I suppose that it is a healthy sign for me that I continue to be amazed by the blundering, mistake-prone, disaster-inducing ways of the current administration; my constant state of disbelief and shock may indicate that my standards for competence, organization and professionalism have not been diminished. Then again, the fact that my standards–and those of others–are repeatedly being run roughshod by the worst president and administration in American history, and only the most deluded of Trump supporters (but is there anything other than a deluded Trump supporter?) can possibly think that this is a good thing.
The latest manifestations of incompetence are hardly surprising, but they reinforce previous narratives and renew cause for serious and deep concern–at least on the part of anyone who actually loves the United States of America and cares about its future. Exhibit A in the argument that the Trump administration is in way over its head comes in the form of this article, which is only the most recent to point out that Rex Tillerson is destroying the State Department and annihilating American diplomacy. Most of the story regarding this issue is well known; Tillerson micromanages to an extent not seen in the tenures of previous secretaries of state, he ignores diplomacy and spends more time on departmental reorganization–a task that he can (and should) outsource to others, key positions remain unfilled, and scores of top diplomats with irreplaceable institutional memory have been forced out of the building. All of this is terrible enough, but there is also evidence that the State Department has turned into the Twilight Zone:
The person on whose shoulders the fallout from the staffing shortage rests most heavily is Brian Hook, the head of the department’s office of policy planning. A former adviser to Mitt Romney, Hook was a founder of the John Hay Initiative, a hawkish foreign-policy think tank whose other two founders, Eliot A. Cohen and Eric Edelman, were (and still are) among Trump’s most vociferous critics. Cohen and Edelman put their names on anti-Trump letters during the 2016 election; Hook didn’t.
With so many crucial assistant-secretary positions — including some responsible for Asia, the Middle East, and South America — still either vacant or filled with acting officials, Hook has had to pick up the slack. “He’s trying to do the job of 30 people,” a 25-year veteran Foreign Service officer says. “He’s just knee-walking.” Worse, the office of policy planning, which has traditionally functioned as the secretary of state’s in-house think tank, is now tasked with handling day-to-day operations at the expense of formulating long-term strategy. “The problem is there’s no conceptual motor at all,” says Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies who served as counselor of the department under Rice. “It’s the random thoughts of Donald J. Trump and a very weak State Department and a secretary of state who hasn’t thought deeply about these things.”
When I recently met with Hook in his seventh-floor office at the State Department, he seemed wary of any implication that, in light of his establishment pedigree and association with Cohen and Edelman, he wasn’t sufficiently pro-Trump. I noted that on his conference table he had a book by Daniel W. Drezner, an international-politics professor at Tufts University who writes regularly for The Washington Post website and is a frequent critic of Trump and of Tillerson. In fact, just that morning, Drezner had published a column calling on Tillerson to resign. I jokingly told Hook that he might want to hide the book. Instead, R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s communications director, who was sitting in on the interview, immediately seized it.
“This is the guy who has the thing at The Post?” Hammond asked Hook. “Where’s your trash can?” He made as if he was going to throw the book across Hook’s office. Hook raised his hand to block Hammond.
“No!” Hook said. “It’s a book on policy planning! This was written before Rex Tillerson was even considered.”
“Trash can,” Hammond reiterated. Hook kept his hand up. The fifth of Bombay gin and the liter bottle of tonic water on his desk suddenly made more sense.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is deranged behavior from deranged people, and it should horrify us that these deranged people have power and influence over the design and implementation of American foreign policy.
Drezner has had something to say in response to all of this lunacy, and no one can blame him if in private, he rejoices over the fact that divine powers have looked kindly on his offering of Voltaire’s prayer. But once we get the chuckles of derision directed at the especially juvenile members of the Trump administration out of the way, we are left with the stark realization that extremely un-gifted, extremely resentful, extremely vindictive, extremely petty, extremely small-minded people are in charge at the State Department. This is wonderful news for America’s enemies, of which there are many. It is terrible news for America, and for American allies–who have to be wondering how much longer it will be worth much of anything to be an American ally.
So much then for Exhibit A. Exhibit B in the argument that the Trump administration is in way over its head can be found here, and boy howdy, it is a doozy:
White House officials working on trade policy were alarmed last month when a top adviser to President Trump circulated a two-page document that alleged a weakened manufacturing sector leads to an increase in abortion, spousal abuse, divorce and infertility, two people familiar with the matter said.
The documents, which were obtained by The Washington Post, were prepared and distributed by Peter Navarro, director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. They were presented without any data or information to back up the assertions, and reveal some of the materials the Trump administration reviewed as it was crafting its trade policy.
Two administration officials confirmed the authenticity of the documents, which have emerged as the administration has threatened to withdraw from a free trade agreement with South Korea and is taking a hard-line stance against Canada and Mexico in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
[. . .]
Navarro has urged Trump to favor bilateral trade agreements over regional ones such as NAFTA, and he supported the president’s decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His documents alarmed other White House officials, who worried that such unverified information could end up steering White House policy, the two administration officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the documents, which were not released publicly.
To be sure, Peter Navarro is a terrible economist, and I have seen a story or two regarding this joke of a policy paper indicating that it was leaked by Navarro’s enemies in the White House–National Economic Council director Gary Cohn being chief amongst them– in order for those enemies to have their own offerings of Voltaire’s prayer answered favorably. But that doesn’t change the fact that truly deluded and ignorant people, suffering mightily from the Dunning-Kruger effect, might help bring about a complete and utter economic calamity.
Five minutes of this sheer nonsense, is difficult to take. We may have to endure anywhere between four to eight years of it, during which time, inestimable amounts of damage may be done to American power, prestige and prosperity, not to mention the well-being of our allies and international stability in general. To say that all of this is unsustainable is to dramatically understate matters. To be sure, there is a remedy that we can employ to end all of this. The question, of course, is whether we will have the foresight and the courage to employ it.