Donald Trump has outlived the “axis of adults” who was supposed to guide and shape his foreign policy. He’s run through two national security advisers, innumerable lawyers and lower-level aides, an attorney general, an array of Cabinet secretaries and, any day now, the second of two White House chiefs of staff. He’s dumped the ideologist who helped elect him and never really clarified what his “America First” campaign slogan was all about anyways.
But since we launched The Global Politico days after his inauguration, Trump has more than followed through on his election pledge to shake up the Washington establishment of both parties when it comes to America’s position in the world. Each week, we’ve watched as he’s reoriented – or tried to – U.S. policy toward everywhere from Iran to North Korea, Russia to our North American neighbors.
In 67 episodes over the last year and 85 days, I’ve been privileged to host NATO allies and Middle East leaders come to Washington in search of answers about the puzzling new president; members of Congress, both conservative and liberal, who spend their days trying to unlock that puzzle; and an array of brilliant thinkers and doers, elder statesmen and brash young activists, who are trying to make sense of this disrupted world we’re all living in. I thank all of them – and all of you – for listening, reading and commenting, and here’s one last Global Politico conversation from me, a final session of foreign-policy Trumpology before I sign off.
Susan B. Glasser: Well, hi. This is Susan Glasser, and welcome to The Global POLITICO. This week something a little different. Sadly this is my farewell episode of The Global Politico, while I depart for The New Yorker. It’s episode number 68 of the podcast, since we launched in February of 2017, and we’ve had an incredible run of guests helping us make sense of this disrupted world we’re living in — from three former U.S. Secretaries of State to prime ministers; we’ve had artists and dissidents, senators and statesmen, everyone from Condi Rice to Ai Weiwei, Tony Blair to the architect of the Iran deal. We’ve heard about secret talks with the North Koreans and what it’s like to watch democracy die in Venezuela. And of course we’ve talked Russia, Russia, Russia. But the theme of The Global Politico is the extraordinary and unlikely American presidency of Donald Trump — and how it is disrupting Washington’s relations with the rest of the world. And it is to that theme I wanted to return in my final episode.
My guest is my colleague and partner in crime in The Global POLITICOfrom the very beginning, Blake Hounshell, the editor of POLITICO Magazine. He helped me start POLITICO Magazine; he’s now doing an amazing job running it. We go all the way back to our days together at Foreign Policy magazine, and to the extent that you’ve liked anything about The Global POLITICO, I would say it’s been his handiwork; to the extent that you didn’t like it, that’s all my fault.
No, seriously, Blake, I’m delighted that you’ll be with me on what, sadly, will be my last Global POLITICO, at least—it will go on hiatus, as I understand it, as POLITICO thinks about it. Global POLITICO is a project we started together, basically with the very birth of the Trump administration on January 20, 2017, more or less we launched the podcast about a week later, with Jim Baker, former secretary of state and all around wise man, as our very first guest. He was kind of prescient in a way, wasn’t he, Blake, about the troubles that Trump would have, especially, I thought, he was keen to see the emerging dysfunction in the White House, as already kind of a major theme in the Trump era. And that’s certainly proved to be true.
Blake Hounshell: Yes Jim Baker is sort of an under-appreciated genius, and I think that he really nailed it in saying that Trump was going to be this process fiasco, and I think he even couched probably what he really thinks because he didn’t want to put himself out there as an anti-Trumper, which I think is true of a lot of the foreign policy wise men.
And, I actually, though, I think maybe you and I disagree a little bit about the way things have played out since then. I sort of see a lot of disasters that haven’t happened, and I think maybe you can elaborate, but you see kind of a slow-growing disaster in foreign policy. And I’m just wondering if there is ever going to be the kind of crisis that people really worried about, or if Trump will continue to kind of muddle along and create problems, but there won’t be any sort of horrible national security fiascos.
Glasser: Well, look, I think one thing that has been a consistent theme for many of our guests from the very beginning of The Global POLITICO, and a line of analysis I broadly am in agreement with, is that the Trump story is fundamentally a drama about Donald Trump, and he has certain instincts and impulses which are pretty consistent when it comes to foreign policy. Many of those are disruptive, even potentially highly disruptive, but that we haven’t yet always seen the full consequence of what following through on those impulses is going to mean.
