Imagine, if you will, that the college suddenly decided to institute a no speaker policy. Due to “very high” number of noise complaints from inside the dorms—whether or not that claim is true—students were no longer allowed to have speakers even in their dorm rooms. This policy would be enforced partially by having resident assistants and resident directors periodically search rooms, sometimes while the student was sleeping, to make sure no speakers were tucked away under desks. After hearing such a bold statement, the Director of Residence Life sends an email out to all students, staff and faculty assuring them that room searches, unannounced or otherwise, would not be happening. There may even be a hint in the email that the no speaker policy won’t even be enforced, after all.
Such a situation of contradictory leadership sounds downright absurd. The director would certainly be fired immediately, or at least coerced into towing the line. After all, it’s the college president and the board who are in charge of the whole shebang. Don’t they get to make the final decisions without fear of being overturned by those below?
It sounds like the plot for yet another Netflix series, but it’s exactly what is happening right now in the Trump Administration. Among Trump’s campaign promises, those relating to national security and foreign policy are arguably the most dangerous.
Yet here we have Trump’s enthusiastically-appointed Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis going on a world tour shortly after he enters office to assure world leaders that almost nothing Trump said about international relations will come true. We won’t be working with Russia on military operations; the United States won’t turn the defense of South Korea or Japan into conditional business transactions; Iraq isn’t and never was about oil; NATO is an indispensable alliance with kinks to work out; and Putin totally interfered with the election. Mattis also appears not to have backed off a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict, claiming Israeli settlements will create “apartheid,” and somehow convinced Trump not to bring back torture, which Mattis and many others in the military community agree doesn’t work.
And Mattis isn’t the only one. When Trump said that mass deportations were going to be a “military operation,” Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly contradicted him the same day in Mexico City. And it wasn’t like Sean Spicer’s half-baked military “as an adjective” response: Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, not only assured his audience that the military would not be used to enforce immigration laws but that “there will be no—repeat, no—mass deportations.”
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley boldly asserted that anyone who doesn’t think the US supports a two-state solution is in “error” after Trump’s vague and idiotic comment that he would be “satisfied with whatever makes both parties happy.” Trump is apparently unaware of what’s actually happening in Israel, despite the fact that he gave the usual cop-out claim that he’s “looked at it.”
This duality in Trump’s executive shouldn’t come as a surprise. Intentional or not, it was by his design: he picked these people. This isn’t Sally Yates, the Attorney General who Trump didn’t have a choice in dealing with and quickly fired. His cabinet picks repeatedly contradicted him during confirmation hearings, many of them expressing the same views they’ve held publicly for a long time. Trump doesn’t like getting contradicted, and his fascist-style rhetoric has assured Americans that anything he wants to do will be done, democracy be damned.
So, what’s going on? Trump’s foreign policy apparatus will either continue contradicting their boss or erupt into civil war. They aren’t going to toe the line: both Mattis and Kelly are outspoken retired Marine Corps generals who will stop at nothing to defend the Constitution and their view of the American way of life, despite the idea that Trump likely saw them as obedient robots. Trump’s new National Security Advisor Lieutenant General McMaster, an intellectual with reputation of speaking his mind and questioning his civilian bosses, will have a guaranteed seat on the National Security Council. With views that stand in contrast to the Trump Administration, he’s sure to fight with the President and his right hand man, Steve Bannon, who also holds a seat on the National Security Council.
But is this dissociative chaos that bad of a thing? Of course, from a idealist’s standpoint, it erodes the prestige and respect of the office of the President. The Executive Branch, especially its military, has enjoyed high levels of trust from the American public while Congress has notoriously faltered, but with its current image, that trust may erode. It also begs the question that we’ve been asking for a long time: which Trump do we trust? It was difficult enough sorting through the multitude of contradictory statements that Trump made and continues to make; now we have to deal with his representatives—many of them trustworthy, competent, consistent individuals—adding more contradictions to the pile. But it seems that while Trump is tweeting or speaking off the cuff, his surrogates are making official statements either in the form of press releases or face-to-face statements.
On the surface, it looks like Nixon’s “madman theory,” where “madman” Nixon kept foreign powers guessing while his competent representatives did the actual negotiating and policymaking, which gave them autonomy to get the job done. Intentional or not, this is happening to a certain degree, but comparing Trump to Nixon is absurd. Nixon may have been a powerful president who fought with the media and made outrageous statements, but, unlike Trump, Nixon was a competent politician who knew what he was doing. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Just because the means are different doesn’t mean the end isn’t the same: Trump’s secretaries seem to be preventing the worst of Trump’s foreign policy from happening.
Such a system is incredibly risky: Trump could one day say too much and create a mess that not even Henry Kissinger in his prime would be able to clean up. And though his contradictory foreign policy seems to be working against him and working for global security, his emboldening of white nationalists, Nazis, misogynists and other deplorables who espouse un-American values will continue, regardless of how empty Trump’s words are. This, of course, ignores how devastating his domestic policies will be and whether or not he’ll have subordinate pushback there as well. Let me be clear: Trump’s foreign policy is not and will not be great, barring unforeseen changes. What seems to be clear is that, because of outspoken, autonomous executives like Mattis, Kelly, McMaster and Haley, along with Trump’s seemingly weak leadership, it won’t be nearly as bad as it initially seemed. These four years may not be a total foreign policy disaster, but we’ll have to wait and see whether this Jenga tower of an administration continues to be held together.