When it first appeared that Donald Trump was a serious presidential candidate, close friends tried to ease my fears of a Trump White House by suggesting that, if elected, he would surround himself with “leading experts.” These experts would aid him in making important decisions, both in domestic and foreign policy matters. To appreciate the importance of these staffing decisions, one needs only look back to the last President who won the presidency while losing the popular vote, George W. Bush.
Although he had some administrative experience, having been the governor of Texas, Mr. Bush knew little of foreign policy upon taking office. He had a likeable and strong personality (I am the decider) but was not particularly fond of reading or listening to a detailed examination of the pros and cons of any issue. Author Jean Edward Smith in his monumental work, “Bush,” suggests that Bush’s first truly colossal mistake was to delegate to his vice president, Dick Cheney, the task of selecting the players who would surround the president as he formulated his policies. Cheney selected highly partisan figures who told the president only what he wanted to hear and did not press alternative points of view.
A close examination of the deliberative process that surrounded the inner circle of John F. Kennedy’s White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis reveals the absolute necessity for a robust exchange of varied points of view as well as the presence of a commander in chief who possesses the ability to make well-informed critical assessments. The intellectual prowess that President Kennedy demonstrated in his pointed questioning of the generals who favored a military confrontation with the Soviet Union was all that stood between us and World War III.
George W. Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11, needed an easy target. One of his main advisors who had the president’s ear was a neoconservative by the name of Paul Wolfowitz, who was a strong advocate of “regime change” in Iraq. Even though there was absolutely no evidence that Iraq had aided the terrorists who had attacked us, Bush succumbed to Wolfowitz’s point of view that taking out Saddam Hussein would be an easy victory and certainly make Americans feel that we were “winning” the war on terror. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his memoirs, “Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell,” describes how frustrating it was to get the president to look at the complexities and nuances of policy and not see everything in stark black-and-white terms. Powell persuaded the president to take his case to the United Nations. With no real evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Powell was forced to do President Bush’s bidding and implore the United Nations to take action against Iraq.
In the end, President Bush committed what many believe to be the worst foreign policy blunder in our country’s history—the invasion of Iraq. Without provocation, the United States invaded a country that posed absolutely no threat to our security and safety nor had harbored or aided in any way terrorists who we were seeking at the time. In the process, Bush established two catastrophic policies that no one in his inner circle dared challenge: the Bush Doctrine, which condoned the use of pre-emptive force, and the unbridled use of torture in contravention of the principles of the Geneva Convention. As time went on, even his loyal inner circle finally began to express discontent. But, the Bush White House was not built such as to allow a lively exchange of opposing points of view; therefore, when Secretary Powell courageously voiced strenuous objections to Mr. Bush’s ill-conceived policies, he was replaced. The president’s ego was such that he refused to reconsider his position. Bush loyalist Donald Rumsfeld, in his fascinating book, “Known and Unknown: A Memoir,” chronicled a similar fate when he dared to challenge the Boss’s course of action.
Bush believed that he was on a mission—which he often described in biblical terms—to bring western-style democracy first to Iraq and then to the entire world. If history has taught us anything, it has taught us that whenever we try to impose our will on other lands, no matter how well-intentioned, it ends up being an expensive recipe for disaster. The invasion of Iraq was no different; the price tag in both monetary and human terms was enormous. We lost close to 5,000 young men and women while the Iraq death toll was over 500,000 men, women and children. Monetarily, it is estimated that we spent north of $2.4 trillion ($6 trillion if you include the military action in Afghanistan). In the end, all we succeeded in doing was to lethally destabilize the region and lay the groundwork for the birth and growth of ISIS.
President-elect Donald Trump, like George W. Bush, is neither an avid reader nor a fan of detailed examinations of the pros and cons of policy. He has said that he likes to rely on his gut. His campaign certainly demonstrated his propensity to say whatever is on his mind no matter how absurd or extreme. Similarly, he sees the world in black-and-white terms (winning and losing) while rejecting the suggestion of a nuanced reality. These facts alone make it imperative that he surround himself with a diverse group of well-informed and experienced advisors who can balance Mr. Trump’s initial impulses with a more-seasoned view, taking into account our history and long term goals.
Unfortunately, as I write this column, it appears that this will not be the case. Mr. Trump is choosing advisors whose only qualification is loyalty, and not expertise. For example, one of the president-elect’s first choices, Stephen Bannon—who will serve as a senior advisor to the President—is the executive chairman of Breitbart News, a far-right news and commentary website noted for its connection to hate-oriented positions. His selection alone will only exacerbate the rift that is so clearly evident in our country.
No one knows what crisis awaits our country in the next four years. One can only hope somehow, some way that the course of action chosen by the new president is sound and wise. To think otherwise is just too painful.