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I don’t, as a rule, endorse political candidates. I don’t do work for campaigns. I have never given a dime to a candidate—for any office. I have never signed up to be an adviser to one either. I try, rather, to play more or less the same role in policy debate whichever party is in power in both the executive and legislative branches, and I offer policy counsel to any officer-holder or candidate who comes my way, regardless of party, on the same terms.
But with Donald Trump now the unambiguous front-runner in the Republican field, there’s a question I think readers of this site need to consider seriously—a question John Bellinger raised on this site back in December: Is the putative GOP standard bearer a national security threat?
I ask this question not with the snarky intent of landing a political punch, but in deadly earnest. Never before in my lifetime has either political party been led by a man with such an unusual combination of—from a national security perspective, anyway—terrifying liabilities. Individually, each would be grounds for concern. In combination with one another and as embodied in a single political figure of extreme charisma and proven attractiveness to a significant swath of the electorate, they are a toxic brew that I have no doubt makes this country less secure. They do this, I suspect, even if Trump is not ultimately elected President but merely becomes the Republican nominee.
Let’s start with the fact that Trump displays a near-total ignorance of international policy, military affairs, and intelligence and counterterrorism policy. Ignorance in a politician is often more norm than exception, but Trump’s ignorance is of a particularly proud variety. He’s not just going to mouth off bombastically about what to do in different parts of the world, but he never even pauses to fortify the bombast with facts or rudimentary knowledge. He is an unapologetic yahoo who quite literally has no idea what he’s talking about much of the time. He appears to have no interest in learning anything either about the complex international security environment in which the United States has to operate on a daily basis. And that is a very dangerous thing in a man who would be president.
Second, Trump has done more than any single person to undo two presidents’ earnest and consistent protestations that the United States is not at war with Islam. I have my doubts about whether Guantanamo has really been a major recruiting tool for the enemy. I have no shred of doubt, by contrast, that a promise to bar Muslims from the United States by this country’s president would be a major recruiting tool for the enemy. It certainly would be if I were running ISIS or Al Qaeda! These groups are premised, after all, on civilizational confrontation between Islam and the West. What better evidence could there be that the West is locked in a battle to the death with the umma than the insistence by the President of the United States—or even the Republican nominee for President of the United States—that no Muslim should be allowed to enter the country? What better way to make it impossible for critical Arab and Muslim allies to work with the United States? Why on earth would any sane Muslim cooperate with the law enforcement, intelligence agencies, or military of a country that would exclude him from its shores on the basis of his religion?
Third, compounding this problem are Trump’s open promises to commit war crimes. I suppose it may be possible to “bomb the shit out of them” in a fashion that entirely comports with the law of armed conflict. It is not possible, however, to use interrogation procedures—as Trump has promised to do—much harsher than waterboarding without committing war crimes. Nor is it possible to target terrorists’ families without committing war crimes. So not only is Trump promising a civilizational struggle against Islam and the barring of Muslims from America’s shores, he is promising to conduct that civilizational struggle in a fashion that violates the most basic norms to which this country has committed itself. Even those who led the CIA’s earlier efforts in coercive interrogation are appalled. Consider these comments by former CIA chief Michael Hayden, as quoted in the Washington Post:
During his appearance on “Real Time,” Hayden cited Trump’s pledge to kill family members as being among his most troubling campaign statements.
“That never even occurred to you, right?” [host Bill] Maher asked.
“God, no!” Hayden replied. “Let me give you a punchline: If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act.”
“That’s quite a statement, sir,” Maher said.
“You are required not to follow an unlawful order,” Hayden added. “That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict.”
Surely, when a candidate is talking in a fashion that raises questions—from a former general and head of both CIA and NSA, no less—about whether the military would be forced to defy the commander in chief, we are in a land in which it is fair to discuss the national security implications of the man’s election.
Fourth, even as he endeavors to undo the Bush and Obama administrations’ commitment to separating this country’s engagement with Islam from its struggle with its enemies, Trump openly flirts with America’s actual adversaries. I don’t know what to make of his repeated kind words for Russian President Vladimir Putin, but I think it’s fair to say that Trump has compromised himself with them. He has shown that for all his tough talk, at least where dictators are concerned, he’s actually a bit like a loud barking dog who dissolves in slobbery affection the moment some treat or praise gets thrown his way. Putin is not a fool. He has noticed, I’m sure, that he has gained a would-be client strongman in Trump, and that he has bought him unbelievably cheaply. He has noticed, I am also sure, that with only a modest amount of public ego stroking—a few stray words, really—he bought himself an ally at the top of the GOP field. He has had to pay a lot more, hard cash actually, for his European political allies. Trump likes to boast of the great deals he makes, but he sold himself to Putin for a pittance—and that has national security implications too.
Fifth, this point has an obvious domestic analogue: Trump's recent unwillingness to repudiate support from David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan. Praise Trump even a little and he is putty in your hands. This is a profoundly dangerous quality in an American president.
Sixth, then there is the small matter of Trump’s—there’s no polite way to say this—evident clinical symptoms. I’m not a psychologist qualified to make a diagnosis, but it simply has to be significant that it’s hard to have a serious conversation about Trump without using words like egomania, grandiosity, or narcissism. I have never heard a politician spend a fifth as much time congratulating himself for being ahead in polls, for winning debates (whether or not he actually won them), for making great deals, or for being popular. His self-regard routinely crosses over into what I can only call the delusional. He promises to win voting groups that can be expected to vote against him by wide margins—as when he promises to build a giant wall to keep out Mexicans (who, please remember, are all rapists) yet simultaneously appears to think he will garner significant Latino support. This point is clearly related to the prior two points: His need for constant validation of his self-regard appears to fuel his inability to think ill of anyone—from a foreign dictator to a domestic white supremacist—who obliges him with praise. It is not in the national security interests of the United States to have such a man negotiating with people who can be expected to know at least as I do how much a little flattery will buy.
Finally, Trump’s entire candidacy is predicated on a weird kind of magical thinking that has no place in serious policy discussion generally but is particularly dangerous in the national security sphere. Trump does not propose policy ideas. He identifies and promises outcomes. We’re going to do a lot of winning. We’re going to smash ISIS. We’re going to have great trade deals. We’re going to be tough. We’re going to bring back jobs. We’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it. We’re going to make America great again. He never proposes a modality for achieving any of these things. They're going to happen by force of personality and force of will.
Trump got in trouble this past weekend for retweeting a quotation from Mussolini. But the quotation in question was not the Mussolini line that Trump’s candidacy actually embodies.
My nomination for that dubious honor is the following: “Our program is simple: we wish to govern Italy. They ask us for programs but there are already too many. It is not programs that are wanting for the salvation of Italy but men and will power.”
This is Trump: promising outcomes without programs, promising to do by force of personality and will what a country cannot do through policy or democratic deliberation. It is a lie in all spheres. But in the national security space, it is a particularly pernicious lie. Our tools are too dangerous for cults of personality. Our problems are too hard to wish away with magical thinking. The stakes are too high to permit magic to eclipse persuasive thought and analysis. And the relationship between our tools and tyranny is too intimate to allow demagogues anywhere near the decisions the national security apparatus has to make—or the machineries with which it makes them.