One of the worst legacies of the Clinton era is the never-ending presidential campaign. In practical terms it means that for at least two out of every four years, America pays attention to little else and flatly ignores the most important goings on around the world. Only a major war or financial crisis is allowed to intrude on our egocentric reverie, and then only briefly.
Now that the 2016 campaign is finally over, it’s time to take stock of what’s going on beyond daily poll numbers and the Twitter accounts of candidates, media mavens, and pollsters. It’s not a pretty picture.
Every president, soon after he’s inaugurated, is challenged by an adversary to test his and his administration’s resolve and skills. Some, such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, face ongoing wars. Messrs. Trump and Pence will have to deal with ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria — where U.S. air and ground forces are engaged, whether President Obama admits it or not — and in places such as Libya, Somalia, and other parts of Africa where our special forces are engaged against various terrorist groups.
Some or all of these wars will erupt in crises during Trump’s first hundred days in office. Immediately public, such crises will require action.
And that’s just the start. High on any list of threats are the cyberattacks our military, intelligence, and defense industries suffer every day from many sources including China, Iran, and several terrorist groups as well as nations usually believed to be friendly. These attacks are mostly kept secret. A successful cyberattack on our defense and intelligence satellite constellations could render us deaf, dumb, and blind.
Putin’s Russia is high on the threat list because he works hard to achieve that status. It would be a mistake to disregard the Russian threat, although there are many reasons to be tempted to do so. (Putin’s gang is rife with turf battles and corruption, and is greatly weakened by a Russian economy that continues to sink along with oil prices.) It is in Putin’s interest to keep the flames of nationalism high as he did with the invasions of Crimea and Ukraine.
Putin could raise the stakes in two ways by conducting another covert invasion, this time of Estonia. The stakes for Trump are much higher in such a case because Estonia is a member of NATO. That means Estonia could invoke the NATO treaty provision on mutual defense. That would put Trump on the spot regarding NATO as a whole.
Trump couldn’t abandon Estonia regardless of how much he disdains NATO because, as he rightly points out, almost all of the NATO countries have, for far too long, been leaving their defense to us rather than doing their part. Nor could he rely on NATO’s European members to defend Estonia from another of Putin’s invasions using his forces of “little green men,” who are Russian soldiers wearing uniforms from which national insignia have been removed.
Other challenges to Trump — a major terrorist attack on American citizens here or abroad, or a massive Iran-induced Hizballah missile attack launched against Israel — are among the most likely. There are too many other threats to list here, including those that will have to be dealt with by forceful diplomacy.
There’s no reason to believe these enemy-induced crises will come singly.
There is reason to believe — not just hope — that the new Trump administration will be able to deal with these crises when they happen.
One principal reason is Vice President-elect Mike Pence. I knew him well when he was in the House and I was editor of Human Events. Pence is a calm, competent conservative who has a great deal of experience in foreign affairs as a result of his decade-long experience on the House Foreign Relations Committee. Unlike Joe Biden who, in spending three decades on the Senate Foreign Affairs committee, managed to be wrong on virtually everything, Pence has learned much and takes a common sense approach to these matters.
Another reason to believe that such crises can be dealt with effectively is Trump’s choice of Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as his National Security Advisor. I don’t know Flynn, but I’ve read his book The Field of Fight, co-authored by Michael Ledeen.
Flynn is a real warrior and an old intelligence hand, having led the Defense Intelligence Agency. Remember, please, that the DIA has proven a more reliable intelligence source than the CIA. Just as importantly, Flynn has a realistic view of the Islamic terrorist threat. In chapter 4 of The Field of Fight, Flynn lists the top two ways to win the war. First, to destroy the jihadi armies while killing or capturing their leaders. Second, “Discrediting their ideology, which will be greatly helped by our military victories, but which requires a serious program all its own (emphasis added).
Readers will remember that this column has argued for exactly that approach since 2006. We cannot win the kinetic war against Islamic terrorism without winning the ideological war at the same time. Flynn will know how that can be done — both overtly and covertly — and may have already persuaded Trump to authorize it.
We can have confidence in the Two Mikes. But what of the rest of Trump’s nascent government?
At this writing we don’t know who he will pick for defense secretary or secretary of state. Retired Marine General James Mattis may become defense secretary. Mattie, whose on-record quotes warm the hearts of those who want to win wars instead of settling into Obama’s way of war, would be a great choice. As would former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani for secretary of state. If Trump picks others for those jobs, our foreign and defense policies may be in far less capable hands.
We can’t predict where the first crisis will challenge Trump, but we know it will come quickly. President George W. Bush had to respond when Chinese aircraft forced a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft down on Hainan Island on April 1, 2001, less than two months after his inauguration. Bush did well (helped greatly by the courageous aircraft commander who dumped all the classified equipment into the ocean before landing) without igniting a war with China that would have had uncertain results. Trump has to expect a crisis equally soon.
Will he deal with the inevitable challenge in his first hundred days? His selection of cabinet members will tell us.