President Donald Trump’s use of Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine and his betrayal of the Kurds have something important in common. Beyond the fact they both provide impeachable offenses.
Both are stunning examples of Trump’s disdain for professionals who know anything about the countries (or allies) he’s trashing. On every major foreign challenge confronting this country, the “stable genius” is failing because he refuses advice or briefings from professionals.
Worse than that, he (along with Mike Pompeo) is wrecking the State Department at a time when tough, smart U.S. diplomacy has never been needed more.
“I have a gut and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me,” says Trump. But, just in case, he is getting rid of any diplomats or security advisers who might contradict him, leaving him free to make gutwise policy with his cronies.
Foreign policy twisted to suit his political needs, not the needs of the USA.
Consider his mistreatment of Marie Yovanovitch —the nonpartisan, professional U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who fought corruption while Giuliani encouraged it. Trump’s sliming of Yovanovitch displayed his disdain for professional diplomats and the expertise they bring to the process. Yovanovitch was ordered home when she refused to bend to Giuliani’s efforts to enlist corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors to manufacture dirt about Joe Biden and the 2016 election.
Similarly, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, another consummate professional, rebelled at Trump’s and Giuliani’s efforts to exact a political quid pro quo for desperately needed military aid.
But this story has far broader significance than the president’s use of a shifty personal lawyer to circumvent diplomats and shakedown the Kyiv government.
“I’ve never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging to both the State Department as an institution and to our international influence,” writes William Burns, one of America’s most stellar diplomats and former deputy secretary of state, in the journal Foreign Affairs.
I admire Burns greatly, having watched him for years take on the thorniest problems in the Mideast, Russia, and elsewhere. So I asked him to elaborate.
“I have never seen anything quite like this,” he told me, in reference to Yovanovitch, and what her story represents.
“My concern,” Burns continued, “is truly about the hollowing out of the institution of the State Department and of U.S. diplomacy, which matters more than ever in a much more competitive global landscape. The world is going through immensely transformative trends, a revolution in technology, the rise of China, the (return) of Russia. This goes well beyond the ability of one nation to navigate alone.
“What sets us apart from China and Russia is our ability to draw in allies and build coalitions. We are squandering that asset. We are digging ourselves a hole.
“My fear is that when we stop digging we will look at a landscape that has hardened. Allies have begun to lose faith, adversaries and rivals take advantage. China, Iran. International institutions we had worked so hard to build will start to wobble.”
Burns points out that the Trump administration has been waging war on diplomacy since its inception, with its first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, slashing personnel and sinking morale. The White House continues to slash the budget for diplomacy and development spending (already 19 times smaller than the Defense budget).
Trump’s disdain for career diplomats is boundless. Only one of 28 assistant secretary-rank positions is filled by a Foreign Service officer, writes Burns, and more ambassadorships going to political appointees (including very big donors) in this administration than in any in recent history. One-fifth of ambassadorships remain unfilled, including critical posts, and applications to join the Foreign Service have plummeted.
The long-term damage is incalculable. Trump makes clear to allies and adversaries that U.S ambassadors are irrelevant, and they should listen only to him or cronies such as Giuliani.
“We are squandering our hand, and we will face a landscape far less favorable to our interests,” says Burns, now president of the Carnegie Endowment and author of “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.”
What’s so bizarre, he adds, is that “the president’s instincts are not all wrong, for example, to act against predatory Chinese trade practices, but the tactics are all wrong.” In the China case, the only way to corral Beijing would be to unite with our Asian and European allies, who share our concerns, and thus corner Beijing. Going solo —with a unilateral trade and tariff war —will never lead to fundamental change in Beijing. “The Chinese will take advantage of our drift in Asia and beyond.”
Ditto for Trump’s shameful unilateral retreat in Syria. “There was a smart way and a dumb way” to use the leverage of our small troop presence while not betraying the Kurds. “We chose the dumb way, giving away our leverage in one phone call and throwing a partner under the bus that bled for us. That leaves us in a situation where we’ll face greater chaos and the beneficiary will be ISIS.”
America had better get used to such debacles now that Trump has disabled our diplomats (and is trying to break our intelligence and law enforcement agencies). Diplomacy by gut is a threat to us all.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at email@example.com.