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OPINION: Trump’s America Only: A Strategic Disaster

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(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, June 5, 2020, in Washington.

(The following guest column by Las Vegas resident and U.S. Army Col. John B. Alexander (ret.) first appeared on the Daily Kos website)

Isolationism is a path well-travelled, but the results never have been efficacious. Based on fear and ignorance, such tendencies of appeasement and willful ignorance of political realities too often have led to war. Geographically, the United States long has benefited from the physical separation afforded by oceans.  Such was the case prior to both World War I and World War II.  Many Americans naively believed that whatever happened in Europe was none of our concern.  Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, for the vast majority of our citizens, events in Asia barely were even an afterthought.

Following the experience of WW I, the country was  deeply divided concerning re-engagement in foreign affairs. There were famous people who opposed America either getting involved in the war against Germany, or even materially supporting the UK while they were in dire straits. Among those leading that effort was legendary aviator, Charles Lindbergh, who first soloed across the Atlantic and who later became the spokesperson for the  America First Committee.  Though joining the U.S. Army Air Corps during WW II, overtly anti-Semitic, he only flew combat missions against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater.

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Many people know  Trump borrowed the America First slogan.  What few of them know is that the term dates back to 1884, and the Republican Party embraced “ America First: The Rest Of The World After” in 1891.  The sordid past of  America First can be explored in Sarah Churchill’s excellent article,  “End of the American dream? The dark history of 'America first’”. Churchill notes that the phrase was so popular that it was used by both candidates in presidential election of 1916.

Far from seemingly innocent neutrality, this populist sentiment connotes the fundamentals of isolationism.  Fear-based conceptually, adherents reject everything different from them. Historically, while many white ethnic groups have been excluded and denigrated -- Irish, Germans, Italians -- it now invokes  aversion of peoples of color be they black, brown, or yellowThe others even include those of the First Nation, and other indigenous people who inhabited the Americas long before the European exploitations. While denied by many citizens,  racism and xenophobia are core values of many Americans.  That was clearly evidenced in Trump’s campaign and election in 2016 as crowds across northern states chanted, “ Build the wall,” as if to prevent a mythical invasion.  Once in office and emboldened, it was Trump who referred to some areas populated predominantly by people of color as “shithole countries.”  

NATO

It immediately became obvious that  America First was, in fact,  America Only.  Trump’s rhetoric and policies explicitly emphasized that point.  Since the end of WWII, the United States has led the effort in establishing and maintaining international stability. A bulwark of that effort was the  establishment of NATO.  Originally founded in 1949 with 12 nations, it provided a counterbalance to the threat of the dreaded communist Soviet Union. A guiding principle was that  an attack on one nation was an attack on all of the nations.  Though periodically stressed at times, but buttressed by the might of American nuclear capabilities, the alliance was critical in preventing a catastrophic confrontation for nearly half a century. Following the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, NATO expanded and contributed to missions previously undreamed of.  Currently there are 30 countries that are signatories to the treaty, and unrecognized by most Americans, they directly contribute to our national security.  Myopically, all Trump cares about is the cost of NATO and whether others are paying an appropriate amount.  

Trump is an equal opportunity offender, and it matters not to him if you are friend or foe.  Worse, his perception of one’s position can change abruptly. (Think China or North Korea, both of which have seen dramatic diplomatic flip-flops.) It did not take long before, as POTUS,  Trump threatened to withdraw from NATO. And that is a threat that recurs with some regularity.  Though the countries of NATO represent allies,  Trump has repeatedly denigratedthem and recently simply walked out of a key meeting.  Despite some statements to the contrary, his  attitude toward Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been, at best, testy. That, even though she has been seen by many observers as  the new leader of the free world; a title Trump inherited and abdicated.  

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Paris Climate Accords

Early in his presidency, isolationist Trump began actually cutting American established ties in international relations.  The Paris Climate Accords were soon a casualty. Initiated in 2015, there were 195 signatories including the U.S.  The treaty required any country from leaving to give notice.   A climate change denier, that action was initiated by Trump in June 2017, thus joining war-torn Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries not involved.  Believed by Trump to be a hoax, this action went against the advice of the  vast majority of scientists who do believe the  planet is endangered by humans. Domestically his policies have been extremely  detrimental to environmental issues. That was demonstrated by the rollback of the Clean Power Act, cuts to clean water protection, and repeal of methane emissions restrictions.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Withdrawal from the  Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) came quickly in January, 2017.  While the TTP was controversial, few Americans understood the magnitude and complexity of the draft agreement.  To most of our public, the Pacific equates to Asia in general and Japan and China in particular. And maybe they think of a few islands thrown in as well, but only as vacation spots.  That’s faulty thinking.  Most do not realize that as well as the U.S., many countries in Central and South America share the eastern boundaries of the Pacific Ocean. In reality, there were 12 countries on four continents involved in the treaty that was signed February 4, 2016 but not ratified by the U.S.  What our departure really did was to  open the markets to China, which was more than willing to expand their trade. While not a signatory to the TPP, but reading the writing on the wall, the Philippines has reacted. Despite Trump’s affinity for the  presiding murderous autocrat, Rodrigo Duterte, they have been  moving toward closer alignment China.