And I think 2017 was a year of taking the measure of Donald Trump, and also Donald Trump taking the measure of the office. 2018 has the potential for being a much more decisive year, and if you look at this remarkable purge of his team, in particular, his national security team, that Trump has undertaken over the last six weeks. He’s dumped his national security advisor; he’ll now have his third national security advisor in office as of this week.
He’s dumped his homeland security advisor. He’s dumped his secretary of state. He has marginalized both his White House Chief John Kelly and disregarded much of the advice of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis. And so, he’s set up a situation where, A, he is in a position to act in a much more unconstrained way. And then also, the rest of the world has been carefully observing and monitoring Trump and seeing what he’s like, and I think both Russia and China, and other potential challengers to Trump on the international stage, are much more likely to act on the basis of their analysis of this very unconventional president this year.
So, you know, it has the possibility to be a much more active year, when it comes to international relations.
Hounshell: Right. But I think if I were Vladimir Putin, or if I were Xi Jinping—I mean, they obviously have armies of people that are trying to understand Donald Trump, you know, reading his tweets and analyzing them, and researching his background, intercepting communications.
But I think Donald Trump is a really hard person to read on foreign policy because I don’t think he actually knows what he thinks. I think he acts on impulse. Take, for instance, the debate over whether to put more troops into Afghanistan. Trump was dovish; he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t understand why he needed to put more forces in there. And he fought it.
He also wants to get U.S. troops out of Syria, and yet at the same time he’s bragging about these nice new missiles that he’s planning to send..
So, I think he’s very difficult to read. He’s the same guy who wants to withdraw from the rest of the world, and then he hires a guy like John Bolton, a very aggressive nationalist, to be his national security advisor. I don’t think Donald Trump has signed up for John Bolton’s agenda in many respects.
Glasser: Right. Well, so, I agree with you that I don’t think he’s signed up with John Bolton’s full agenda. But I think it’s a misreading of Trump to say that he is hard to understand when it comes to foreign policy. In my view, actually, Donald Trump has been often shocking, but very infrequently surprising, when he’s been president, over the last year and four months.
Hounshell: Give me an example of that.
Glasser: I think that if you pay close attention to Donald Trump’s background, psychology, and history—both as a private sector businessperson, as a reality show guy—his management, for example, of the White House is completely consistent with the way he managed the Trump Organization, the way he has managed his entire life.
And so, the idea that there is this enormous amount of chaos, that there’s a lot of people coming and going, that he places a huge premium on loyalty, that he wants people to follow him blindly, without always being able to articulate a clearly thought-through strategy that they could implement.
All of those are not in the least bit surprising to me. I think they’re very consistent, and that’s why, actually, going back to the campaign in 2016, I urged us to engage in what we called Trumpology, and early on in POLITICO Magazine we convened the four or five major biographers of Donald Trump.
Because the thing about Trump is not that he came as this mysterious cypher to presidential politics, even though he was a total newcomer. But he was probably one of the most investigated and written about public figures who wasn’t in politics in our lifetime. And I thought that those insights from the Trumpologists, the Trump biographers, have served me well in trying to understand Trump, and actually, that’s been one of the things from the very beginning that we tried to do in Global POLITICO was not just to talk to fellow members of the foreign policy Blob, the establishment here in Washington of really both parties, who have their views about the world.
But, to try to talk to people, both who were more supportive of Trump, but in particular, what I’ve been interested in doing, interviewing people who have engaged personally with President Trump, who are sympathetic enough to be in his orbit, or at least are trying to understand him, from a different vantage pint. And to me those have been some of the most valuable conversations.
We talked with Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, back at the very beginning, before he was a public critic.
Hounshell: Yeah, it’s been a real emotional roller coaster for Bob Corker.
Glasser: Exactly. Before he was a critic of Trump. And I thought his insights, which were based on talking with Trump and those around him, have helped me, again, to be not surprised by a lot of the things that Trump has done.
