Amer­ica is in re­treat while the Trump band plays on

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - OPINION -

As Pres­i­dent Trump ends his Asia trip, he might sum up the 12day jour­ney with a re­vi­sion of the re­mark at­trib­uted to Julius Cae­sar: Veni, vidi, blan­divi. I came, I saw, I flat­tered.

Trump’s trip was closer to a pil­grim­age than a pro­jec­tion of power. The pres­i­dent rarely ex­plained de­tails of U.S. pol­icy. In­stead, he mostly asked other lead­ers for help, lauded their virtues, and em­braced their worldviews.

Along the adu­la­tion tour, Trump spoke of his “re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary” re­la­tion­ship with Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe; his “in­cred­i­bly warm” feel­ing for Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, whom he called “a very spe­cial man”; his “great re­la­tion­ship” with the “very suc­cess­ful” Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte; and his em­pa­thy for Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, whose na­tion is “an as­set to our coun­try, not a li­a­bil­ity.”

And the pres­i­dent praised him­self at nearly ev­ery stop, telling re­porters on the way home that the trip had been “tremen­dously suc­cess­ful” with “in­cred­i­ble” achieve­ments.

Trump’s trip may in­deed prove to be his­toric, but prob­a­bly not in the way he in­tends. It may sig­nal a U.S. ac­com­mo­da­tion to ris­ing Chi­nese power, plus a de­sire to mend fences with a bel­liger­ent Rus­sia — with few ev­i­dent se­cu­rity gains for Amer­ica.

Trump voiced a clear de­sire for ac­com­mo­da­tion with an ag­gres­sive Rus­sia, too. Much was made of his re­gur­gi­ta­tion of Putin’s de­nial that he had con­ducted a covert ac­tion against Amer­ica dur­ing last year’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “Pres­i­dent Putin re­ally feels — and he feels strongly — that he did not med­dle in our elec­tion.”

But far more im­por­tant than Trump’s cred­u­lous re­sponse to Putin was his ea­ger­ness for Mos­cow’s help in bol­ster­ing Amer­ica’s global po­si­tion. Trump has nois­ily drawn a red line on North Ko­rea, for ex­am­ple, but he ev­i­dently needs Rus­sia’s help, in ad­di­tion to China’s, to de­liver with­out go­ing to war. To get Mos­cow’s help on North Ko­rea, and Syria, too, Trump seems will­ing to give Putin a pass.

Here’s how Trump put it dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in Hanoi, which may have been the most im­por­tant state­ment of the trip: “Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize Rus­sia has been very, very heav­ily sanc­tioned,” Trump said. “It’s now time to get back to heal­ing a world that is shat­tered and bro­ken . ... And I feel that hav­ing Rus­sia in a friendly pos­ture, as op­posed to al­ways fight­ing with them, is an as­set to the world.”

A blis­ter­ing summary of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s over­due obli­ga­tion to make strate­gic de­ci­sions to de­ter Rus­sia and China, as op­posed to glad-hand­ing them, came in a lit­tle-noted Oct. 27 let­ter from Sen. John McCain, RAriz., to De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis.

Stricken with can­cer, the chair­man of the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee holds noth­ing back th­ese days.

“We now con­front the most com­plex se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment in 70 years,” McCain wrote. “Mis­placed pri­or­i­ties and ac­qui­si­tion fail­ures have left us with­out crit­i­cal de­fense ca­pa­bil­i­ties to counter in­creas­ingly ad­vanced near-peer com­peti­tors . ... We no longer en­joy the wide mar­gins of power we once had over com­peti­tors and ad­ver­saries. We can­not do ev­ery­thing we want ev­ery­where. We must choose. We must pri­or­i­tize.”

McCain sug­gested what many an­a­lysts have been say­ing qui­etly for months. The most wor­ry­ing thing about Trump isn’t his im­pul­sive mil­i­tary threats (though there’s rea­son to be con­cerned there, too). The deeper fear is that in na­tional se­cu­rity, this ad­min­is­tra­tion is an empty suit. It doesn’t make de­ci­sions. It doesn’t set pri­or­i­ties.

Trump is a vain man who flat­ters oth­ers so that he will be stroked him­self.

If there’s a strate­gic con­cept un­der­ly­ing his ap­proach, it may be re­al­ism mar­ried to ac­qui­es­cence. The Asia trip left me feel­ing that we’re watch­ing an Amer­i­can re­treat, ac­com­pa­nied by a shiny brass band.

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