Worldview: Trump's foreign policy comments scare national security experts

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump delivers remarks as he rallies with supporters in Toledo, Ohio, on Sept. 21, 2016.

Many readers who criticized my Sunday column on the security dangers of a Trump presidency claimed that my views were the result of "liberal" bias.

Nope. The image of Donald Trump's finger atop the nuclear button terrifies security experts across the political spectrum. It's an equal-opportunity nightmare that haunts Republicans as well as Democrats.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served eight presidents - including Bush 41 and Bush 43 - wrote in Saturday's Wall Street Journal: "A thin-skinned, temperamental, shoot-from-the-hip and lip, uninformed commander-in-chief is too great a risk for America."

And last month, 50 of the most senior GOP security experts, including former White House aides and cabinet members, like Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge, warned that Trump would "put at risk our country's national security and well-being." Setting off such a public alarm about your own party's candidate is unprecedented.

Gates and one of the GOP gang of 50 - Kori Schake, a senior official on George W. Bush's National Security Council - were in Philadelphia this week. They made critical points in person - and in print.

"The world is more perilous than at any time since the end of the Cold War and more complex than at any time since the end of World War II," Gates said at the opening of Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania's new center on global affairs.

In this fragile world, the next president will have to deal with a rising China and a continuing series of challenges by Russia's Vladimir Putin. "Dealing effectively with China requires a president with strategic acumen and vision, nuance, deft diplomatic and political skill, and sound instincts on when to challenge, when to stay silent, and when to compromise or partner," Gates wrote.

When it comes to China, Trump's hair-trigger temper, combative trash talk, and pledge to wage a trade war with Beijing, are the polar opposite of what is needed. "It is important that a leader set an example of restraint," Gates said at Penn. "Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush never let it get personal."

As for the tricky balance of confronting Putin's aggression while maintaining a necessary relationship with Moscow, Gates saw no sign that Trump could manage. "Mr. Trump's expressions of admiration for the man and his authoritarian regime are naive and irresponsible," the former defense secretary wrote. In other words, Trump's fawning over Putin and studied indifference to Putin's war crimes in Syria and Ukraine only convinces the Russian strongman the Donald is a useful fool.

Gates doesn't dismiss Hillary Clinton's credibility problems. But, he writes: "When it comes to credibility problems, Donald Trump is in a league of his own," sowing doubt about support for NATO and America's Asian allies, and talking cavalierly about the spread and use of nuclear weapons.

As for Trump's knee jerk response to terrorism - including the latest attacks in Brooklyn and New Jersey - Gates hit the mark. Trump's calls for banning all Muslim immigration, his hints that he might back internment of U.S. Muslims, display a blindness to a key advantage America has over Europe. "Muslims here are much more integrated than in Europe. That integration is vital to our national security," Gates said. In other words, Trump is alienating a key constituency in the fight.

No wonder Gates concludes in his Journal op-ed that Trump "is unqualified and unfit to be commander-in-chief."

The statement by the 50 former GOP national security officials was equally damning. "Mr. Trump lacks the character, values, and experience to be President," they wrote. "He weakens U.S. moral authority [and] appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution . . . We know that many have doubts about Hillary Clinton, as do many of us. But Donald Trump is not the answer . . . We are convinced . . . he would be the most reckless president in American history."

This point was echoed by Schake, one of the signatories, who now teaches at Stanford's Hoover Institution and spoke to Philadelphia's Foreign Policy Research Institute this week. "As a conservative Republican," she said, "I only do it [support Clinton] with enormous misgivings, but it's a dangerous world out there and it will be more dangerous if he is elected. I genuinely believe it would be a disaster for our country."

What deeply disturbs Schake is Trump's reckless disregard for America's key alliances in Europe and Asia and his careless talk of junking them. Never mind that our allies share our values in a world where authoritarianism is on the rise.

She worries that many U.S. voters fail to recognize how important those alliances still are to America's future safety. "We need to rekindle an appreciation for our alliances," she said. "We've been safe for so long, Americans don't think there are consequences [if they crumble]."

It's ironic, I'd add, that Trump damns President Obama for weakening America's global standing when his own isolationism would destroy that standing.

"We have created an international order that has been extremely beneficial [to Americans]" says Schake. As the U.S. steps back, global disorder will increase exponentially.

This is why Schake and her fellow GOP security stalwarts have disavowed Trump, and some have endorsed Hillary. But missing from the list are any of the living Republican ex-secretaries of State: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker III, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice.

Given the stakes, it's time they made their positions known.

trubin@phillynews.com

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