He said, from February of 2017, Look, Trump on foreign policy—he’s torn between two conflicting things. He wants to be a wrecking ball, and he wants to just destroy everything that basically both parties believe about American foreign policy, on the one hand.
On the other hand, he’s set himself up as this great deal-maker, and at some point those impulses become in conflict, and how is he going to resolve those? He identified that as one of the central tensions of Trump, as a foreign policymaker, back in early February of 2017. I thought that was a very useful insight that came from talking to Trump, being sympathetic.
I think we’ve gotten a lot of insights from talking to people like Senator Tom Cotton, who has been the very hawkish Republican up on Capitol Hill.
Hounshell: Very tied in with the Trump administration. Very influential at the White House.
Glasser: Very influential. For example, the Iran deal. That was specifically what we spoke with him about. I talked with him for The Global POLITICO just a couple of hours after he came from a long lunch at the White House with Donald Trump, in the middle of Trump’s key decision so far on the Iran deal, and that decision was to “decertify”—I’m putting quotes around that—the Iran deal to Congress, but not actually to withdraw from it at the United Nations, where the deal itself actually is.
Now, that’s basically where it’s laid ever since. That was Cotton’s recommendation. Cotton gave us, I thought, some really interesting insights into Trump that have proven useful. Loyalty, and the perception of loyalty is more important than agreeing with the whole ideological program. So, for example, Tom Cotton is a very similar foreign policy thinker, I think, to John Bolton. He’s an uber-hawk and a traditional conservative.
I don’t believe that Donald Trump subscribes to every element of the carefully-calibrated ideology each of those men have, but each of them has found a way to convince Donald Trump that they have his best political interests at heart, and that they are loyal to him, whatever that means.
Hounshell: Well, I think it means don’t contradict him and don’t criticize him.
Glasser: Well, I think they both see the possibility to lead him towards their preferred outcomes. That being said, am I going to be surprised—and I don’t think you or our listeners to Global POLITICO should be surprised. Will he come into conflict with John Bolton? In my view, absolutely.
Hounshell: John Bolton does not seem to me like the kind of guy who will make compromises to accommodate his boss. Up to a point, he might.
Glasser: Well, look. John Bolton had a very interesting falling out with his previous presidential boss, George W. Bush. In the first term he was appointed to senior positions by Bush, including ultimately to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He couldn’t get confirmed in that role. By the end of the second term of Bush, Bush was saying openly to people in the Oval Office, “I don’t consider him to be a credible figure,” and John Bolton was openly attacking him on TV and in op-eds.
Hounshell: Do you think we’ll see that with Trump?
Glasser: It’s certainly a likely outcome. Donald Trump has fallen out with almost all of the senior officials—
Hounshell: Steve Bannon—
Glasser: Officials he’s ever hired, even people that he substantially agrees with—and he probably agrees more ideologically with Steve Bannon in many ways than he does with John Bolton.
Hounshell: Whatever happened to that guy? We don’t hear very much from him anymore.
Glasser: Well, you know, he just gave an interesting interview this week to The New York Times talking about the decisions that Trump will face upcoming on China tariffs and the trade war, as a key political moment for the Trump presidency. He’s obviously trying to pressure Trump now from the outside, because he no longer, at the moment, has the inside track.
But, you know, Trump has a long history of falling out with people and then later reconciling with them.
Hounshell: It’s one of his most endearing attributes.
Glasser: I don’t find it endearing. I find it very consistent with him as a—as someone explained to recently—as a real estate developer. Hounshell: Unpack that for me.
Glasser: Yes, so, I find a lot of my best Trumpology comes from people who’ve really tried to study Trump’s biography, and tried to study what he does at other moments in his life. And this notion that Trump is at heart a real estate developer, or believes himself to be, is a really interesting notion.
Real estate developers might fight tooth and nail with other people over acquiring this parcel of land, or over the development rights—
Hounshell: But you’ve still got to deal the city council and city hall, at the end of the day.
