The South Carolina senator once put a lot of effort into cultivating an image of a reasonable, sober, sensible, moderate Republican, willing to reach out across the aisle, willing to stick up for his principles, willing to denounce Donald Trump. But today, there is no position he won’t abandon, no U-turn he won’t perform, no lie he will not tell.
Because he’s just a bully with delusions of grandeur.
International crises often lead, at least initially, to surging support for a country’s leadership. And that’s clearly happening now. Just weeks ago the nation’s leader faced public discontent so intense that his grip on power seemed at risk. Now the assassination of Qassim Suleimani has transformed the situation, generating a wave of patriotism that has greatly bolstered the people in charge.
Unfortunately, this patriotic rallying around the flag is happening not in America, where many are (with good reason) deeply suspicious of Donald Trump’s motives, but in Iran.
In other words, Trump’s latest attempt to bully another country has backfired — just like all his previous attempts.
From his first days in office, Trump has acted on the apparent belief that he could easily intimidate foreign governments — that they would quickly fold and allow themselves to be humiliated. That is, he imagined that he faced a world of Lindsey Grahams, willing to abandon all dignity at the first hint of a challenge.
But this strategy keeps failing; the regimes he threatens are strengthened rather than weakened, and Trump is the one who ends up making humiliating concessions.
Remember, for example, when Trump promised “fire and fury” unless North Korea halted its nuclear weapons program? He claimed triumph after a 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. But Kim made no real concessions, and North Korea recently announced that it might resume tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Or consider the trade war with China, which was supposed to bring the Chinese to their knees. A deal has supposedly been reached, although details remain scarce; what’s clear is that it falls far short of U.S. aims, and that Chinese officials are jubilant about their success in facing Trump down.
Why does Trump’s international strategy, which might be described as winning through intimidation, keep failing? And why does he keep pursuing it anyway?
One answer, I suspect, is that like all too many Americans, Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real — that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.
Ask yourself, how would Americans have reacted if a foreign power had assassinated Dick Cheney, claiming that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands? Don’t answer that Suleimani was worse. That’s beside the point. The point is that we don’t accept the right of foreign governments to kill our officials. Why imagine that other countries are different?
Of course, we have many people in the diplomatic corps with a deep knowledge of other nations and their motivations, who understand the limits of intimidation. But anyone with that kind of understanding has been excluded from Trump’s inner circle.
Now, it’s true that for many years America did have a special leadership position, one that sometimes involved playing a role in reshaping other countries’ political systems. But here’s where Trump’s second error comes in: He has never shown any sign of understanding why America used to be special.
Part of the explanation, of course, was raw economic and military power: America used to be just much bigger than everyone else. That is, however, no longer true. For example, by some key measures China’s economy is significantly bigger than that of the United States.
Even more important, however, was the fact that America was something more than a big country throwing its weight around. We always stood for something larger.
That doesn’t mean that we were always a force for good; America did many terrible things during its reign as global hegemon. But we clearly stood for global rule of law, for a system that imposed common rules on everyone, ourselves included. The United States may have been the dominant partner in alliances like NATO and bodies like the World Trade Organization, but we always tried to behave as no more than first among equals.
Oh, and because we were committed to enforcing rules, we were also relatively trustworthy; an alliance with America was meaningful, because we weren’t the kind of country that would betray an ally for the sake of short-term political convenience.
Trump, however, has turned his back on everything that used to make America great. Under his leadership, we’ve become nothing more than a big, self-interested bully — a bully with delusions of grandeur, who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks. We abruptly
- abandon allies like the Kurds;
- we honor war criminals; we
- slap punitive tariffs on friendly nations like Canada for no good reason. And, of course,
- after more than 15,000 lies, nothing our leader and his minions say can be trusted.
Trump officials seem taken aback by the uniformly negative consequences of the Suleimani killing: The Iranian regime is empowered, Iraq has turned hostile and nobody has stepped up in our support. But that’s what happens when you betray all your friends and squander all your credibility.
It was a cri de cœur from Lindsey Graham, the lament of the sycophant scorned.
President Trump’s decision to abandon our Kurdish allies in Syria by leaving them undefended against a Turkish invasion was, Graham tweeted, “a disaster” and a “nightmare.”
“President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam,” he wrote pointedly of his good friend. “They are NOT tired of fighting us.” And he commented on the signal Trump’s decision sent to the world: “By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible – America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways.“
In his cruelest cut of all, he compared Trump to Barack Obama. “No matter what President Trump is saying about his decision,” wrote Graham on Twitter, “it is EXACTLY what President Obama did in Iraq with even more disastrous consequences for our national security.”
Graham’s disappointment was palpable, but understandable, given all that he has given up to avoid this moment.
For the last several years, Graham has transformed himself from one of Trump’s fiercest critics, into one of his most reflexive defenders. Even by the cynical and shape-shifting standards of Washington, Graham’s metamorphosis has been a thing of wonder. The senator once known as John McCain’s best friend in the Senate, transformed himself into Trump’s shinebox, willing to ingratiate himself with rationalizations and praise even as Trump became increasingly erratic.
At first, it was a mere curiosity. During the 2016 campaign, Graham had called Trump a “nutjob” and a loser,” as well as a “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” He predicted that if the GOP nominated him, “we will get destroyed…….and we will deserve it.”
But as McCain faded from the scene, Graham seemed to shift his affections to the man who so publicly insulted McCain.
Graham and Trump became a thing. They played golf. They talked on the phone. And an alliance of the oddest imaginable bedfellows was born.
In moments of candor, Graham tried to explain the deal he thought he was making. When Mark Leibovich asked him earlier this year what had happened to him, Graham explained:
“Well, O.K., from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he said.
I asked what “this” was. “ ‘This,’ ” Graham said, “is to try to be relevant.” Politics, he explained, was the art of what works and what brings desired outcomes. “I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he told me.
Like many others in his party, staying “relevant” was central to their political calculations. Capitulating to Trump meant that Graham would become a rock star in the increasingly Trumpist party and virtually assured of re-election in South Carolina next year.
He would also have the president’s ear. And this was at the heart of Graham’s Bargain.
Graham told himself: by staying close to Trump, he could influence him and prevent horribly bad decisions. Others made the same calculation, but Graham made the uber-tradeoff, because the stakes were so high. What did it matter if he had to endure temporary embarrassments, abase himself on cable television, or even become a political punchline, if he could stop Trump from impulsive decisions regarding Russia or North Korea? Or Syria?
The world saw Graham as a craven, cringing Uriah Heep. Graham saw himself as someone who could save the world, or at least the Kurds.
Graham calculated: If he didn’t play golf with Trump and indulge his penchant for pillow talk, Trump would be putting and chatting with Rand Paul, listening to the counsels of isolationism, appeasement and international amorality. He was not simply the adult in the room; he was the adult BFF in the room, who would temper Trump’s worst instincts.
And then came Trump’s decision.
Despite Graham’s compulsive turd-polishing of the last few years, Trump didn’t even consult him before making the decision to abandon the Kurds. Graham, who had given up so much self-respect to prevent just this outcome, was not even in the room. He didn’t even get a text.
This is the thing about Faustian bargains. The price is high and the rewards turn out to be illusory. They end badly.
This week, Lindsey Graham, found that out the hard way. I wonder what they’ll talk about the next time they go golfing together.