrous forecasts and economically illiterate statements have dissipated the credibility of the president’s economic team.”
Referring specifically to Trump’s actions, Summers added, “It’s banana republic standard to deny the statistics, bash the central bank, try to push the currency down and lash out at foreign countries.”
But there’s no stopping him:
Trump has been closely managing his administration’s moves. Two weeks ago, he exerted immense pressure on Mnuchin to label China as a “currency manipulator,” a move the treasury secretary had repeatedly resisted because China’s currency moves did not meet the Treasury’s established criteria, three people with direct knowledge of the push said.
This is madness:
Some conservatives who have previously praised Trump’s economic policy have soured on his approach to trade, however.
“The president doesn’t understand the basics of international economics, and his erratic behavior is likely slowing business investment, working against his signature corporate tax cuts, and hurting his own reelection chances,” said Michael Strain, an economist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
It would be nice to have a president who has some vague idea of what he’s talking about – like what the words mean – but he doesn’t and Waldman sees this:
It’s the economic news that really has Trump sweating. As any sensible observer understands, presidents get more credit than they deserve when the economy does well and more blame than they deserve when it does poorly, because most of what happens in a country with about 330 million people and more than $20 trillion of economic activity is out of their control.
Trump was given an economy in the midst of a steady recovery, which since then has continued on pretty much the same trajectory it was on (though job creation was somewhat better under President Barack Obama). Yet more than any other president in history, he has insisted that he deserves personal credit for every positive economic development, which could only be the result of his unique genius.
He’s not that:
He has a particular habit of visiting a factory that was approved or began construction when Obama was president and saying it was all because of him. “It was the Trump administration that made it possible. No one else,” he said this week outside a Shell plastics plant that had been planned since 2012 and which the company formally announced in 2016. “Without us, you would never have been able to do this.”
Meanwhile, whenever he creates a new controversy with some racist outburst, distressing public performance or new revelation of corruption on the part of himself and his appointees, Republicans everywhere offer the same argument: Okay, so that stuff isn’t exactly optimal, and yeah, I wish he’d tone down the bigotry and stop tweeting. But the economy is doing well, right?
Well, forget that:
You don’t need a PhD in political science to understand the threat this poses. If the economy does falter – even a slight slowdown, let alone a full-on recession – it could become almost impossible for Trump to win reelection. If he can’t argue that he has delivered prosperity, all that remains is the single most repugnant human being to ever sit in the Oval Office, befouling everything he touches.
Trump knows this as well as anyone. In his growing fear of that eventuality, he wants us all to be as afraid as he is: afraid of immigrants, afraid of socialism, afraid of dissenting voices, afraid of a changing society, afraid of the future.
So, expect that:
As a political strategy, it’s certainly morally abhorrent, but it still might work. After all, if Trump didn’t have such skill at finding and stimulating what is worst in people, he wouldn’t have become president in the first place. And by this time next year, fear could be all he has left.
This could get ugly. But the man is rattled. And he is irrational, or more irrational than usual. Now what?