President Donald Trump’s misuse of Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine and his betrayal of the Kurds have something important in common. Beyond the fact that both provide impeachable offenses.
Both are stunning examples of Trump’s disdain for experts. On every major foreign policy challenge, the “stable genius” is failing, because he ignores advice from professionals who actually know something about the issues and the facts on the ground.
Worse than that, the Ukraine and Syria debacles display the president’s ongoing efforts to dismantle institutions that have helped shape our foreign policy throughout our history. With Mike Pompeo’s assent, Trump is wrecking the State Department at a time when strong U.S. diplomacy has never been needed more.
“I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me," says Trump. Freed from restraints, he is now at liberty to twist foreign policy to suit his whims, the last pundit he talked to, or his own political needs.
Consider his mistreatment of Marie Yovanovitch – the nonpartisan, professional U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who fought corruption. Trump’s sliming of Yovanovitch displayed his disdain for professional diplomats. She was ordered home when she refused to bend to Giuliani’s efforts to enlist corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors to manufacture dirt about Joe Biden and the 2016 election.
Similarly, the White House is trashing acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, another consummate professional, who rebelled at Trump’s efforts to exact a political quid pro quo for military aid.
But the Ukraine story has far broader significance than the president’s use of a shifty lawyer to circumvent diplomats and shake down the Kiev government.
“I’ve never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging to both the State Department as an institution and to our international influence,” writes William Burns, one of America’s most stellar diplomats and former deputy secretary of state, in the journal Foreign Affairs.
I admire Burns greatly, having watched for decades as he managed many of America’s thorniest diplomatic problems in the Mideast, Russia, and elsewhere. So I asked him to elaborate.
“I have never seen anything quite like this,” he said.
“My concern is about the hollowing out of the institution of the State Department and of U.S. diplomacy, which matters more than ever in a much more competitive global landscape. The world is going through immensely transformative trends, a revolution in technology, the rise of China, the [return] of Russia. This goes well beyond the ability of one nation to navigate alone.
“What sets us apart from China and Russia is our ability to draw in allies and build coalitions. We are squandering that asset. We are digging ourselves a hole.
“My fear is that when we stop digging, we will look at a landscape that has hardened. Allies have begun to lose faith, adversaries and rivals take advantage, including China and Iran. International institutions we worked so hard to build will start to wobble.”
The Trump administration has been waging war on diplomacy since its inception, as its first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, slashed personnel and crushed morale. Trump continues to cut the budget for diplomacy and development spending (already 19 times smaller than the defense budget).
The president’s disdain for career diplomats is boundless. Only one of 28 assistant secretary-rank positions is filled by a Foreign Service officer, writes Burns, and more ambassadorships are going to political appointees than in any administration in recent history. One-fifth of ambassadorships remain unfilled, including critical posts, and applications to join the Foreign Service have plummeted.
The long-term damage is incalculable.
“We are squandering our hand, and in the future, we will face a landscape far less favorable to our interests,” says Burns, now president of the Carnegie Endowment and author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.
Even where the president’s instincts are correct — say, in acting against predatory Chinese trade practices — his tactics are self-defeating. The only way to corner Beijing would be for Trump to unite with Asian and European allies who share our concerns. Going solo, with a unilateral trade and tariff war, won’t lead to fundamental change in Beijing.
"The Chinese will take advantage of our drift in Asia and beyond,” says Burns.
Similarly, in Syria, there was a smart way and a dumb way to use the leverage of our small troop presence while not betraying the Kurds. “We chose the dumb way," says Burns, "giving away our leverage in one phone call and throwing a partner under the bus that bled for us. The beneficiary will be ISIS.”
Trump’s utter ignorance about Syria was on full display with his new order to redeploy several hundred U.S. troops to protect Syrian oil fields from ISIS. Those fields were perfectly safe before Trump ordered 1,000 U.S. forces to retreat, which unleashed utter chaos while disarming our Kurdish allies.
As Trump disables the State Department, America had better get used to such debacles. Add to that his constant attacks on U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies and the Justice Department over the 2016 Russia inquiry. The Kremlin couldn’t have devised a better plan to weaken America.
Trump’s autocratic foreign policy is a growing threat to us all.