Remember when the biggest threat keeping us awake at night was North Korea’s nukes? That was so, like, February.
Since then, the menace of North Korea has waned in the wake of pugnacious new presidential salvos — or, more accurately, unpresidential salvos — on several other fronts: Russia, China, even America itself.
The fact is, the whiffs of wars fly almost too fast to track. They feel less like the upshot of the “chaos theory” that many analysts advance about President Donald Trump — which would suggest the risks are calculated — and more like the fallout from an “impulse theory” — which would suggest they’re not. If this is true, Trump doubles down and raises the risks of one kind of war or another not because of shrewd strategy, but because of ignorant instinct. Just think about the latest examples.
This past week, we faced the threat of an unthinkable but suddenly not inconceivable shooting war with Russia over chemical weapons in Syria. The American missiles launched to discourage more chemical strikes against Syrian citizens might or might not have lasting effect (because they might or might not represent a strategy as opposed to just a spectacle). But, even knowing that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has a penchant for combat almost as big as his own, Trump couldn’t resist sticking it in Putin’s eye with a taunting tweet.
What we got back was a sinister shot from Russia’s ambassador in Washington: “We are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.” Consequences? One of the president’s advisers would do well to explain the concept. These adversarial superpowers have decades of experience with restraint, but now, facing each other over Syria, one miscalculation could make that experience moot.
The week before, it was the threat of an unimaginable but not unlikely trade war with China over tariffs. Here, too, instead of quietly going about the business of evening the playing field, the president openly welcomed economic combat, tweeting, “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
Easy to win? With even the prospect of a trade war on the horizon, American firms dependent on foreign imports and farmers dependent on foreign exports already see unsustainable losses in their immediate future, and some Americans with their savings in what had been a soaring stock market already have suffered double-digit losses in their nest eggs. The National Retail Federation accused the president of “playing a game of chicken with the nation’s economy.” This is good?
Although China has uttered some conciliatory rhetoric, it also has warned that “we will not sit idly by and will take necessary measures if the U.S. hurts China’s interests.” Trump even earned a reprimand from China President Xi Jinping — who Trump says will “always” be his friend — that “arrogance” will earn us a place in “the dustbin of history.” That’s some friendship! Leading an economy that inevitably will be bigger than ours, Xi’s ultimatums should not be indifferently ignored.
And just about every week this year, there’s been an incredible but not improbable war against the fundamental foundations of our own society and our own government. Trump has impugned and insulted the integrity of everything from the judiciary to the media to Congress to overseas allies to members of his own presidential Cabinet to Gold Star families whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms. And, needless to say, of law enforcement.
Just last week, a presidential tweet, trying to allay the impact of James Comey’s blistering new book, characterized federal law enforcement as “a den of thieves and lowlifes!” Some Americans might see all of this as theatre, but as The New York Times put it in a Monday editorial, “What can seem now like a political sideshow” can “instantly become a constitutional crisis.” Which would put us at war with ourselves.
It has gotten so bad that, the other day, I took a long bike ride and forgot to pack my phone, which meant I went something like six hours without tuning into the world’s woes. When I got back to my car and turned on the news, I found myself half-relieved, but also actually half-surprised, that we weren’t either under attack or on the attack ourselves.
I’m old enough to remember the last time anxious Americans felt that way: the showdown with the Soviet Union known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’ve fought plenty of wars since then, some of which I’ve covered, but none came with the impromptu and imprudent risks in which this president seems to revel.
What Trump doesn’t seem to grasp is that while he says he’s making America great again, the truth is, by waging wars on so many fronts, he’s actually making it weaker. Weaker economically, weaker diplomatically, weaker constitutionally. In his binary brain, he doesn’t seem to understand that for every action, there is a reaction.
Or, put more simply, if you shoot at an enemy, the enemy is going to shoot back.
Greg Dobbs is a former Emmy Award-winning correspondent who covered news in more than 80 countries for two television networks, the author of two books, and a former op-ed columnist for The Denver Post.