It would be difficult for the president to rally a coalition without key national security allies.
By Jonathan Bernstein
What happens when the president’s influence has been reduced to historically low levels?
That’s what I was thinking about when I read Fred Kaplan’s nice piece in Slate on the trouble President Donald Trump is getting into with Iran. My main reaction was: Suppose Trump really did have a good case for going to war there. Who would believe him?
Of course, some of this isn’t Trump’s fault at all; it’s George W. Bush’s fault for how the Iraq War started, and the Republican Party’s fault for never cleaning house in the aftermath.
But most of it is about Trump.
Would U.S. allies trust Trump? It seems extremely unlikely. Nations that supported a U.S. attack on Iran anyway would, naturally, support a Trump war there. But it’s hard to imagine that he could put together any kind of significant coalition, or get any support from at the United Nations.
At home it would be even worse. Trump himself is actively feuding with Congress in highly personal terms, which can’t help. But the bigger problem is that he’s built a reputation for being untrustworthy. We don’t have to guess at that; we just saw Congress pass a very rare resolution attempting to end U.S. involvement in Yemen, with all Democrats and several Republicans voting against Trump’s position. There won’t be enough votes to override Trump’s veto. If, however, he was considering new action and needed a resolution to authorize it, he would need actual majorities. Marginal members of Congress didn’t trust him on Yemen; it’s unlikely they would trust him on Iran.
George H.W. Bush certainly had the trust of Congress when he wanted authorization for the Gulf War. Not everyone supported the action, but generally even Democrats accepted the basic facts he gave them. That wasn’t necessarily the case with George W. Bush and Iraq, but most members of Congress, including Democrats, did have some confidence in the honesty and competence of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, even though it turned out that confidence was in large part misplaced.
Trump? No one is going to be confident in his secretary of defense or his secretary of homeland security, because both of those positions are still vacant (along with several other posts at the Pentagon and Homeland Security), without even a nominee named. And neither of the acting secretaries is an old pro who has built up a solid relationship with Congress. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo probably has at least some credit with Republicans. But National Security Adviser John Bolton? Democrats consider him a warmonger and would probably assume he would say anything to start conflict with Iran. I’m not sure if his reputation is much better among those Republicans who disagree with him on policy.
To a large extent, this is by design. Trump has governed exclusively for his strongest supporters. All first-term presidents are seeking re-election from Day One, but most of them downplay it; Trump held campaign rallies from the start, and never even pretended to switch to governing mode.
Had he been successful in building up his reputation, it might not matter much, but he hasn’t done that, either. Nor has he taken reputation into account when choosing who to nominate for key positions. And things have become considerably worse over the course of his presidency. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was well-regarded by most on Capitol Hill, as was former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster; Democrats came to dislike former chief of staff John Kelly, but I never had the sense they wouldn’t have taken him seriously had he weighed in on an international crisis. Acting chief of staff (yet another acting!) Mick Mulvaney has no foreign policy or national security reputation at all.
To be sure: The Iraq War example reminds us that trusting the president doesn’t always work out well. But still, this is a dangerous place for the United States to be in.
- Dave Hopkins on how Democrats still want to swoon for JFK.
- Kai Gehring, Lennart Kaplan and Melvin H.L. Wong at the Monkey Cage on changes at the World Bank.
- Dan Drezner on the president as a toddler.
- Dean Baker on trade policy and selling the new Nafta.
- Erik Wemple on Trump, Mueller, and Fox News.
- And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Therese Raphael on the latest from Nigel Farage.