Glasser: Well, also, you don’t know where your next deal is going to come from. So, the person who’s your opponent today could well be the guy that you’re teaming up with to redevelop the Upper West Side tomorrow.
Hounshell: Right. You might need those additional—
Glasser: So, you don’t burn permanent bridges if you’re in real estate. And I though that’s an interesting insight into why you and I think it’s puzzling he has these explosive fights with people—and then he’s friends with them several years later. So, I would expect that.
Hounshell: Except his wives.
Glasser: Well, we’ll see. That’s not true. Even Ivana Trump has been brought back into the fold, after a very messy and contentious divorce. Look at her these days. She’s not out there giving nasty interviews about Donald Trump.
Hounshell: That’s true, that’s true. But there might be legal reasons for that.
Glasser: Well, yeah, but they were in a very, very hostile situation that he somehow managed to crawl back.
Hounshell: All right. So, your main point here is that Donald Trump is not that surprising, right? So, let’s put some cards on the table. It’s your last episode of Global POLITICO, and I want to try to push you to make some predictions. I know this is an uncomfortable ground for a journalist, but it’s the last episode, so why not?
Give us some predictions for the rest of 2018. They could be scenarios, worst case, best case, but let’s have a little fun here. So, tell me about North Korea. What’s going to happen with North Korea?
Glasser: Well, okay, North Korea. First of all, it is true, journalists don’t like to make predictions; they like to make fun of other people for making bad predictions. I’m not going to get in the memorial Bill Kristol chair here. I think what’s happening with North Korea is very interesting, obviously. You already see a little bit of slippage in the timetable. Trump made this dramatic personal announcement, “I’m going to meet with Kim Jong Un,” and accepted the invitation that South Korean envoys brought to him in the White House, to the surprise and dismay of many of his advisors.
Hounshell: Rex Tillerson had no idea it was happening; he was in Africa.
Glasser: Well, and even those who did, who were sitting the room—go back and look at the faces of Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster, who were almost stricken, it seemed to me, if you look at the photograph.
Hounshell: We just did an interview an interview with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, and she had no idea. He said, “I’m going out at 7 p.m. and I’m making an announcement,” and she was like, “What the heck is this?” and she found out when he announced it.
Glasser: Right, what the heck is this? So, we recently had Jake Sullivan as a guest on The Global POLITICO, who was Hillary Clinton’s chief foreign policy adviser. He had an interesting scenario for the North Korean talks, which I think is one plausible outcome. Jake’s scenario was that both Kim and Trump have a lot personally invested now, a lot on the line, in this summit happening. So, for different reasons, they’ll make it happen.
And he envisioned a situation where they both come out and they proclaim victory, basically. But then, leave it to aides and advisers to negotiate the details, and that takes years or it never happens, right?
Hounshell: The details of what?
Glasser: Well, exactly. So that they both come out proclaiming that they’ve made some great deal that either, A, never really happens, or B, means something different to both the North Koreans and the Americans, and that ends in recriminations. So, that’s one scenario.
Now, Jake and I were speaking right before John Bolton was named as the national security adviser, so there’s also now, with Bolton’s presence, I think, an even more likely scenario.
Hounshell: He is, actually, very knowledgeable about North Korea.
Glasser: Well, knowledgeable about North Korea—North Korea and the Bush administration’s decision to talk with the North Koreans was John Bolton’s—
Hounshell: Right. Over Bolton’s dead body.
Glasser: Was John Bolton’s breaking point with the Bush administration. He called his fellow Republicans in the State Department “appeasers” for their willingness to engage in the six-party talks with North Korea. He believed this was selling out America, and he has recently—as just a couple months ago—published an article in The Wall Street Journal suggesting that a pre-emptive military strike would not be untoward or uncalled for in this situation.
So, certainly, we have to say the odds have gone up that what happens if this summit actually does happen at all is that Trump goes in there, lays down ultimatums for Kim Jong Un; Kim says no way, no how. They walk out; they say diplomacy has failed, and it actually increases the risk of a military conflict.
