One of the most horrifying things about a Trump presidency to me was the thought of The Donald managing a crisis. The best outcome I could think of was for Trump’s staff to handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet until it was over. But now I am starting to wonder.
What if you held a crisis and no one showed up?
You see, whether to have a crisis or not is to a considerable extent a deliberate policy decision. That was one thing that became clear to me reading Essence of Decision on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some rather disturbing things arise from it. It is clear (see pages 187-194) that the decision to make the presence of missiles in Cuba a crisis was a conscious decision made by Kennedy for political reasons. He was being accused of being soft on Communism for allowing the Bay of Pigs invasion to fail. He had to do something to show strength, but he did not want an actual superpower showdown. His plan, then, was to draw some sort of line in the sand, something the Soviets has not done, insist that this was the line we would not allow them to cross, and claim victory when the line held. He decided on missiles because he believed there were no missiles in Cuba. Well, it turned out that he had calculated wrong and that the Soviets did have missiles in Cuba after all, so failure to provoke a showdown would have been devastating to his political fortunes.
Furthermore, there were signs in Washington that a crisis was brewing. Limousines of important officials started appearing at the White House and State Department with remarkable frequency. Certain officials stopped being reachable by phone. Lights were burning late in parts of the State Department and Pentagon. Staffers were bringing cots and staying overnight. While Kennedy kept the general public distracted by continuing normal activities in the public eye, an astute observer could see signs that there was about to be a crisis. By watching what sections had lights burning late, an astute observer could even guess that the crisis was about missiles in Cuba. Such astute observers included the British intelligence and two sharp investigative reporters for the New York Times and the Washington Post, but not the KGB. The crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than any other. Yet it was entirely a choice on Kennedy’s part and ultimately dictated by political, rather than security, considerations.
Of course, in the Cuban Missile Crisis the initiative lay with us. Sometimes the President really is ambushed by an unexpected development originated by someone else. But even then, he has considerable latitude to decide whether to make it a crisis or not.
Consider, for instance, what has happened so far since January 20. North Korea has moved into a more confrontational mode and fired repeated missiles over the Sea of Japan, even as the South Korean government was paralyzed by an impeachment. Saudi Arabia and its satellites have broken off diplomatic relations with Qatar and instituted a blockade, then issued an ultimatum making obviously unacceptable demands, including the closing of Al Jazeera. Qatar has responded by seeking an alliance with Turkey, Iran, and possibly even Russia. No shots have been fired, but a blockade is customarily considered an act of war.
Many Presidents would have treated either or both of these events as a crisis and acted accordingly. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has made some half-hearted gestures such as sending in Rex Tillerson to negotiate and then either allowing him to proceed in the most ineffectual way possible (in North Korea) or actively undercutting him (in Qatar). And, of course, he has continued spouting insane and inane tweets, either on the would-be crisis or on other topics.
I should note that I am not one of those people who thing that Trump tweets as a deliberate ploy to distract us from the real issue at hand. Nothing in his makeup suggests that he is either disciplined or devious enough to do that. Rather, he just seems to be ranting and spewing whatever goes through his head at any particular time. Or, as Saturday Night Live puts it, he tweets “[B]ecause my brain is bad.” Trump’s tweeting does nonetheless have the tendency to distract from more important matters. Meanwhile, the Pentagon goes right ahead selling arms to Qatar and using our base there to fight ISIS, despite Trump’s tweets of support for Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon is thus metaphorically handcuffing Trump by limiting his freedom of action. So far, alas, they have not been able to get him off Twitter, i.e., to metaphorically stuff something in his mouth. Maybe they can lock him in a very large closet by convincing him to play golf full time. In short, Trump may be too egocentric to deal with actual crises because they would take attention away from him. And this may not be so bad because a lot of crises will blow over anyhow.
But sometimes a crisis strikes so extreme that that doing nothing and letting it blow over is simply not an option. 9-11, for instance. Or Hurricane Katrina. Or the 2008 financial crisis. The good news is that crises of this type are not very common. Maybe GWB was simply unlucky in hitting the jackpot and getting three such crisis in eight years. Then again, maybe incompetent management of smaller crises makes larger crises more likely down the road. I honestly don’t know.
The bad news is that we will undoubtedly find out.
The good news is that at least Trump never sent State Department e-mails on a private server.