By Jules Witcover
President Trump’s 11th-hour halt to planned military action against Iran has sent shivers through the American national security apparatus, suddenly exposed to the whims and judgment of a feckless commander-in-chief.
His decision to abort, apparently reached without wide discussion with his highest ranking military and diplomatic officials and congressional leaders, reveals a dangerous flaw in the nation’s critical response to a perilous Middle East crisis.
There is a conspicuous absence of moderating voices amid Trump’s closest national security advisers, now led by super war hawk John Bolton. The vacuum has elevated fears of the administration bungling into a shooting war that the president has said he does not want.
On one hand, he fretted about the potential for a limited U.S. military strike, in response to the downing of an unarmed American drone, to kill as many as 150 Iranians. On the other, he allowed himself to make a belligerent threat of the “obliteration” of the Iranian nation if it persists in such military action.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she received no advance notice of Trump’s decision. He has since sought to put brakes on his tough talk, insisting, “I’m getting a lot of praise for what I did.”
He now maintains there is “plenty of time” to discuss the differences with Iran in the Persian Gulf and to negotiate “de-escalation” of tensions there. He has denied he is neither a “warmonger” nor “a dove.” So what does that make him, other than an irresponsible loose cannon?
How much longer can the American people tolerate a president so ill equipped to judge and act on policies he constitutionally oversees? He has the whole world constantly on pins and needles over the consequences of his mindless behavior.
Democratic chairmen such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York of the House Judiciary continue to muse about subpoenaing knowledgeable White House officials on the president’s possibly impeachable offenses. They should have been in the federal courts weeks ago, seeking definitive rulings on Congress’s power to elicit supportive testimony making its case.
While they ponder how to force Trump to stand aside as justice is being rendered on his stonewalling tactics, a much more basic issue is emerging. It is the competence and willingness of our elected president to carry out the government’s fundamental responsibilities.
Donald Trump continues to ricochet from pillar to post, deciding and undeciding national policy like a hungover chess player on a morning after. Meanwhile, the world wonders what next will come from an official Washington that has lost its moorings for reliable global leadership.
Teetering in the wake is not only public confidence at home in whether the man in the Oval Office knows what the hell he is doing from moment to moment. Both our allies and our adversaries abroad are left scratching their heads over what our once admired self-government has wrought beyond our borders.
This condition is why the continued presidency of this ill-informed real-estate hustler playing national and international leader has graduated from an internal embarrassment to a peril for global stability.
While Speaker Pelosi counsels the orderly accumulation of fact and evidence warranting Trump’s impeachment on Capitol Hill, he continues to inflict major damage on American democracy and U.S. diplomacy abroad on a daily basis.
Patient souls insist that the presidential election of 2020 will provide soon enough a legal and decisive solution to the homegrown mistake of electing him to our highest office. But his glaring incompetence in the job that a constitutional minority of voters bestowed on him via the Electoral College meanwhile holds sway.
Republican senators continue to hold the key to the future of Trumpism before the 2020 election, by virtue of the two-thirds requirement in the Senate to convict a president impeached in the House by majority vote.
In 1974. more than enough Senate Republicans saw that the jig was up on Richard Nixon, and they so informed him he needed to resign. That outcome seems unlikely with Trump now, so his fate likely will not be decided until the people speak at the ballot box next year.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at [email protected]