Ignore President Donald Trump’s fake claim of a “growing security crisis” on our southern border.
His fearmongering only distracts Americans from our real security crisis: a chaotic foreign policy increasingly run solo by a president who believes himself too “brilliant” to need advice. A president who makes consequential decisions by tweet without consulting top advisers or allies. A president who believes he is uniquely qualified to make deals with despots but gets played by them every time.
The security threat posed by Trump was vividly on display this week.
Even as Trump was misusing his prime-time address, his national security adviser and secretary of state were traipsing the Mideast in a desperate attempt to calm allies spooked by his sudden tweet that U.S. troops were quitting Syria.
Yet the president’s behavior remains so erratic, the cleanup mission was doomed to fail.
Let’s briefly recap the Syria debacle: Trump’s mid-December tweet came just after a phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; the Turkish president pledged to take on the remaining fight against ISIS if the U.S. withdrew its 2,000 troops from Syria. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that Erdoğan had also promised Trump he would “protect” Syrian Kurdish fighters allied with America in smashing ISIS.
Trump apparently bought both of Erdoğan’s blatant falsehoods.
“The president hasn’t read his briefing books,” says the Council on Foreign Relations Turkey expert Steven Cook. Erdoğan has made clear over and over that his primary enemy in Syria is the Kurds, not ISIS. Indeed, when President Barack Obama asked for Turkish help in pushing back a powerful ISIS attack in 2014 near Turkey’s border, Erdoğan made clear he’d rather kill Kurds.
Cook adds, “The idea that Erdoğan would fight ISIS is totally ridiculous.” Turkey’s military is not geared for such guerrilla warfare, nor are their Sunni Arab militia allies in northern Syria capable of doing so.
Yet the Turks are asking the United States to turn over U.S. bases in Syria, and to give the Turkish military weapons and intelligence. Says Cook: “People in the U.S. military are saying, ‘Why are we doing this when the Turkish military will turn around and kill our [Kurdish] allies?' ”
The answer: Trump is so clueless about the Mideast that he accepts Erdoğan’s pledges. Not surprisingly, Erdoğan wants to deal with only a gullible Trump while ignoring the president’s unhappy security advisers, who were not consulted before the tweet and oppose a speedy pullout. The Turkish leader refused to meet with National Security Adviser John Bolton in Ankara this week, after Bolton demanded that Turkey agree to protect our Kurdish allies. (Clearly, Bolton didn’t believe Erdoğan’s promise to Trump.)
Bolton and Pompeo are each traversing the region in an effort to reassure Israel and Gulf Arabs that a U.S. pullout won’t encourage an ISIS revival, and embolden Iran to expand its operations in Syria. But why should our spooked allies believe Bolton or Pompeo, when the president doesn’t listen to them? (Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned after failing to change the president’s mind on the Syria withdrawal.)
And why should any allies trust Washington, when they know Trump may sell them out with a tweet based on ignorance or pique?
The Syria case lays bare the security threat posed by a U.S. president who thinks he has infallible instincts, and has no clue that he is being played by despots whose instincts, and knowledge, are far better than his.
Just as Trump was easy prey for Erdoğan, he has lapped up Vladimir Putin’s falsehoods, and has yet to budge Xi Jinping — or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — on key security and nuclear issues. Obsessed with leader-to-leader negotiations, the president may ultimately make bad deals, or after coming up empty, drift into military conflict.
What makes Trump’s obsession with a border wall even more outrageous is that it distracts attention from all the real threats elsewhere. The White House has yet to cite one case of a known terrorist sneaking in across the southwest border and had to retract false claims by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to the contrary.
Indeed, the primary threat to U.S. security, according to the 2018 assessment by the director of national intelligence, is cyberattacks against critical infrastructure and markets, with Russia and China atop the list of malign actors.
Yet Trump refuses to direct an all-of-government pushback against cyber warfare and has dismantled the office of White House cybersecurity coordinator. He continues to deny the realities of Russian meddling.
And his government shutdown has sidelined nearly half the staff of the Department of Homeland Security’s new cybersecurity agency, which was supposed to guard against network attacks.
Next on the threat list are the rise of smaller nuclear and biological weapons, and the still-real terror threat from ISIS and al-Qaeda. The president hasn’t paid any attention to the former. And, if he follows his instincts, he will promote an ISIS revival in Syria by betraying the only Syrian fighters, the Kurds, who truly took on the jihadis.