by Roger Cohen · March 3, 2017
President Trump speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24. Doug Mills/The New York Times
This is a column about contempt. Let’s start with the utter contempt that President Trump has shown for the State Department since taking office six weeks ago. Some 70,000 American patriots across the globe, dedicated to the American idea as a force for good in the world, have been cast adrift.
Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, is a near phantom. He has no deputy, having seen his first choice nixed by Trump. No State Department press briefing, once a daily occurrence, has been held since Trump took office. The president has proposed a 37 percent cut in the State Department budget. An exodus of senior staff members continues. The State Department has taken on a ghostly air.
The message is clear. America has no foreign policy so nobody is needed to articulate it. All we have are the feverish zigzags of the president, a man who thinks NATO is obsolete one day and glorious the next. There is no governing idea, only transactional hollowness. One midlevel officer told Julia Ioffe of The Atlantic: “It’s reminiscent of the developing countries where I’ve served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.”
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, has become the foreign service of the United States of America.
Trump does not buy into the American idea. He buys, if anything, into Vladimir Putin’s macho authoritarianism and spheres of influence for the great powers. This amounts to a dramatic break with American policy as superbly articulated last month by one of the departing diplomats, Daniel Fried, who joined the Foreign Service in 1977 and served with great distinction, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.
Fried had this to say in his parting remarks: “Few believed that Poland’s Solidarity movement could win, that the Iron Curtain would come down, that the Baltic States could be free, that the second of the 20th century’s great evils — Communism — could be vanquished without war. But it happened, and the West’s great institutions — NATO and the E.U. — grew to embrace 100 million liberated Europeans. It was my honor to have done what I could to help. I learned never to underestimate the possibility of change, that values have power, and that time and patience can pay off, especially if you’re serious about your objectives. Nothing can be taken for granted, and this great achievement is now under assault by Russia, but what we did in my time is no less honorable. It is for the present generation to defend and, when the time comes again, extend freedom in Europe.”
Donald Trump, our ahistorical Russophile president, should frame these words and hang them in the Oval Office as his first history lesson.
Fried noted America’s long-held opposition to spheres of influence, a recipe for war, and made this critical point: “We are not an ethno-state, with identity rooted in shared blood. The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox. On the contrary, we are ‘a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ ” And so, “that rough sense of equality and opportunity, embedded in us, informed the way that we brought our American power to the world, America’s Grand Strategy. We have, imperfectly, and despite detours and retreat along the way, sought to realize a better world for ourselves and for others, for we understood that our prosperity and our values at home depend on that prosperity and those values being secure as far as possible in a sometimes dark world.”
There could be no finer rebuke to Trump’s dangerous contempt.
But there is a deeper contempt, even more treacherous. It is for the Constitution. Trump has attacked the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment, and the independence of the judiciary. His reckless travel ban raised issues of due process and religious discrimination. Serious questions exist as to whether “aid or comfort” was given by the Trump entourage to an American enemy — in this case Russia — during the presidential campaign and after his victory on Nov. 8.
This contempt was signaled in his inaugural speech when Trump said, “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.” No, the president’s oath is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It is to the law not the “volk.”
Barnett Rubin, a political scientist and Afghanistan expert who served at the State Department, recalled to me in an email how he never thought of the oath he took to defend the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” even when confronting the Taliban, but that these days the words have acquired meaning.
I know what Rubin means. I am a naturalized American, and so I took the oath to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
This column about contempt amounts, in a way, to fulfillment of that oath.