Iran Nuclear Deal

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Calling it “ the worst deal ever made,” Trump soon  moved to cancel the nuclear deal with Iran. Actually titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement greatly constrained what Iran could do with their nuclear projects. Trump’s response was ironic as in 2017 his own State Department certified that  Iran was in compliance. There are two areas about the agreement that most Americans do not understand.  First, the United States was one of several signatories led by the United Nations Security Council Permanent Members (China, Russia, the UK, France, and the U.S.) plus Germany and the European Union. This was not a bilateral arrangement between the U.S. and Iran nefariously orchestrated by former Secretary of State John Kerry. Second, the money that was sent to Iran was, in fact, theirs all along.  Those were assets that had been frozen after the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. The reason it was sent in pallet loads of cash was that Iran was barred from traditional banking transactions that would have allowed the money to move electronically.

Given that the  other countries involvedagreed that Iran was complying, it was ludicrous to remove the existing constraints.  There is considerable speculation that Trump was motivated by the fact this had been a major accomplishment under the Obama Administration. It is safe to say the European governments, those living closer to Iran, were not happy about the U.S. withdrawal.  As could be expected, after Trump’s actions, Iran gave notice it, too, was withdrawing and that they were going to restart their uranium enrichment program.

North Korea

When President Obama left office,  he warned Trump that North Korea could be his most urgent problem.  A bully by nature, the initial response by Trump was to threaten destruction.  Trump’s exact words were  “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The Hermit Kingdom has vexed world leaders for decades.  Several U.S. presidents have attempted to make deals with their leaders, always to have them fail.  One of the main objectives of the Kin Dynasty has been to be recognized as equals on the world stage.  Past presidents have withheld that acknowledgement as part of the negotiating strategy to get North Korea to behave in an acceptable manner.  Without capitulation, in 1992,  President Clinton was able to get a dealfor North Korea to put the brakes on their nuclear program.  Of course, that fell apart and their development and testing of nuclear weapons was achieved.

Shortly after the “fire and fury” diatribe, Trump announced he would meet with Kim Jong Un for a  summit in Singapore.  With nothing in return, Trump afforded the prize that Kim, his father, and grandfather, always desired.  For a photo-op, Trump gave the young, murdering dictator a global platform.  Kim also got  concessions about the annual wargames in which the U.S. military maintains proficiency should they be called on to reinforce the units stationed in South Korea. Soon, Trump would inform the world that he and Kim,  “fell in love.”

Shamelessly, Trump indicated that  he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize.  That did not happen nor were the promises made by  Kim as he continues with his nuclearand rocketry programs to this day. As his predecessors have learned the hard way, and most nuclear weapons experts agree, there is no scenario under which North Korea will denuclearize.  In Kim’s eyes,  nuclear weapons ensure his personal survival, and that of his regime.

A major issue Trump does not understand, is that by having U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, that directly supports America’s security.  Trump sees it in only terms of dollars, so in defending South Korea from an attack, he assumes they are the only beneficiaries.  Thus, he has  attempted to dramatically increasethe amount contributed by South Korea (by $5 billion).  His approach is both myopic and another display of ignorance.

Syria

Since mid-March 2011, Syria has been plagued by a vicious multi-party civil war resulting in horrendous casualties plus more than 5 million refugees and another seven million internally displaced persons.  One of those parties included  Kurdish fighters who had been supporting American efforts since the beginning of the Iraq War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.  As ISIS occupied much of the area in Iraq and Syria, with minimal support from U.S advisors on the ground, but considerable air cover, those forces had backed our war efforts.  Through their efforts, the number of American forces deployed in Syria was held down.

The plight of the Kurdish people has always been tenuous ever since the maps were drawn by colonial powers after WW I. Though tensions existed with the governments of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, they have managed to survive and been dependable allies. On December 19, 2018, Trump t weeted that America was pulling out of Syria.  This was done without asking advice of experts who knew the area.  Critically, it was announced without warning the American commanders in the area who had to execute the orders.

The tweet came after conversations between President Erdogan of Turkey and Trump in which he gave the green light to Turkey to move into an area where the U.S. had been operating. The orders to leave meant abandoning our allies in combat and leaving the Kurds vulnerable to attack by Turkish forces.  That was an unconscionable betrayal of trust.  In addition to U.S. forces being left in the dark, Trump also failed to notify other European allies engaged in the area of the impending action.  This action, an aberration of all military ethics, led to the  resignation of then Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, the following day.  

