Some years back when I weighed 155 lbs, ran a 3:07 marathon, had a full head of hair and thought beer was food (all of this is true) I was privileged by the gods to be selected to command a light infantry company. It was the pinnacle of my career because nothing before or since has equaled the feeling of being a warlord responsible for “the training, welfare and discipline” of 165 young infantrymen. I didn’t come into it cold. I’d spent 6 years at the pointy end of the stick in troop leadership positions at the platoon level. And I kept a freakin notebook in which I wrote down the things I wanted to do when I had a command, I recorded the training that impressed me, and, most importantly, I recorded pages of stupid sh** that I swore I’d never inflict on troops under my command. For the most part, the notebook served me well. Except for one section. That would be the stupid sh** section. In short order I found myself doing some of the very things that did not make sense to me as a lieutenant. I found myself doing it for a couple of reasons. I discovered that nothing works in a vacuum and what looks like stupid sh** when you are doing it sometimes makes perfect sense when you back off and look at the big picture. And I discovered commanding a company was a helluva lot more demanding from the commander’s office than it was as a smug f***ing lieutenant second guessing everything. I fixed the stupid sh** where I could but where I couldn’t I explained to my officers and NCOs that, yes, I knew it was stupid sh** to them but we were going to do it anyway.
The point of all of this is that being the boss is a lot different from wanting to be the boss. The decisions you make in command have consequences while the sh** you talk about what you would do if you were boss doesn’t.
I have no brief to defend Donald Trump but neither do I have the inclination to attack him as some personal catharsis and validation (this is pretty much my view on Trump). My colleagues, Martin Walsh and Jay Caruso, have offered their opinion on the shift between Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his actions over the past couple of months. I have no problems with either viewpoint and find a lot to like in both posts. But I do want to offer another view of the situation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” I think two particular “flip flops” of Trump fall directly under this rubric. Let’s just consider two of the issues being discussed today.
Trump decided not to label China a currency manipulator.
China may or may not be a currency manipulator, economists disagree. Everyone, however, is agreed that this condemnation of China as a currency manipulator was going to lead to tit-for-tat trade retaliations by both sides. Was that a good thing? I don’t think so but YMMV. Regardless of the efficacy of making that declaration one needs to look at the totality of why abandoning that decision was made. It was a concession to China, a gift, if you will, that, in return, permitted China to abstain on a UN resolution about Syrian use of chemical weapons that it would have vetoed three months ago, enforce an existing embargo on North Korean coal imports, and announce to North Korea that if they provoke a war with the United States they are on their own. In the big scheme of things, I think this is inspired realpolitik. We gave China something that had little value to us but a lot of value to them. In return, we received some actions that could very well end up making the Korean peninsula nuclear-free. And if a war does erupt we know we will not be fighting the PLA at the risk of a war expanding throughout the South China Sea. On the whole, tossing this very foolish consistency to the wind seems like a good idea.
Now I’m not going to argue that Trump came up with this idea. I doubt that he did. But what I will give him credit for is having the maturity to listen to the idea, to weigh the sugar high of slapping down China to the roars of the cheap seats against the longer term results in Korea, and deciding to make the long term, and high payoff, play. I will also say that had he not elevated the currency manipulation issue and been taken seriously about punishing China, he could never have traded that away.
Trump says NATO is no longer obsolete.
I’ve been struggling with this particular criticism as virtually no one, other than Pat Buchanan, was in favor of the US screwing around with the NATO alliance. Trump has opined that NATO is no longer obsolete and he has signed the document expanding NATO membership to include Montenegro. This has been severely criticized by Russia. Given the amount of bleating about Trump being Putin’s stooge one would have thought there would have been a collective sigh of relief over his volte face. But no. Making the right decision is now viewed as a manifestly bad thing if the subject is Trump. As the guy making the final call, I suspect that Trump has discovered that NATO, particularly when facing Putin’s Russia, is a good idea and a strong NATO has the same potential for deterring Russian adventurism that it did for Soviet adventurism. I’m sure that Mattis or Tillerson or McMaster or all three had a “NATO is important” meeting with Trump. Again, he had the maturity to see the merits of a position that opposed his instincts and campaign rhetoric and the trust in that advice to change direction.
That is the kind of behavior we should be cheering. When Trump changes his opinion on some dysfunctional and damaging promise he made on the campaign trail we should be cheering, like the angels rejoicing at the return of a lost sinner. The degree to which these “flip flops” separate him from the stranger elements of his base is better for the GOP and for American politics.