Will Trump risk war to save his presidency?

By Michael Oppenheimer 

This article was originally published in The Hill.

Lost — temporally — in the Cohen testimony and the predictable collapse of the nuclear talks with North Korea, is the lesson we need to learn from the fabricated Mexican border ‘crisis’ and fake national emergency. It is this: President Trump is prepared to inflict lasting damage on the country to save his presidency. 

As we try to impose fact and law on immigration policy, we need to apply this lesson in contemplating Trump’s next desperate act. The most worrisome scenario is a real but still manageable external crisis that arrives at a moment when escalation is in Trump’s political interest. Response mismanagement would fuel the crisis, but the real threat is a president motivated to hype a real crisis that his chaotic administration will be unable to control.

Such a possibility has risen from Hollywood cliché to serious risk and the odds of a “wag the dog” dynamic are increasing. Trump is in a deep hole and digging furiously. The political benefits of the wall will prove transitory, as construction bogs down in the courts and the latest caravan melts away. Between Mueller, mounting congressional scrutiny, low poll numbers, Republican desertions, further indictments of family and friends, impeachment (if not conviction) and an approaching election, the temptation to change the subject and rally his base by hyping an external threat could become irresistible. Backed into a corner and politically wounded, we can expect neither rational nor well-intentioned behavior from the president.

Unlike the slow moving and artificial crisis over the border, a real national security crisis, provoked by Trump or not, will move rapidly, present high, possibly existential risk, involve complexity, uncertainty and unintended negative consequences from ill-conceived policy choices. Consider Berlin blockades, Soviet missiles in Cuba, several global financial and economic crises, 9/11. Few presidents have avoided such perils and their presidencies — and the future of the country — have been defined by their responses.

Such episodes are exacting tests of precisely those qualities lacking in the Trump Administration: the rigor of policy process, the knowledge and skill of advisors, the confidence and mutual respect among and between policy and intelligence officials and the calmness of the president. Even with the best of intentions and effort, presidential performance has varied widely over our recent history.

At the extremes, JFK’s skillful management of the missile crisis produced a peaceful resolution, Soviet capitulation, an improved period in U.S.-Soviet relations and enhanced political standing for the president. George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 was to invade Iraq, arguably the worst strategic mistake since Vietnam and still paying negative dividends for ourselves and the Middle East.

We face an oversupply of potential crises and all offer ample opportunities for a president prepared to distort and manipulate external threats for political purposes. Iran could give up on the JCPOA and resume its nuclear program, reinforcing Iran-Israel conflict arising out of Syria and offering an opportunity for U.S. intervention; internal conflict in Venezuela could worsen and be attributed to hostile external influences; territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas could lead to a direct clash between U.S. and Chinese forces, as could a crisis precipitated by a Chinese move against Taiwan; there could be dangerous fallout from the failed nuclear negotiation with North Korea; Russia could move more boldly into Ukraine.

Some might challenge the likelihood of this scenario, based on Trump’s announcements (not yet implemented) of troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, but his support for military restraint is not likely to survive his first exploitable crisis. His apparent preference for restraint is not the product of experience or deep conviction and-to his and our great fortune-has not yet been tested by crisis. His two closest advisors, Pompeo and Bolton, look favorably on the use of force to promote American interests and are spoiling for a fight with Iran.

The Bush precedent is instructive. An inexperienced president entered office with a declared preference for restraint in the use of force, opposition to nation building and support for collective action with allies. He then did a complete about-face in reaction to 9/11 and followed his neocon advisors into a unilateral, regime changing, nation building disaster in Iraq.

We must all recognize the problem we’re dealing with and get out in front of the dangers. Our president is a willful and heedless man who is personally inclined and politically motivated to seize any opportunity available to save his presidency. Managing a future crisis, even if he had the capacity, will not be his priority.

Capitalizing on it will be. Internal constraints on his behavior have all but disappeared and the enlarged presence of hard right advisors in his inner circle will generate further impetus towards escalation, especially if Iran provides the provocation. Our priority — in the public, the Congress, the press — is not to improve the administration’s decision-making skills, but to contain Trump’s instincts for doing harm.

We must reassert congressional war powers, require intelligence community confirmation of the factual basis of any administration war narrative, insist on defense department assessment of our capacity to carry out presidential policy preferences, place limits on the president’s authority to launch first use of nuclear weapons, scrutinize administration policy on emerging conflicts through public or closed hearings and — for the press — aggressively cover the administration’s reaction to emerging potential crises.

Michael Oppenheimer is a clinical professor with the NYU School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs, where he focuses on international relations and foreign policy.

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