Hounshell: Right. Right. And you know, one thing that I don’t know if we’ve talked about is the “bloody-nose” scenario, and this was a big McMaster project, I understand, is that he was very interested in the idea that the U.S. could use some sort of limited strike on North Korea and signal somehow—I don’t know how you actually signal this with a country that we don’t really talk to—that we’re going to stop at some point, and that Kim is supposed to not retaliate, and then we just move on with our lives and they become more cooperative.
It doesn’t sound like that’s John Bolton’s thinking; it sounds like he wants to go—he’s kind of a maximalist; he would go to 11, as they say in Spinal Tap.
Glasser: Well, look. He is the national security adviser; he is not the secretary of defense; he’s not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in fact, one thing I would spotlight for you is watch the extent to which Bolton tries to get directly into the gears in the machinery of the American military machine, and will that create friction?
Hounshell: Oh, it will.
Glasser: Will he be ordering up specific war plans, which so far—as far as I can tell—Mattis and the chiefs have resisted?
Hounshell: The Joint Chiefs–
Glasser: Well, exactly.
Hounshell: They don’t report to the national security adviser. They report to the president.
Glasser: Exactly, so it doesn’t really—your scenario, though, that means it’s very unrealistic. It doesn’t matter what John Bolton’s military plan is, if such a war plan doesn’t exist in a practical sense from the Pentagon. And so, that friction emerging could be a big question mark. We don’t really have this ability. And we know that McMaster had promoted—he didn’t like it to call it the bloody-nose plan, and in fact, they denied this very aggressively when reporters would use that phrase.
I think there was military planning underway, as my best reporting shows. They deny that they used that term associated with it, so a classic Washington semantics game of saying, “Well, there was no ‘bloody-nose’ strike being contemplated, because we didn’t use that exact phrase,” but at any rate I think that the friction between Bolton and the military is something that everybody should look out for.
Like, you and I were just talking about the potential friction between Trump and Bolton, but it’s also, I think, likely that he’s going to get a lot of pushback from the existing bureaucracies, both at State and the Pentagon.
Hounshell: Yeah, no, I think that that’s a fair prediction. One thing that a former Clinton person told me very recently is that he thinks Bolton is going to kind of lay low for a little bit, try to shore up his base of power within the White House within the interagency process, but that at the same time there’s this tension between that and the idea that he doesn’t have much time in office.
He’s seen that Donald Trump is a high-turnaround operation, and he probably is aware of his own personality quirks and the idea that he and Trump will clash at some point. So, I think there’s a tension between the idea that he’s going to be cautious, and also the idea that he has limited time before he gets booted out, or resigns in anger, or something like that.
Glasser: Absolutely. If you look at it, the short clock on his tenure means that if you really want to accomplish something, you want to set that in motion quickly. And, by the way, even Steve Bannon was well aware of that. That was reported in the Fire and Fury book, but I actually had heard that from a source well before it was reported. I believe that to be a true aspect of Michael Wolff’s reporting, that Bannon told people very early on, “I’ll be lucky if I make it to the summer.”
Hounshell: Well, he saw himself kind of as a revolutionary, a Leninist who had only a few months to set up—
Glasser: Blow up the system, set off the bombs.
Hounshell: Yeah, drain the swamp and set off the bombs.
Glasser: So, on Bolton, the other thing that we should probably flag for people that I think is very relevant is the extreme time pressure right out of the gate that will affect his tenure one way or the other.
Hounshell: Right. He started on Monday.
Glasser: He started on Monday; we’re already talking about bombing Syria, number one. Number two, we have this convergence of the two major potential foreign policy crises of the Trump administration, North Korea and the Iran deal, in May. There is the deadline in May by which Trump once again needs to decide whether he’s going to just go ahead and pull out of the Iran deal altogether, or take some other as yet unknown course of action. He’s now surrounded by advisers who are extremely hawkish on Iran—that’s not just Bolton, but the potential incoming secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, as well.
Glasser: So that’s number one, in May. And also in May is this time frame that Trump himself has publicly committed to and stated this meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jon Un.
Hounshell: Have the Koreans actually agreed to that, though? I’m not sure.
Glasser: It’s unclear. It’s unclear.
