Will Trump Be the Sage One?

Only one person can save us from the dangerous belligerent in the White House.

And that person is Donald Trump.

How screwed up is that?

Will the president let himself be pushed into a parlous war by John Bolton, who once buoyed the phony case on W.M.D.s in Iraq? Or will Trump drag back his national security adviser and the other uber hawks from the precipice of their fondest, bloodiest desire — to attack Iran?

Can Cadet Bone Spurs, as Illinois senator and Iraq war vet Tammy Duckworth called Trump, set Tom Cotton straight that winning a war with Iran would not merely entail “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”? Holy cakewalk.

Once, we counted on Trump’s advisers to pump the brakes on an out-of-control president. Now, we count on the president to pump the brakes on out-of-control advisers.

.. “On one side, you have a president who doesn’t want war, who simply wants to do with Iran what he has done with North Korea, to twist the arm of the Iranians to bring them to a negotiation on his terms,” said Gérard Araud, the recently departed French ambassador. “He thinks they will suffer and at the end, they will grovel in front of his power.”

But in a way, Araud said, the face-off with the Iranians is more “primitive and dangerous” because, besides Bolton, other factions in the Middle East are also “dreaming of going to war.”

“Even if Trump doesn’t personally want war, we are now at the mercy of any incident, because we are at maximum tension on both sides,” said Araud, recalling Candidate Trump’s bellicose Twitter ultimatumsin 2016 when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards held American sailors blindfolded at gunpoint for 15 hours.

Given their sour feelings about W. shattering the Middle East and their anger at Trump shredding the Iran nuclear deal, Europeans are inclined to see the U.S. as trying to provoke Iran into war. This time, the Europeans will not be coming along — and who can blame them?

I’m having an acid flashback to 2002, when an immature, insecure, ill-informed president was bamboozled by his war tutors.

In an echo of the hawks conspiring with Iraqi exiles to concoct a casus belli for Iraq, Bolton told members of an Iranian exile group in Paris in 2017 that the Trump administration should go for regime change in Tehran.

And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Bolton cheerily told the exiles.

When Bolton was the fifth column in the Bush 2 State Department — there to lurk around and report back on flower child Colin Powell — he complained that W.’s Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) was too limited, adding three more of his own (Cuba, Libya, Syria). Then, last year, Bolton talked about “the Troika of Tyranny” (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). His flirtations with military intervention in Venezuela this month irritated Trump.

The 70-year-old with the Yeti mustache is an insatiable interventionist with an abiding faith in unilateralism and pre-emptive war. (The cost of our attenuated post-9/11 wars is now calculated at $5.9 trillion.)

W. and Trump are similar in some ways but also very different. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio notes: W. was interested in clarity. Trump wants chaos. W. wanted to trust his domineering advisers. Trump is always imagining betrayal. W. wanted to be a war hero, like his dad. Trump does not want to be trapped in an interminable war that will consume his presidency.

Certainly, the biographer says, Trump enjoys playing up the scary aspects of brown people with foreign names and ominous titles, like “mullah” and “ayatollah,” to stoke his base.

But Trump, unlike W., is driven by the drama of it. “It’s a game of revving up the excitement and making people afraid and then backing off on the fear in order to declare that he’s resolved the situation,” D’Antonio said. “Trump prefers threats and ultimatums to action because that allows him to look big and tough and get attention without doing something for which he will be held responsible. This is who he is at his core: an attention-seeking, action-averse propagandist who is terrified of accountability in the form of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.”

David Axelrod, who had the military briefing about what a war with Iran would look like when he was in the Obama White House, said: “I’m telling you. It’s not a pretty picture.”

He says he is not sure which movie Bolton is starring in: “Dr. Strangelove” or “Wag the Dog.”

If part of your brand is that you’re not going to get the U.S. into unnecessary wars,” he said, “why in the world would you hire John Bolton?

Trump’s Immigration Crisis

Behind the flailing lies a potential disaster for immigration hawks.

