The Unknown Unknowns
While I would like to be able to offer some meaningful insight into what we might expect from the foreign policy of Donald Trump, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate at this stage the depth of current uncertainty surrounding what he will actually do. Part of this uncertainty is a function of his preternatural ability to take every position on every topic. (Latest case in point: After Trump repeatedly criticized NATO as overpriced and obsolete over the course of his campaign, we learned from President Obama today that Trump assured the President in their oval office meeting that “there is no weakening” in America’s commitment “toward maintaining a strong and robust NATO alliance.”) Another part of the uncertainty flows from the apparent depth of Trump’s own ignorance of the possibilities of the executive branch. (Again only the most recent example, the Sunday Wall Street Journal reported of Trump’s meeting with President Obama: “Mr. Trump seemed surprised by the scope [of the duties of running the country], said people familiar with the meeting. Trump aides were described by those people as unaware that the entire presidential staff working in the West Wing had to be replaced at the end of Mr. Obama’s term.”)
And then there is the scope and strength of the federal bureaucracy – the career professional staffs of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, the intelligence agencies, and more – who, to judge by both newspaper reporting and my entirely non-scientific and idiosyncratic Facebook feed, are grappling mightily with whether to stay or go in the face of extraordinary new leadership. As U.S. Presidents have found time and again (and as I’ve written about in the context of the military in particular, e.g., here), this apparatus makes it difficult sharply to turn the ship of state even with the clearest of intentions and the greatest of bureaucratic skill. There is little indication (as yet) that the incoming administration has either. This is hardly intended to offer comfort or reassurance; I am incapable of greeting with anything but dread the election of a President who has, for example, openly advocated policies that would violate the law – including torturing prisoners with waterboarding “and a lot worse,” and killing the families of those he thinks threaten the United States. It is intended as a check on my own worst speculative instincts. And as a plea to those who are part of that apparatus to start out, at least, by trying to stay.