Hounshell: Yeah. So it might never even happen.
Glasser: Of course. And I just saw just the other day now, administration people saying, “Well, June or May,” so, again, you can see some slippage already in that time frame.
Hounshell: Well, let’s talk about the Middle East; you’re a Middle East person; you spent a lot of time in Israel. I know you’ve been watching the Syrian situation closely. By the time this podcast comes out, we may have been already bombing Syria. Trump, as of Wednesday morning, was threatening to launch nice new missiles at Syria, smart missiles. I would assume that all of our missiles are smart nowadays, but maybe we have some new ones. And I’ve heard there was some consternation in the national security circle that said Trump was kind of giving away some classified information to the Russians in tweeting that.
But anyway, I’m curious what you make of Trump’s handling of Syria, because I know you have been critical of the way Obama handled Syria, as a lot of people have. And it kind of seems like Trump has had the same kind of ambivalence about the Middle East that Obama did, and there’s a lot of continuity that, when you strip away the bluster and the personalities, fundamentally the policies aren’t that different.
Glasser: Well, the nature of the presidents is so fundamentally different, I think perhaps I started out—this is an area where my thinking has changed. I think I started out at the beginning of 2017 believing that there was a certain similarity in the critiques of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump brought to foreign policy, and even the worldview that they reflected; in Obama’s case, in a very sophisticated way, in Trump’s case far more crudely, but that there was a real commonality in some ways.
Both of them have seen the Iraq War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a kind of original sin; both of them have been critical of the losses of blood and treasure in the Middle East, the distractions of the Middle East on American foreign policy, eager to find ways to get out of it, to be more focused on, in Obama’s case, a sunnier version of nation-building here at home; in Trump’s case, American carnage.
But again, I started out in 2017 thinking there was something shared in their at least critique of American foreign policy. That may well still be true, but I think I understated the extent to which Trump’s approach to how to do something about his critique of the world would be so fundamentally at odds, not only with Barack Obama’s foreign policy as he carried it out, but with every recent president.
Trump has made it more clear, I think, in the last year just the extent to which he actually is not a believer in the basic institutions of the international order that have undergirded American foreign policy, or even America’s role as a leader in those institutions. He’s not a believer in multilateral alliances; he shuns them wherever possible. He is a complete either unilateralist or at most one-on-one—you know, I’ll team up with Macron—
Hounshell: Right, he likes bilateral trade deals and relationships; he doesn’t like the WTO; he doesn’t like the U.N., but he loves his world leader buddies.
Glasser: Right. But that is profoundly disruptive and threatening to the world order in ways that we cannot even begin to judge the impact. Destroying those institutions also happens by failing to lead them, because those institutions, in fact, were structured in a way to require the United States to lead them. What’s going to be the long-term consequence of us basically saying never mind…?
Hounshell: Well, look what happened to the George W. Bush administration. They actually had a very similar approach to world institutions in their first term.
Glasser: In the first term.
Hounshell: Right? And I guess Bush came around to the idea that that created more problems than it solved. There’s that famous Bolton quote about the U.N. could do without ten floors in its building and it wouldn’t make a dime’s worth of difference. And, having spent a little bit of time reporting and studying the U.N., there’s some truth to that. The place is full of kind of ridiculous things and inefficiencies. But at the end of the day, you need less friction; in order to get things done you need partners.
Glasser: Well, but also you need to want to do something, and that’s where I’ve never seen—
Hounshell: He doesn’t have a goal.
Glasser: American leadership so absent. And again, I can’t say yet what are the exact consequences of that going to be, but you look at pictures you talk about Syria—look at the picture last week of Vladimir Putin convening Turkey’s President Erdogan, convening the leader of Iran, to talk about what the post-civil war Syria should look like,
Hounshell: Put that on your—
Glasser: The United States was not at the table, and that is the post-American world that people have been talking about in many ways. It’s now happening, I think, in a much more speeded-up way in the midst of the Trump presidency.