WTO

The  World Trade Organization (WTO) was formed in 1995 and has 164 members comprising 98 percent of the global trade.  Like an impetuous tyrant, Trump has frequently railed again the WTO, which he believes has disadvantaged the U.S.  Repeatedly he has threatened to pull out of the organization.  This, despite the fact that the U.S was instrumental in creating the body, which became a cornerstone of multilateral trading.  While the WTO adjudicates disputes in multinational trade agreements, the U.S. has been holding up the appointment of judges necessary for it to carry out its functions.

Supporting Trump, Sen.  Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced a billthis May to formally withdraw from the WTO as a means of increasing American productivity.  Hawley is also an advocate of attempting to force China to pay reparations for the effects of COVID-19.  While other people have questioned the wisdom of permitting China to join the WTO, they appear ignorant of the technological advances, manufacturing capability, and commerce of a country with 1.4 billion people.

Trump’s polices have impacted more than China, as many other nations have come under fire by him.  This prompted Forbes to call him  “Trump the Trade Tyrant.” At issue is the term “developing nation,” which is afforded different status.  While modest gains have been promised in some agreements, not much has been realized by American industries. But their workers have paid a significant price. Related is Trump’s  specious notion that his increased tariffs are paid by foreign countries, when it is the American consumer who loses. It is now estimated that Trump’s  trade wars cost company stock prices $1.7 trillion dollars.

WHO

Recent pillorying has been aimed at the World Health Organization (WHO) in which Trump decided to withhold U.S. funding for them. The current flashpoint was the WHO handling of the COVID-19 outbreak emanating from Wuhan, China.  Like many agencies, they seriously underestimated the potential damage the virus would inflict.  Complaints were raised that WHO relied too heavily on information from Chinese sources, ones that were concealing the real danger COVID-19.  While Trump uses the WHO as a scapegoat, in reality they warned him several times about the disease.  While he now blames both China and the WHO for the effects of the virus, previously he repeatedly praised China for their  assistance and transparency.

Trump’s actions prompted the  Federation of American Scientists to issue the following statement. “The Federation of American Scientists disagrees strongly with the Trump administration's announcement to withdraw the United States from the World Health Organization.”  They note the important work that the WHO does in combating infections and creating vaccines. Leaving the WHO during a pandemic is totally irresponsible but may exemplify Trump’s pettiness.  While there have been multiple complaints by him, this push comes following the WHO ending a  study on use of hydroxychloroquine. That is a drug Trump has personally been touting despite scientific evidence suggesting it increased the possibility of death. It represents another example of Trump’s misprizing of science and disdain for advice of real experts.

Open Skies

The Treaty on Open Skies was negotiated under Bush 41 and went into effect January 1, 2002.  With 35 nations involved, it provided for unarmed surveillance flights over all of the countries.  The intent was to promote mutual understanding and confidence that participants were not mobilizing for war.  This has allowed the U.S. Air Force to conduct aerial surveillance over all parts of Russia.  In reciprocation, Russian aircraft were allowed to observe American forces and activities.  There are limitations on the types of aircraft and sensors limited to those commercially available. While there have been challenges, including Russia denying access to the territory they controlled in Georgia, the program has generally worked to reduce tensions.

The purpose of the Open Skies treaty is to prevent miscalculations as to military intent.  Now Trump has indicated that the U.S. will pull out, which  basically nullifies the entire effort.This comes as a new START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is about to be negotiated.  There is grave concern that this will not be accomplished. Here I agree with retired general, and former director of CIA, Mike Hayden, when he called Trump’s actions “insane.”  

Nuclear Testing

Commensurate with withdrawing from the Open Skies treaty, Trump is now talking about  restarting nuclear weapons testing.  This is yet  another blow to international arms control and  should send shudders throughout the world.  In 1996  The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed by the United States, and other countries acknowledged as possessing nuclear weapons.  That included the UK, France, Russia and China.  Since then a total of 196 countries have signed.  Not signing have been three countries known to have the weapons: India, Pakistan and North Korea. Note that while the US did sign the treaty, it was not ratified by the Senate.

Named  Divider, the  last U.S. test was undergroundat the Nevada Test Site on September 23, 1992. It was a 20-kiloton device.  That was the last of 1,032 nuclear tests conducted by this country since the inception at Trinity in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. While far from a nuclear weapons expert, my second career was at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is a nuclear weapons lab.  What I do know is that issues regarding  those weapons, and their use, are extremely complex.  It took years of negotiation to obtain the concessions achieved in those treaties. Trump simply does not understand the international ramifications of arbitrarily initiating what would become another round of testing.  Most of those scientists and engineers associated with nuclear weapons comprehend the awesome destructive power they hold.  A cogent discussion of the rationale for not resuming testing can be found in  Steven Pifer’s article for the Brookings Institute.

