War, Anyone? The Commander-in-Chief Wants To Pick a Card

It’s clear that Donald Trump’s first hundred days haven’t turned out to be the walk in the park he envisioned. The most spectacularly unqualified and intellectually disabled leader ever freely chosen by any people on earth—that’s us, friends—can’t hide his scowl of frustration whenever he sits down for the obligatory photo op with visiting dignitaries. Otherwise, he retreats into Twitter-world, or his gated fortress at Mar-a-Lago. The most photographed person in the history of the world has suddenly become the least visible.

Signing executive orders is the easy part. You sit at a desk and hold up a piece of paper with your signature at the bottom, the one that looks like a runaway seismograph. Legislating is another matter. Who would have thought that health care reform was so hard? Donald Trump actually said that, in advance of having his head handed back to him on a platter by the House Freedom Caucus. Ah, well, if it’s not one deal, it’s on to the next. How about tax reform? Oh, that’s hard too, so maybe—um—we’ll go back to health care. Or not.

Here’s a hot tip, Donald. Your border wall—the Mother of All Walls, the one you decided to build when pesky neighbors in Scotland and Ireland wouldn’t let you fence off your golf courses and block the view of their own country—isn’t going to get built: too expensive, too much eminent domain, and even the Texans don’t like it. Those coal mining jobs aren’t coming back either, any more than horse-drawn milk wagons in the morning. You’ll change the subject—three-year-olds are good at doing that—but people do keep score. And yours, except for that Supreme Court judge Mike Pence scarfed up for you, you know, the one who thinks truck drivers should freeze to death in their cabs rather than abandon a payload, is zero.

What’s left for a president to do?

Happily for Donald Trump, and alas for the rest of us, there’s the role of Commander-in-Chief.
When Trump was campaigning, he scoffed at foreign entanglements and military alliances. We always got the short end of the stick, from those NATO deadbeats who don’t pay their own bills to the generals who keep talking you into wars they never win. It was kind of refreshing when he said that, because some of us had grown a little tired of bombing places we couldn’t pronounce for reasons we couldn’t remember. But what the Donald has learned on the actual job—the only thing he has learned, apparently—is that the role of Commander-in-Chief is the one whose buttons work when you push them. Backwoods Congressmen can frustrate you, judges from jurisdictions you never heard of can tie you up, but when you order a warship to steam ahead or a missile to launch, hey presto! It’s done.

Thus, within a week, we’ve seen battlefields ramped up on three different fronts. There were those 59 Tomahawk missiles launched against a Russian-manned airfield in Syria after a dubiously sourced chemical attack against civilians. Then came that Massive Ordnance Air Blast (“Mother of All Bombs”) detonation against some ISIS fighters allegedly holed up in bunkers on the Afghan-Pakistan border, which appears to have been the largest bomb exploded since Hiroshima. And now there’s the Seventh Fleet squadron detached to head up off the coast of nuclear-armed North Korea while we ostentatiously conduct war games south of its border and warn, in that most popular of presidential phrases, that all options are on the table.

Let’s take these gambits in order.

In 2013, when we had our last chemical warfare crisis in Syria, Barack Obama looked in vain for support from our allies or even from Congress (in which warmaking authority is still nominally vested) for a missile strike he really didn’t want to launch. Everyone thought him a wuss for not simply going ahead, as he had in Libya two years earlier when he told Congress it couldn’t stop him bombing when and where he would. Libya hadn’t worked out, though, and Obama had enough failed wars on his plate already.

At that time, one of the few voices that argued Syria simply wasn’t our business was Donald Trump’s. No one paid any attention to what a flaky real estate developer had to say, but his words are remembered now. Trump didn’t bother to consult the UN or NATO or Congress when his turn came; he simply bombed. Brian Williams, from his MSNBC exile, was overjoyed; another talking head, Fareed Zakaria, gushed that Trump had finally become president in showing Bashar Al-Assad and the Russkies a thing or two. Amazing how easy it was to win enemies and frighten people! Maybe this president thing wasn’t going to be such a downer after all.