So, Syria—that photograph, by the way, happened the exact same day that Donald Trump said, “I don’t want to be in Syria anymore; I want us to get out as soon as possible.” Then, of course, the chemical weapons attack by the Assad government occurred right after that. Trump once again sees these horrible photographs on television—
Hounshell: That’s really—that’s one of the things that is surprising about him, that he doesn’t really get emotional; he doesn’t really care about human rights so much, but then there’s something about these pictures of dead children that can move him for these one-off spasms of anger.
Glasser: Yeah. I feel like we already know that he watches a lot of TV, and he’s highly susceptible to manipulation. The difference is, is that he’s now somebody who possesses cruise missiles. But, in fact, if you look at his campaign, you could argue that that was all examples of watching some emotional pictures, for example, of evil, rampaging immigrants on TV, and then reacting to that, and creating policy pronouncements or campaign pronouncements on the basis of that.
That’s exactly what he’s doing now, I would argue, in foreign policy, except he also has aircraft carriers and cruise missiles at his disposal. But this is an amazing and revealing week in American foreign policy. His dilemmas, as you said, are not at all dissimilar to Barack Obama’s. Horrible things are happening in a far-off war where we have very few tools except maximalist tools that are—government is very hesitant to use, because it would enmesh us even further in this conflict very far away, where it’s uncertain what exactly our national interest is.
So, on one hand, a very similar set of dilemmas. On the other hand, I’ve never in my lifetime seen a president who has confused American foreign policy, not only to our allies and our adversaries, but even to his own government. The head of Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. forces in the Middle East, General Votel, testified to Congress just one week ago. He was asked by Senator Lindsey Graham, “Well, sir, do you know, is it still our policy of the Trump administration that we are seeking the removal of Bashar Assad from office? That we are seeking an end to the Assad government, which was the official policy of the Obama administration?”
And General Votel said, “I don’t know, senator,” and Lindsey Graham said, “Well, if you don’t know—you’re the guy responsible for implementing and executing our policy on the ground—if you don’t know, nobody knows.” And the answer is, nobody has the first idea what our policy is in Syria, or in many other places in the world.
Hounshell: And probably not even Donald Trump.
Hounshell: He probably couldn’t articulate it. If you were sitting down with him like you’re sitting down with me, and you asked Donald Trump, “What is our policy in Syria?” what do you think he would say?
Glasser: To be tough. Not to be sucked in. To be letting someone else do the work there. That’s what he said. And that is the consistent theme, again. So, I think none of this is surprising in the sense that Donald Trump sees that everybody everywhere is always seeking to take advantage of us, and to rip us off—again, probably informed by his time in New York real estate.
He thinks other countries are trying to rip us off. He thinks that our allies are trying to rip us off and to get a good deal at our expense. He thinks that adversaries are trying to rip us off. And so, that’s what he said about Syria. Basically, it was that deal. We spent—he claimed the figure was $7 trillion; most people think it was probably closer to $1 trillion.
Hounshell: With Iraq.
Glasser: With Iraq, and Syria, and Afghanistan. He thinks it’s a bad deal.
Hounshell: But don’t the Americans think that, too? I mean—
Glasser: And he doesn’t want any part of it.
Hounshell: I mean, he’s kind of on politically solid ground here. I don’t think that there’s any groundswell of American support for military action in Syria, beyond what we’re—I mean, there are thousands of U.S. troops there.
Glasser: Right. Do you think that Americans support the United States of America being a pillar of democracy and human rights in the world?
Hounshell: I think they do in the abstract.
Hounshell: But then, when push comes to shove, when it involves sacrifice, you need a president who’s going to make the case about that.
Glasser: Right. Of course. Exactly. I think that’s a really good way of putting it, Blake, and I think in the end, that that’s what we don’t have anymore. What are the long-term consequences of America ceding away something that has been traditionally its major advantage on the world stage, is not to just be another country, but to be a country that was selling an idea of democracy and freedom and human rights.
We’ve now ceded that. What does it mean? I don’t know. But, Barack Obama found the same political imperative that you’re talking about that Donald Trump is finding, which is that there’s no groundswell of people. When Obama said—he didn’t say, “I’m not going to intervene in Syria,” by the way—and the result of the red line.
