To his opponents and enemies, President Donald Trump can do nothing right. His actions, intentions and conduct are offensive, mistaken and dangerous. But to his supporters and friends, the president can do little wrong. And while his tweets and comments may be vulgar and inflammatory, in this view, only Trump can make Washington work and make America great again.
Reality, like the actual state of the political views of a majority of Americans, is somewhere in between. Unfortunately, while some of the president’s basic instincts could actually have translated into smart policies to benefit the nation, his lack of understanding of how government works, abetted by personality, ego and need for control and recognition, have turned into immovable obstructions. Consider three examples of how the president’s instincts might have made a difference regarding Russia, Afghanistan, and the just released $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.
Russia no longer trusts the United States and believes it is a danger to international stability. The ill-fated invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq and then the intervention in Libya in 2011 that led to civil war are seen by the Kremlin as clear evidence of Washington’s destabilizing impact that has also created millions of refugees and displaced persons. Many have flooded into Europe, including a goodly number of terrorists.
Despite strong denials, Russia has indeed interfered in domestic politics of other states and particularly in America’s 2016 elections. Russia has invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. But despite this history, Trump instinctively believed that some accommodation with Moscow was in this nation’s best interest.
Instead of convincing Congress of the need for a new approach toward Russia—and make no mistake, Congress sees Russia as a real enemy—Trump delayed. Instead of engaging Russian President Vladimir Putin in a real summit after careful and quiet diplomacy cleared the way, no such actions occurred.
Now with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s efforts to disrupt American politics and its possible links to Trump’s team, any attempt at serious discussions with Moscow and Putin would provoke a domestic explosion of thermonuclear proportions. The opportunity is lost. One consequence is that both the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and New START, which imposed strict limits on nuclear weapons, could be doomed. Another could be an unneeded nuclear arms race.
Regarding Afghanistan, the president’s instinct was to reduce American presence. No doubt the arguments of Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster were persuasive in convincing the president to change his mind and double down. Unfortunately, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, no rookie when it comes to war and Afghanistan, has sounded an alarm about conditions in that country. Ironically, Trump may have had it correct. However, his deference to generals may have overridden his initial judgment.
Finally, the infrastructure plan, all 53 pages of it, was released Monday. Its aim is to leverage about $200 billion of U.S. government funding into a $1.5 trillion program with states and private entities making up the difference. Sadly, infrastructure transformation should have been the first piece of legislation presented by the administration to Congress a year ago. And it should have been funded through repatriating the $2.6 trillion that U.S. corporations hold abroad with no or minimal tax consequences, provided it was invested in an infrastructure bank as this column has argued for a long time.
Instead, a year too late, the plan is structured as if it were a real estate deal with minimal equity drawing on other people’s money. A fatal flaw is that it lacks any incentive as to how states and other investors will get their money back or how money is to be made. Worse, there are no means to determine where, how and when money is to be invested and who decides where the funds will go. Much worse, no one is in overall charge. That means individual departments and agencies will determine spending priorities, guaranteeing differing criteria across government including oversight provisions. The absence of consistent standards will assure litigation and billions in legal fees when lawsuits come piling in.
And, nothing has been stated so far about the electrical power grid, internet and cyber, or educational infrastructure programs. Perhaps a fully comprehensive plan that deals with these gaps and omissions will follow. Perhaps it will not.
Instincts are fine. But instincts without serious thinking and planning become delusions. The nation will not benefit from what could have been.
Harlan Ullman served as Senior Advisor for Supreme Allied Commander Europe for 12 years.