The United States, the acknowledged world leader in the post-World War II era, is in retreat and decline. Among America’s closest international friends the deterioration of our country’s standing is simply astounding. In a recent survey of our once closest European allies only 28% of the residents of the United Kingdom said the U.S. would act responsibly in the world. In France, 3% – you read that correctly – think the U.S. is best positioned to confront global challenges.
That this disastrous retreat has taken place under a Republican administration and with a GOP-controlled Senate is a stark reminder of how far Donald Trump’s Republican Party has retreated from the place Ronald Reagan once proclaimed the “shining city on a hill.”
A portion of Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech in January 1989 as printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The number two Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, actually said the quiet part out loud this week, admitting that Trump not only owns the GOP soul, but apparently more importantly has also squeezed the last ounce of independence from his frightened lackeys. “I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together,” Thune said as he placed a priority on re-election at the expense of absolutely everything else.
As capable as the president has been of destroying U.S. credibility and puncturing the myth of American exceptionalism, he didn’t get us here all by himself. He had a lot of help from this feckless, rudderless, incompetent collection of Republican senators and members of Congress. And no one wears the feckless label more notably than Idaho’s Jim Risch, who, in title only, sits atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A comprehensive listing of Trumpian ineptitude in the foreign policy arena, combined with the willful rejection of critical allies and international institutions, would fill a library shelf, so consider just the most recent examples of America trashing itself with Republican approval.
Anyone with a sense of how political leadership works would have known that a crisis like a global pandemic would lay bare Trump’s unfitness. “Trump’s handling of the pandemic at home and abroad has exposed more painfully than anything since he took office the meaning of America First,” says William Burns, a 33-year career foreign policy professional who now heads the Carnegie Endowment. “America is first in the world in deaths, first in the world in infections and we stand out as an emblem of global incompetence. The damage to America’s influence and reputation will be very hard to undo.”
Risch was Tweeting on January 24, “Today I was briefed by leading global health experts about the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China. We learned that the risk of transmission within the U.S. is low at present. I will continue to work closely with U.S. officials to ensure Americans are protected.” But what has he actually done?
Well, he’s embraced the White House blame China message, while totally ignoring the epicenter of the crisis – the White House. Even that begs the question of just what is Risch’s China strategy? Trump’s only approach, beyond unbroken fidelity to China’s dictatorial leader, involves tariffs that have crippled trade, while forcing U.S. taxpayers to bail out American farmers.
And what of the World Health Organization (WHO)? If the WHO needs reform, is the best strategy to eliminate U.S. funding in the middle of the pandemic? Again, the Idaho senator has no strategy and nothing to say.
Meanwhile, under cover of COVID-19 confusion, Trump has fired the inspector general at the State Department, Steve Linick, an issue that had the Foreign Relations Committee a real chairman, would be front and center on the committee’s agenda. Risch has said nothing and will do nothing even in the face of published reports that the firing is linked to a number of questionable actions, including an investigation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to circumvent Congress and make a controversial $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. (I asked Risch’s office for a comment on the IG firing and received no response.)
Trump’s cashiering of Linick marks the fourth such dismissal in three months and is an obvious effort to eliminate any visage of independent oversight of Trump and his administration’s conduct. The only Republican to immediately express concern about this blatant authoritarianism was Utah’s Mitt Romney who called Trump’s action “a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.” Risch, meanwhile, is silent.
Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
It is telling that in his year and a half as Foreign Relations chairman, Pompeo has not once appeared before Risch’s committee to answer questions about China, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, deteriorating relations with NATO countries, or anything. With dereliction of his Senate duties – never more on display than the recent IG firing – Risch is abetting Trump’s efforts, as Aaron Blake wrote recently in the Washington Post, to “undermine independent oversight of his administration.”
For good measure this week, Risch, acting as ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, voted to advance the nomination of Texas congressman John Ratcliffe to be director of national intelligence. Ratcliffe is a dedicated Trump toady widely described as the least qualified person ever nominated for such a position. Ratcliffe, with Risch’s help, will complete the politicization of the nation’s intelligence agencies.
To be sure hypocrisy is part of this story, as well. Risch never tempered his criticism when a Democrat occupied the White House and his partisan disdain was regularly on display during the Obama Administration. “This is a foreign policy that is in shambles,” Risch said in 2012. “In the Middle East, it is a foreign policy of apology, it is a foreign policy of appeasement, it is a foreign policy of dithering and looking the other way. This cannot go on.” Yet, when it comes to Trump, Risch doesn’t critique, analyze or even discuss, he accepts – everything.
Who benefits from Risch’s behavior and Trump’s foreign policy incoherence and incompetence? China, of course, (and Putin’s Russia) whose aim is to diminish American influence and weaken historic alliances, while discrediting democracy.
Michael Fullilove, a decidedly pro-American scholar who heads the Lowy Institute, Australia’s largest think tank, described it succinctly: “We increasingly feel caught between a reckless China and a feckless America that no longer seems to care about its allies.”
Meanwhile, Jim Risch is on track to be remembered as the worst chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the post-war period. He has certainly earned the distinction.
Can these awful times make us better?
I really admire the work of Rebecca Solnit who writes eloquently and profoundly about many things. In her recent piece for The Guardian she reflects on all the small, but incredibly important acts of kindness by ordinary people right now. She says: “I sometimes think that capitalism is a catastrophe constantly being mitigated and cleaned up by mutual aid and kinship networks, by the generosity of religious and secular organizations, by the toil of human-rights lawyers and climate groups, and by the kindness of strangers. Imagine if these forces, this spirit, weren’t just the cleanup crew, but were the ones setting the agenda.”
What it’s like to be a Democrat in Montana?
With no official sanction, I like to think of myself as an honorary Montanan. I’ve never lived there, but I feel about the state like John Steinbeck who wrote in Travels with Charley: “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” Yup. From the fishing to the political history to Glacier Park, I love the place. Now, read this from a real Montanan, Sarah Vowell, who gets the state pretty well.
What it was like to have lunch with Noel Coward?
Dorothy Parker was a great wit and a great writer. Among her many quotable quotes: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.” Parker was also a charter member of the Algonquin Roundtable and they surely had a good time.
And finally, was Donald Trump a good baseball player?
“I was supposed to be a pro baseball player,” Donald Trump wrote in 2004. “At the New York Military Academy, I was captain of the baseball team. I worked hard like everyone else, but I had good talent.” Er, well, turns out like so much else he says that isn’t really true.
Thanks for reading…