No one can really figure out why that big bomb was dropped in Afghanistan. But Trump had promised in campaigning to blow the hell out of ISIS, and here was the perfect opportunity: an invisible target, concealed underground, with civilians given notice to get out of the way. You could make up the body count any way you wanted: 36, 94 . . . just up to 700, which happens to be the estimate of the total number of ISIS fighters still left in Afghanistan before the big one exploded. It made a great photo op, a little topography rearranged with no blood and gore to spoil the shot. Was there anyone actually left in those bunkers when the bomb went off? Phantom wars have phantom victims, but we do have the Pentagon’s word for it: there really are fewer bad guys in the world now, at least until fresh recruits rush to the colors. Nor did anyone complain about the exercise except for Hamid Karzai, our erstwhile puppet in Afghanistan turned elder statesman, who griped about his country being turned into an ordnance range.

We could find ourselves pulled into Syria, a war even the generals don’t want. We’ve already spent going on sixteen years in Afghanistan, a war no one expects us to ever get out of. But Korea is another matter, and here a little history is in order.
The Korean War (1950-53), now forgotten by almost everyone except those who fought in it, was as costly as Vietnam. It has had its historians, but it seems to me as poorly understood from a strategic perspective as any we’ve ever fought. Russia had just tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, and Mao Ze dong had marched into Beijing at the head of a victorious insurgency. Suddenly, three-quarters of the Eurasian continent was in Communist hands, including, respectively, the largest and most populous states in the world. North Korea, situated close to our Pacific headquarters in Japan, had gone Communist, too.

The attack that precipitated the war is still lost in the murk of Cold War historiography. The journalist I. F. Stone pointed out long ago that the Seventh Fleet steamed into Korean waters and U.S. military leaves were canceled in the weeks leading up to North Korea’s supposed invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. At the very least, the Truman administration had military intelligence of North Korea’s ‘unprovoked’ attack, and Stone pointed out that the first communiqué received about it in Tokyo spoke of a South Korean incursion against the North.

Our military proconsul in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, wanted and contemplated war with China from the beginning of what President Harry Truman called the “police action” in Korea. He would have had strong support from the then potent who-lost-China lobby in Congress. If a war could be arranged on the Korean Peninsula, a march up to the Yalu River and into China was feasible, and proved to be the case once MacArthur was on the job. Maybe someone in North Korea got trigger-happy under the circumstances. Maybe it was the other way around. What is clear is that our resort to war was immediate, and that this proved to be the occasion for effectively repealing Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and putting warmaking authority into the hands of the president, which means at the moment into those of Donald Trump.

This may be ancient history for us, but it’s not for the Koreans—or, for that matter, the Chinese, with whom we soon found ourselves in what is more properly called the Sino-American War. North Korea was, as one of our military commentators put it, bombed back to the Stone Age, and China fought a costly war of regime survival. It has been a given of our relations with China ever since that Korea remains divided as it has been, and that North Korea remains within China’s sphere of control as South Korea is of ours. China no doubt has long-term hegemonic ambitions in the region that include the withdrawal of American military power and the recovery of Taiwan. For the moment, it contents itself with naval probes in the South China Sea. But it is not prepared for any unilateral alteration in the status quo, as it has made repeatedly clear. That it must deal with an American administration so given to reckless saber-rattling and literally dismissive of diplomacy shows how dangerous the moment is, and that we have to rely on Trump’s military advisors to rein him in shows how fundamentally unbalanced our government is in every sense of the word. Nor do I think it is possible to overstate the spectacle we present to the world in using a bombastic oil man with no experience of statecraft and hardly even any acquaintance with Trump himself to fly around the world representing us without even undersecretaries to advise him which country he might be landing in.

Neither Obama nor Clinton had any serious conception of the world when they took office, and neither learned very much except not to press his stupidity too far. But Donald Trump, as callow as Caligula, as suggestible as Claudius, and as preening as Nero, sends one back to Tacitus for comparison. The Romans at least had the excuse of a hereditary monarchy for their appalling run of rulers. Whom, though, can we blame for Trump but ourselves?

About Robert Zaller 53 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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