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President Trump's Dangerous Foreign Policy Know-Nothingism and the Lessons of Nixon and Kennedy

March 28, 2017

CREDIT: The LBJ Library

There is a consistent human tendency to underestimate the fragility of the moment in which one lives. The absence of evidence of a national security threat—of, for instance, a rival state's renascent nuclear-weapons program, or of a major terrorist plot, or of a simmering conflict that could lead to a regional war—is not, as the saying goes, tantamount to an evidence of absence of these threats. Because of the sensitivities surrounding such matters, the American people are often kept in the dark about the dangers they faced until many years, if not decades, after they have passed.

This is true even during very public emergencies such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. We now know, for instance, just how close the United States and the Soviet Union came to a cataclysmic nuclear exchange. On the U.S. side, President Kennedy made the momentous decision, in a time of extreme pressure, to reject the advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, who recommended that the United States launch a preemptive strike against Cuba; at the same time, Fidel Castro was secretly cabling Nikita Khrushchev to urge him to initiate a nuclear war against the United States. The two most powerful men in the world were both being goaded toward escalation.

But Kennedy and Khrushchev, who possessed more comprehensive information and intelligence about each other's intentions and capabilities than anyone else on the planet, were both still wracked by doubt. They were forced to make difficult decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty, during a time when the stakes could not possibly have been higher. In the end, their own convictions about the other leader's desire to avoid nuclear war, their sangfroid, and their analytic abilities—fortified by their individual access to intelligence products analyzing the capabilities and intentions of the other state—helped stave off nuclear war. Millions of people are alive today because neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev fell prey to their baser instincts.

In the world of international affairs, and especially in times of international crisis, personalities matter. Preparation matters. Inquisitiveness matters. And, as we know now—but didn't at the time—just over a decade after Khrushchev and Kennedy's Cuban gambit, these truths were again brought into sharp relief, by a very different American president. By late 1973, President Nixon, aggrieved, paranoid, thin-skinned, and perhaps manic-depressive, knew that the complex of crimes known as Watergate would likely spell his political doom. He was drinking heavily. He stopped attending security briefings, including during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which pitted Soviet-backed Arab States against U.S.-backed Israel, and almost led to military confrontation between the two superpowers. During this crisis, the U.S. actually went on a higher nuclear alert without the president's knowledge, because Nixon was too stone-cold drunk to be roused from bed.

In fact, by the summer of 1974, with the impeachment process quickening, Nixon was considered so unstable by his own staff, that James R. Schlesinger, the secretary of defense, instructed the Joint Chiefs to countermand any order by the president to launch a nuclear weapon, and consult with the defense secretary before taking any further action. This was entirely illegal—if President Nixon had actually made such an order, and the military refused it, Schlesinger's directive would have been tantamount to a soft coup—but it was inarguably the correct response to a very dangerous and unstable situation. At the time, the president simply could not be trusted to discharge his responsibilities to the American people.

Just over two months into the Trump Presidency, we've not yet reached a Nixon-during-Watergate scenario. But we might find ourselves there soon. After all, this is a president that, during his campaign, advocated killing the families of suspected terrorists in retribution for their actions, a clear violation of international law—a war crime. (It would not, frankly, surprise me if other high-ranking officials had contemplated this "Schlesinger Scenario": when a reporter recently asked John McCain, chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, how often he had spoken to President Trump since inauguration day, McCain pointedly replied that he hadn't corresponded with the president once since then—but that he communicated with Defense Secretary Mattis almost daily.)

President Trump's character and intellect are also distinctly un-Nixonian in important ways: unlike Nixon, he is a teetotaler; and, also contra Nixon—but much more consequentially—Trump lacks a coherent theory of statecraft or grand strategy, or even a basic sense of the appropriate tactical desiderata for U.S. foreign policy. To paraphrase former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, it is unclear whether the United States currently even has a foreign policy worthy of the name.

As has been widely observed, President Trump is also not a man particularly enamored by details. His grasp of both domestic and international policy may generously be described as tenuous. His attention span is fleeting; if his recent abandonment of comprehensive healthcare reform legislation is any indication, he appears at turns wearied and irritated by complexity. In domestic affairs, such qualities in the chief executive may result in incoherent policy-making and, ultimately, shameful political defeat. In foreign policy, it could portend a disaster.

Consider the effects of the president's strained relationship with the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), and his dismissive attitude toward the complexities of intelligence more generally, on Trump's decision-making.

Since the 1960s, every U.S. president has received the President's Daily Brief (PDB), the IC's premier product. The PDB contains a tailored summary of the IC's most critical intelligence and analysis, designed expressly to assist the president in navigating a complex and dangerous world, anticipate foreign crises, and help execute his or her policy objectives. Every president has personalized the PDB to some extent: President Carter had it filtered upward through his National Security Council staff, as did President Clinton during the early days of his administration. President George W. Bush often requested that his PDB be supplemented by an oral briefing from top intelligence officials; President Obama preferred long, detailed analyses uploaded straight to his iPad. While there is no single "correct" way to receive the PDB, the fact is that other modern U.S. presidents respected the seriousness of its purpose.

We simply don't know if this is the case with President Trump. According to a February 2017 report in Mother Jones, Trump has requested that his PDB be reduced from 12-14 pages down to three. But it is unclear if he even reads this newer, truncated intelligence product. (For his part, Vice President Pence apparently consumes the PDB daily.) President Trump's own staff reportedly leaks information to major media sources in order for him to finally pay attention to pressing issues, because he won't do so unless it's in the news. (Consider, in this light, the recent investigative bombshell in the New York Times about North Korea's race for nuclear-armed ICBMs, and the Obama administration's secret cyber-program aimed at thwarting the Kim regime's missile-testing capabilities.) There has never been a modern American president so proudly incurious about the world, and so ill-prepared to confront its complexities.

The last time a president was equally disengaged, this dismissive of dissent, was Nixon during his second term. And, thanks to a partial declassification of Nixon's PDBs in 2016, we can see for the first time just how dizzying the world can appear from the president's perch. In preparation for this article, I read every PDB from Nixon's last six weeks in office before his resignation. I came away deeply worried about President Trump's ability to guide U.S. foreign policy generally, and shaken about his potential management of a global crisis.

The PDBs during this period—a time of acute despondency for President Nixon—provide a window into the emotional burdens of the presidency, the scope and extent of a president's daily worries. They cover everything from the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, to Icelandic parliamentary elections, to Soviet wheat harvests, to the deployment of ICBMs in the Russian hinterlands, to the price of gold. They also track political disintegration. At the time, the Ethiopian government was crumbling. So was the Argentinian government. So was the Laotian government. They reveal secret pacts made by the Arab League, and outline suspected Soviet arms shipments in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. And they give daily detailed updates about a major incipient crisis: the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, which threatened to devolve into full-scale war between Turkey and Greece, both key NATO allies.

With Nixon incapacitated, Secretary of State Kissinger was left to run U.S. foreign policy. In August 1974, the president resigned; Vice President Ford ascended to the highest office in the land; disaster was averted; the country eventually stabilized again. Perhaps, in a moment of crisis—and he will face a crisis, either due to the internal dynamics of his administration, or because of an external threat—President Trump will outsource his foreign policy to Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster. This would represent the "least worst" scenario.

But we cannot be sure President Trump will elect to give up any of his own power. He is the chief executive and commander-in-chief of our armed forces. Ultimately, the prerogative to decide is his and his alone. Will our president be prepared for the moment when tests show that North Korea has achieved the capacity to launch a nuclear strike on San Francisco? Is Trump's White House staff steeled for his potential response? Are we?

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