Last week I suggested Donald Trump’s early appointments would suggest whether he intended to act presidential or would remain the bomb-thrower his hard-core base adores.
The verdict is rapidly emerging. Bombs away.
Trump’s chief White House strategist will be Steve Bannon, the former head of the race-baiting, Jew-hating Breitbart website. Even more unnerving is his choice for national security adviser and the lead candidates for secretary of state.
The temperamental Trump, who lacks foreign-policy experience and disdains details, is in desperate need of cool-headed staff to restrain him from making dangerous errors. Yet he is veering toward a team even more erratic than he.
For the key post of national security adviser, he has chosen Michael Flynn, a fiery retired lieutenant general who was pushed out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration. Since then Flynn has unleashed a stream of incendiary rhetoric against Muslims.
In his recent book, “The Field of Flight,” Flynn argues that radical Islamists hope to create an Islamist state in America ruled by sharia law. “(T)here’s no doubt,” he writes, “that they are dead set on taking us over and drinking our blood.”
This kind of Islamophobia will divert the country’s focus from destroying terrorist cells abroad, and at home, with the cooperation of local Muslim American communities. Instead, we could be heading down an antidemocratic path of registries, or even internment camps, for Muslims, as some Trump supporters have suggested and Trump himself called for in 2015.
As if that weren’t mad enough, Flynn’s book is co-written with Michael Ledeen, a “security expert” who was involved in the Iran-contra scandal; he has long agitated for regime change in Tehran.
The book argues that Iran is the ringleader of a massive international alliance stretching from Russia to the Mideast to South America — all linked with ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, and all intent on destroying the West. “The war is on” with that alliance, Flynn writes.
This kind of hyperbole turns combating a real threat — Islamist terrorism — into a global crusade that could enmesh the United States in more heedless ground wars in the Mideast and elsewhere.
Yet somehow, despite the book’s critique of Russia, Flynn had no problem taking fees to comment for RT, the state-owned Russian propaganda channel that viciously castigates America. Last year he appeared alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at an RT gala in Moscow.
So we now have a national security adviser who has no problem accepting Kremlin cash, even as Moscow acts aggressively in Europe and Syria, and who’s primed to go to war with much of the world.
Nor is there a sign that Trump will choose someone more solid for secretary of state. Many names are circulating, but atop the early list were the hotheaded former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the radical rightist John Bolton, who wants Trump to abrogate the nuclear deal with Iran upon taking office. (I don’t take the Mitt Romney rumors seriously.) This would leave Tehran free to march forward to the verge of making a bomb.
So Trump’s national security picks look unlikely to restrain his impulsive behavior on foreign policy. His seat-of-the-pants approach is already on view as he wields the phones from Trump Tower.
He chose to speak by phone to Putin, who is trying to undermine the European Union, before he spoke with the leaders of France, Germany, or Britain. He met with Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit campaign for Britain to leave the EU, before meeting the British prime minister, Theresa May.
Such choices have consequences. They are not the casual chitchat of a business deal-maker. They make our closest allies very nervous, and they can affect the behavior of our adversaries.
“Putin may be encouraged by the signal from the president-elect that he had a conversation with (the Russian leader) before talking with the allies,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister and NATO secretary-general, on an Atlantic Council conference call.
Indeed, Putin may well deduce that Trump cares not a fig for the unity of Europe. Yet Trump appears oblivious. He keeps on spewing out his controversial tweets as if he were still a candidate.
He speaks on unsecured phones, and has yet to use official interpreters, which means he has no idea how his words are being relayed by the translators of leaders he talks to.
So far he has treated the presidency with the nonchalance one might expect from a reality-show star who was playing at being president. But this is the real thing.
Rasmussen has called for a NATO summit “not too long after” Trump’s inauguration to clarify that the new president cares as much about the NATO alliance as he does Putin.
“Too much unclarity might lead to miscalculation from aggressors,” Rasmussen said. Meaning Putin may feel he has a green light from Trump to obliterate Aleppo or solidify a Russian proxy hold on eastern Ukraine.
Someone has to convince the president-elect to start behaving presidential on foreign-policy issues. But since he mainly listens to himself and his family, it’s hard to know who can influence him. And that spells danger ahead.