The Ad Hoc Autocracy of Trump's National Insecurity Council

"There is a Chinese curse which says, 'May you live in interesting times.'"

Robert F. Kennedy
(Note: There is no such curse, but let's not get distracted.)

If his intention is to further a state of incipient chaos in the world, the moves that President Donald Trump is making with his government by executive order, avoidance of experts, steamrolling of the Cabinet, and new version of the National Security Council make sense. A constant sense of crisis demands authoritarian leadership, right? So what if the crisis is self-generated? In fact, perhaps, so much the better.

But if his intention is to engage actors and events in such a way as to promote American interests without having things spiral out of control, his moves make little sense. Because he and his little pirate crew don't have the feel or experience to take things to the brink without screwing up. This is not a real estate deal. Except, inevitably, in the old soldier sense of the term, referring to a small plot of ground.

Are we surprised that the first big special operations raid of the Trump presidency went decidedly south, big time?

Emphasizing speed, precision, and overwhelming force, such missions are supposed to be the exact opposite of a fair fight. They should be a ruthless walkover. Operators should be come and gone before the echo of the shots -- if any -- fades.

Trump's first raid was anything but that. Immediately running into unexpected heavy resistance, precision maneuvers swiftly devolved into a desperate brawl with automatic weapons, with heavy air support embarrassingly required to bail out the elite Navy SEAL team. One American was killed, three were wounded, a very expensive aircraft went down and was destroyed, and, oh yes, dozens of civilians were killed, including children.

What we did get for all the trouble, which has just begun to unfold?

Well, the new Trump White House operation ain't saying, beyond the boilerplate of "important intelligence" and multiple bad guys killed. The raid was in Yemen, not at all incidentally, where we've been backing Saudi Arabia in a misfiring, confused war against a variety of players, the most important of whom was our ally for decades. The Saudis like to see the war as part of their regional struggle against Iran, though that is an oversimplification. Trump has also very much picked up the pace of our bombing and naval shelling in Yemen, where a great many civilians have been killed by the Saudi side.

Coincidentally, of course, the Saudi oil minister praised Trump the other day. "We want the same things!," he exulted in remarks to the BBC, referring to Trump's vow to ramp up our fossil fuel dependency again.

The fact that Saudi Arabia, home of all but a few of the 9/11 attackers, whose wealthy citizens are a principal source of funding for jihadists even now, was left off the list of travel ban nations selected for "extreme vetting" was certainly a plus for the Saudis, too.

What is Trump getting from the Saudis? Well, he is proving to be just as, if not more so, secretive as the Obama administration in the secret strike version of our post-9/11 long war.

If this were just one more messed-up raid, it would be one thing. The reality of conflict is that shit happens, Any little thing can lead to a chaotic result. Even a slight misstep can alert an opponent. Like, say, lowering the altitude of the orbiting drones, as happened in this case. Oops.

But the bigger problem here, as the unnamed military officials told various press organs, was that the opposition was much more formidable than anticipated. Hence the desperation call for heavy air support, which the Pentagon says caused the heavy loss of civilian life.

And of course the raid itself, and the suddenly expanded bombardment of Yemen, is just part of a big, rapidly emerging pattern of chaotic activity fitfully ordered by a notoriously ADD president spurred on by red hot ideologue advisors with little real feel for what they are doing.

Let's see. There is the collapsed Mexico summit, Trump's ugly-American threat in a phone call with the country's president to send US armed forces into Mexico, the ludicrously conceived and executed travel ban which at first deliberately shut out both US green card holders and, among many such others, the four-star Iraqi general working closely with us in the battle against Isis. And let's not forget Trump's insulting of Australia's prime minister, the controversial pledge to move the US embassy in Israel to disputed territory, several instances of oddly conceived anti-China saber rattling, various moves to confront Iran, etc., etc.

You know, I remember this guy running as the anti-interventionist candidate.

The one who, unlike Hillary Clinton -- with her foolishly bear-baiting new cold war with Russia and moves to get in the middle of the losing Syrian civil war -- would help avoid new wars.

Where did that guy go?

Instead, we have this guy. The one who on Thursday emphasized his authoritarian religious nationalist side, vowing to destroy the historic separation of church and state by setting loose full church involvement in politics. Trump even perversely quoted Enlightenment giant Thomas Jefferson, a legendarily staunch foe of religious dogma, in favor of Trump's dogmatic Christian fundamentalist agenda. (Bizarre though Trump's personal role as champion of evangelical Christians is. More to follow on all that.)

This is the Trump who reversed historic presidential practice by placing his chief political strategist, ex-Breitbart News propaganda chief Steve Bannon, at the apex of national security decision-making, the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. And in the process, Trump removed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence. (Then, a few days later, he put the CIA director on the NSC principals committee, even though CIA, for all its fame, is just one island in the intelligence archipelago. Because Trump likes him.)

Bannon, who said on his radio show that "We're already at war" on a global basis, now gets to pursue his prediction to make it a truism. He's a very apocalyptic sort of fellow. Maybe Trump, who never reads books and got his national security ideas by watching cable news and Hollywood movies -- 'Air Force One', yay! -- mistakes apocalypticism for gravitas.

It's not that Bannon and his fellow ex-Santa Monican (!) acolyte Steve Miller are talking about nothing; it's that Bannon's default position is to overreact. He's like these religionists who spout about end times, only with the added feature of being in position to push an approach that will precipitate end times.

It's also not that Bannon is not a very talented and a capable political advisor. In fact, that is why I praised Trump's selection of Bannon as a good move for his campaign last August.

That was when most everyone else said, wait for it, that it was just the latest sign that Trump could never win. Heh.

But clever politics is just smart gamesmanship. It's not wise statecraft. That's why Barack Obama only allowed David Axelrod to sometimes visit the NSC, why George W. Bush actually barred Karl Rove.

The only political advisor who has previously played this sort of role, not counting FDR's Harry Hopkins, who served when there was no NSC and who functionally was Roosevelt's national security advisor, was my late Hart for President friend Ted Sorensen. And that was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The legendary JFK speechwriter and intellectual soulmate joined the president and a host of generals and admirals and diplomats in the ad hoc government known as ExComm, the hastily devised executive committee of the National Security Council. And Sorensen was there as a counselor, not the shot-caller than Bannon is.

As you can see from his archive of columns, there is nothing in Bannon's writing over the past five years that places him on an intellectual par with Sorensen. Even more to the point, Bannon's writing demonstrates no real-time acumen in geopolitics. Or non-real time, for that matter. It's all a bunch of ideological jeering and cheering.

Yes, Bannon was a naval officer, as Trump flack Sean Spicer, also a naval reserve officer, dutifully stated when there were widespread gasps about Bannon's NSC role. But he was only a lieutenant, outranked by, er, quite a few people. And he spent all his time out on a ship or in the Pentagon as an admiral's aide. His personal familiarity with the dynamics of conflict, much less actual combat situations, was non-existent. He never backpacked, say, through Afghanistan not long before the Soviet invasion or Iran before the Islamic revolution. Bannon's view of such things is entirely ideological.

Thus our new National Insecurity Council is perfectly positioned to turn challenging situations into chaotic situations through its unique brew of hotheadedness, inexperience, and ignorance.

What else can go wrong? Quite obviously, this will be the continuing question, and ongoing series.

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