Across the decade that preceded Donald Trump’s election, American politicians of both parties consistently tried to pass big, sweeping immigration bills that would legalize most of the country’s illegal population and increase immigration overall. These bills failed because of populist opposition, at first bipartisan (the resistance of a certain socialist senator from Vermont helped doom the 2007 effort) but increasingly simply conservative, and over time the conservative opposition developed a well-founded suspicion of Republican elites, whose plans on immigration always seemed to require ignoring their own base.

This sense of betrayal was fertile ground for Trump, who used bigotry and bluster to sell himself to immigration hawks as a Republican who wouldn’t, indeed couldn’t, sell them out. You could trust him more than the Bushes and Rubios because he was willing to be disreputable, willing to give the finger to elite opinion, willing to play not only the tough guy but the bad guy. And you had to trust him, some hawks argued, because the Democrats had been radicalized on the issue and the hour was late; it was either Trump or a Californian future, in which waves of immigration transformed the entire United States into a one-party, Democratic-governed state.

But the irony was that the populist resistance had already itself been reasonably effective in achieving some of the goals that Trump promised to pursue. Over the years when bipartisan elites were seeking the grail of “comprehensive” reform, they tried to appease skeptics with various forms of border-security spending, and this spending really did gradually harden the United States-Mexico border and make it much more difficult to simply slip across. Combine this with economic and demographic change in Latin America, and by the time Trump took office, border crossings had fallen by two-thirds since the presidency of George W. Bush.

In this sense Trump was a lagging, not a leading, indicator. He represented the political triumph of an attitude that had already changed policy, albeit in piecemeal and only half-intentionally, and partially sealed the porous borders of 15 years before. And his chief proposal, the famous wall, would have been a (literal) extension of the existing border-security project rather than a radical addition.

This reality created an interesting opening, especially in Trump’s first year, for a different kind of comprehensive deal, between restrictionists feeling a little more secure in their position and immigration advocates feeling chastened by populist backlash. And there was even some evidence that the White House might be groping in this direction — toward reforms that would seek stability more than radical change, tilting the entire system away from low-skilled immigration and toward recruitment, and compromising between restrictionists and enthusiasts by trying to keep the overall immigration rate about the same.

But that possibility has evaporated because of the second irony of immigration in the Trump era. Having inherited a border situation that was somewhat better than his rhetoric of crisis suggested, Trump has now been handed an actual crisis — a wave of Central American families claiming asylum, which has returned monthly crossings to their highest levels in a decade and overwhelmed the system for handling new arrivals.

There is a sense in which this crisis vindicates immigration hawks, who warned from the late-Obama era onward that the immigration decline wasn’t necessarily permanent, that there could easily be another wave, that United States policy — particularly the Obama precedent of a tacit amnesty for child migrants — created specific incentives for families and children to come north.

But those same hawks ended up electing a president whose signature immigration policy, more walls to deter border-crossers, has proved largely ineffective in dealing with an immigration crisis created by people surrendering to Border Patrol officers and asking for asylum.

The flailing also absolves the Democratic Party, currently torn between radicalism and evasion on immigration, from actually having to propose a coherent alternative to the White House’s approach.

If this sort of crisis were happening on President Hillary Clinton’s watch, it would create all kinds of political problems for the Democrats; as it stands, they can point at the man who once boasted of Washington that “I alone can fix it” and say, well, why don’t you?

There is still some political peril here for liberals, who may be inclined to confuse the public’s distaste for Trump with a consensus for an open door (though that Vermont socialist is still willing to swat down calls for open borders). But the greater peril by far is for conservative immigration skeptics, for whom the Trump presidency is at risk of turning into a policy disaster.