Without producing any evidence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that both Russia and China have violated the treaty by testing low-level weapons.  Under any prior administration, I would not question the validity of that statement.  Under Trump and his appointees, all credibility has been forfeited by their demonstrably false statements.  In this case I side with Biden who correctly calls this action irresponsible.

G-7

The Group of Seven (G-7) was formed in 1973 after the oil crisis.  Included were Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the U.S.  Since they controlled 58 percent of the global wealth, an estimated $317 trillion, their objective was to maintain stability of macroeconomic issues.  For a time, Russia was included, becoming the G-8. For poor behavior, the forcible annexation of Crimea, they were removed.  Trump has attempting to get Putin back in the club.

While it was a cooperative venture, for decades the United States led the efforts.   Under Trump, that changed.  His arrogance, personally nasty statements, and “America First” policies alienated other members.  That began with his first attendance in 2017 and devolved from there.  At the 2018 meeting, abruptly  Trump refused to sign the traditional joint statement and made iniquitous comments about the host, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.  That rejection was a first in the history of these meetings.

Afghanistan

The final example is another obvious political ploy.  Trump has indicated he is considering  pulling all American forces out of Afghanistan before out November election. Even his obsequious sycophant,  Lindsey Graham, has been critical of Trump’s obsession with getting out of Afghanistan.  Like leaving Syria, Trump’s actions are both precipitous and ill-advised.  He concedes  we lost the war, yet just a year ago Trump stated he, “ could win the war in a week.”  This self-indulgent recreant, who ducked Vietnam, repeatedly has stated  he knows more than the generals. He doesn’t.

The incursion into Afghanistan was precipitated by the attacks of 9/11 and the refusal of that country to turn over Osama bin Laden. There is a reason that since Alexander (circa 330 BCE) it has long been known as the  Destroyer of Empires. The topography is tough and historically complicated social dynamics far tougher. It was clear to me in 2003, when as an advisor to the most senior men in their Ministry of Defence, we had no understanding of either the complexity of the situation or a means to mature Afghanistan into a modern nation.  What was clear, and remains a reiterative lesson, is that getting into a war is far easier than getting out.  Equally obvious is that another precipitous, impetuous and unthoughtful action is totally irresponsible.

Summary

Trump inherited a rising economy and an already established role as the key leader of the world.  An isolationist at heart, he immediately began squandering the good will that America has acquired over the past decades.  That does not mean that all was rosy.  The Cheney-instigated, and ill-conceived invasion of Iraq under the Bush 43 Administration certainly damaged our image as it further destabilized the entire Middle-East.  As casualties mounted and the wars dragged on, the temperament of Americans changed -- as did that of the citizenry of many of our allies.

Despite many challenges, since the end of WW II there was a sense that America was stable and a dependable anchor for international relations.  With information more readily available, and economies of the world intertwined, it is imperative that cooperation and established agreements be honored.  While other countries have not always agreed with the U.S. position on various issues, generally we could be relied upon to keep our word.  

That is no longer true.

Almost immediately after assuming office, Trump began demolishing our respected standing in the world.  Famously he stated he  l iked to be unpredictable ! Unfortunately, to the rest of the world, an unpredictable America translates to an unreliable America – a notion Trump repeatedly has reinforced.  

During the 2016 election cycle concerns were raised about Trump’s ability to manage the country during a crisis.  We now know he can’t.  His responses with both the COVID-19 pandemic and current domestic instability has proven that beyond all doubt.  Many psychologists commented about Trump having a narcissistic personality and inability to empathize with others.  While this piece addresses his international policies, we have witnessed a collapse in his domestic ones as well. As that happened, Trump, and his supporters, withdrew to an alternative reality – one that denies responsibility for any of the ongoing crises and an abdication of leadership.  

As I was completing the draft of this article, the  statement was released by General Jim Mattis, Trump’s first Secretary of Defense.  It is, I believe, the most extraordinary piece I have ever read, and one with which I completely agree.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have imaged such a document being conceived by an official of such stature. Noteworthy is that Mattis is not alone in his condemnation as similar statements have come from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, plus Adm. Eric Olson, Adm. William McRaven, Gen. Stan McChrystal, Gen. Mike Hayden and many other senior flag officers.   While their comments were domestically oriented, they have tremendous implications for international relations as well.  We need to join the rest of the world and send Trump the message –  we too have lost trust and confidence in his ability to govern.

Today the world is totally interconnected and what happens in one area impacts everyone.  Isolationism is a failed concept and should be rejected. 

However, if you are thinking globally, you are thinking too small.

(Las Vegas resident John B. Alexander, Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army colonel, and retired from the University of California/ Los Alamos National Laboratory.  He is a former Senior Fellow at a Department of Defense University.)