Hounshell: Right. He punted it to Congress.
Glasser: He punted it to Congress, which had zero appetite for doing anything.
Hounshell: And they called his bluff. Yeah.
Hounshell: And I think that’s the thing about American leadership in the world, is that it has always been an elite project; it has very rarely been a popular project. Right?
Glasser: Well, in the Cold War—
Hounshell: Americans were reluctant to get into World War I. Woodrow Wilson dragged us into World War I. Americans were reluctant to get into World War II, despite Hitler, despite the potential elimination of our closest ally, Britain. You know, FDR had to get us in by hook and crook, into World War II, through Lend-Lease and cracking down on the Japanese trading.
So, even in these celebrated cases, where America saved the world from tyranny, the American people were like, “I’m not so sure about this,” until push came to shove, and then the president led and forced the issue, right? I mean, Pearl Harbor obviously helped. But right now, when you’ve got a very multipolar, ambiguous world, and America has lots of problems at home, people are much more concerned about their health care and where their next paycheck is going to come from than they are about some dead kid on a beach in Syria.
Glasser: Well, look, Blake, that’s absolutely correct. That’s part of why this is happening now, 25 years after the end of the Cold War. The Cold War gave at least a perceived existential threat, and therefore made Americans much more willing both to sacrifice and to pay the cost of international engagement, because they perceived a much more direct existential threat, and a consequence of not doing. So, they broadly speaking bought into that vision of the world.
The Cold War could have ended differently; largely, it ended peacefully. What you’re now seeing, in my view, is across the board—not just in the United States, not just with Donald Trump—a coming to an end of that order. And we don’t know what’s going to come next.
And I think that’s where I would probably like to end it. I was just looking last night, actually, at the memoirs of George Shultz, who was one of the secretaries of state who really led American—
Hounshell: Reagan’s secretary of state in the ’80s.
Glasser: He led American foreign policy in this crucial period that was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. And he starts his memoir with a quote from Isaiah Berlin: “At crucial moments, at turning points, when factors appear more or less equally balanced, chance, individuals, and their decisions and acts, themselves not necessarily predictable, indeed, seldom so, can determine the course of history.”
I think we’re living in one of those hinge-point moments. I think Donald Trump matters, one way or the other. This is a consequential moment in American foreign policy. And to have this most erratic and unpredictable leader in the White House—one way or the other, it’s my view—it’s really going to matter.
Hounshell: Let’s leave it there. Thank you so much, Susan, for all of the work you’ve done for The Global POLITICO, and for today’s conversation. I’ll be reading you at The New Yorker.
Glasser: Well, look, Blake, it’s a very bittersweet moment for me, and especially, I have to say, we really have, I think, the absolute best audience with The Global POLITICO. I’ve heard from so many of you personally. You’ve often taken me up on my offer to email me, and you are tweeting at me and you are sending great ideas for this. And I’ll still be writing, thinking, and talking about these issues that we’ve covered on The Global POLITICO, and I wanted to thank all of you for sharing some of your hard-won time with me, and with POLITICO. Thank you. Global Politico is produced by Bridget Mulcahy, and I also want to take this chance to thank her for her hard work, her great companionship and smart ideas, and for working hard every weekend to get this out to you our listeners. I also want to give a special shout-out to the entire team at Politico Magazine, including not only Blake for his great editing but especially to Katie Fossett and sometimes Zach Stanton, who have spent innumerable Sunday nights working to get this right and up and published for you on Monday mornings. And also I have to thank my family — Peter and Theo — and our wonderful friends and neighbors… we have a great tradition in our family of Sunday night dinner with these friends Martina, Alan, Max and Marshall, and for more than a year now they’ve put up with me frantically typing away to finish The Global Politico column and record the introduction… So I thank our “village” as we call it. And of course, thank you as well to our listeners, as I’ve said in this episode and in many episodes past. And listeners! Stay subscribed to this show, because POLITICO wants to keep serving you. As they say… Watch this space. Thank you. I’m Susan Glasser, and this is The Global Politico.