The attempts to increase deportation have been real enough, but they will be evanescent should Trump lose in 2020. The attempt to legislate sustained legal-immigration cuts has conspicuously failed. Someone in the administration is making deals behind the scenes to increase visas for low-skilled guest workers — one of the policies that hawks resisted for years in “comprehensive” bills. And the longer the current border crisis goes on, the more this White House’s most important legacy may be offering evidence that even Donald Trump, even Donald Trump, can’t really stop illegal immigration when enough people get the idea to bring their kids and come.

should Trump lose in 2020. The attempt to legislate sustained legal-immigration cuts has conspicuously failed. Someone in the administration is making deals behind the scenes to increase visas for low-skilled guest workers — one of the policies that hawks resisted for years in “comprehensive” bills. And the longer the current border crisis goes on, the more this White House’s most important legacy may be offering evidence that even Donald Trump, even Donald Trump, can’t really stop illegal immigration when enough people get the idea to bring their kids and come.

For every conservative faction, supporting Trump was a gamble — do you reach for short-term victory, even though his incompetence and unfitness might cost you in the long run?

The danger for immigration hawks is that the long run has already arrived.

‘Dear Boss: I quit.’ What letters like Mattis’s can foretell.

No one saw the letter as anything but a stinging protest. “Old Marines never die, but they do resign after the President ignores their advice, betrays our allies, rewards our enemies, and puts the nation’s security at risk,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote in a tweet, referencing Mattis’s storied career in the Marine Corps.

.. I’ve studied resignations for 28 years. I’ve written a book about them — the world viewed through the medium of the kiss-off, from classical times to the modern day. History is written as much in endings as beginnings. The pivotal changes can arrive not with “Eureka!” moments but with adamant refusals.

.. Yet the most effective leave-takings are composed over time and with military precision. These are made up of the words, distilled from private agonies, that we place on the public record. They must function as appeals to history — as, in a case like Mattis’s — or one good grenade.

.. The United States armed forces are home to a “go-down-fighting” resignation-letter subculture all its own. The military tradition of explosive, often cutting letters began in 1979 by Air Force Capt. Ron Keys, who served as a pilot in the Vietnam War. His resignation, tendered to Gen. Wilbur Creech, contained legendary and often-imitated lines: “The General looked us in the eye and said, in effect, ‘Gentlemen, either I’m very stupid or I’m lying to you’” and “All those Masters and professional military educators and not a leadership trait in sight!”
.. Keys later said he hadn’t intended to send the letter that began “Dear Boss, Well, I quit.” He’d written it out of frustration late one night and mailed it by accident. Nobody bought that, least of all Creech. But the general did invite Keys to a meeting to elaborate. Keys’s recommendations were heard, his resignation rescinded. By the time he retired in 2007, he was Gen. Ronald Keys, commander of Air Combat Command. But it was the frazzled, almost comedic howl of rage that was Keys’s resignation, rather than the officer’s career, that was most widely remembered. Passed around and published, it quickly formed the template for what became known as the “Dear Boss” letter — Air Force slang for the frustrated officer’s resignation as unrestrained truth attack.
.. Planned, polished and executed for maximum effect, Dear Boss letters are ambushes by nature. The most famous — before Mattis’s on Thursday — was that of the highly decorated Army Col. Millard A. Peck, who resigned in 1991 as head of the Pentagon intelligence unit assigned to search and account for missing-in-action servicemen in Vietnam. Over four pages of complaints that would doubtlessly ring bells with Mattis, Peck wrote of being “painfully aware … that I was not really in charge of my own office, but was merely a figurehead or whipping boy for a larger and totally Machiavellian group of characters.” His department, he said, was nothing but “a ‘toxic waste dump’ designed to bury the whole mess out of sight and mind in a facility with limited access to public scrutiny.”

In a country still ambivalent about remembering Vietnam and haunted by the possibility of prisoners of war as well as those missing in action, the effect was electric. Within weeks, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened a public hearing. Peck ended up overseeing administrative services for military ceremonies. He had taken the hit, but he’d got the result he wanted: a national public reckoning with the way the military looked after its own.