Last quarter, it seemed the Trump administration had reached a low point, what with the president's firing of FBI director James Comey for refusing to call off the investigation of possible collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign. Then came the appointment by the Justice Department of special counsel Robert Mueller, an esteemed former FBI director himself (and a Republican), to investigate the case. He has now even been so bold as to convene a grand jury in the District of Columbia — in addition to the one already empaneled in Virginia — a sign that serious business is going forward, led by an army of highly regarded legal talent. A furious President Trump publicly derided his own attorney general, former Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), for recusing himself from the case — he had met privately with the Russian ambassador more than once during the election campaign. Apparently, the president thought the attorney general was his guy, rather than an officer of the American government.
We have now been witnesses to a political decline few had foreseen. First in order of importance, there was the collapse of Republican support for "Trumpcare," the supposed fix for the previous chief executive's attempt at access to health insurance for all — the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The House had passed an ACA repeal-and-replace bill that was dead on arrival in the Senate. For its part, the Senate, under the obsessive Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), had been looking forward to repealing and replacing the ACA for years. Moreover, the president was impatient for action. Shockingly, however, the ranks broke, with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) signaling a decisive thumbs down, saving other, politically vulnerable, senators from the risk of having to reveal their opposition and possibly face primary challenges from within their own party. Senate Republicans continued their defiance in the face of possible presidential withholding of payments to insurers and maybe even firing Sessions and Mueller.
Congress also went its own way on sanctions against Russia, giving Trump no choice but to sign the veto-proof bill he opposed. Accustomed to playing the dominant role (shouting, "You're fired!" on his TV show, primarily), Trump was not gracious in defeat. He seemed to lose his bearings, tweeting a threat to ban transgender personnel from the military, haranguing the Boy Scouts at their Jamboree with a campaign rant about Hillary Clinton, and encouraging a conclave of police officers to physically intimidate suspects. The Boy Scout leadership actually composed a public letter of apology for the president's inappropriate behavior, and law-enforcement authorities had to set the record straight on proper treatment of persons in custody. Tension among the White House staff — only tangentially related to these presidential missteps — produced a head-spinning rate of turnover. The press secretary resigned, a new communications director was brought on board, the chief of staff was sacked and his replacement immediately terminated the just-hired communications director. All in a week's time. Frustrated comedy writers at "Saturday Night Live" must have had to discard their skits at the very moment impersonators were being auditioned.
While the public was distracted by the White House circus, a significant anniversary passed almost unnoticed: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, by the United States of America. The estimated civilian death toll stands at 220,000, with at least 200,000 more later succumbing to their injuries. Some of the scarred and broken Japanese victims still survive, reminding the world of the horror of nuclear weapons. We have excused our government's use of the ultimate weapon as an act of necessity: a ground invasion of Japan would have cost the lives of thousands of our own troops. This may be true, yet, as Peter van Buren points out in The American Conservative (August 6), "The plan put into play — to force the Japanese government to surrender by making it watch mass casualties of innocents — speaks to a scale of cruelty previously unseen." The enemy had made us suffer, starting with the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, and deserved our retribution. Besides, a public demonstration of the doomsday machine might deter others, and the Soviet threat was already on the horizon.
Eventually, of course, our archenemy got the bomb, forcing us to hunker down for 40 years of mutually assured destruction and proxy wars in regions formerly colonized by Europeans, our longest and most destructive being Vietnam. Deterrence worked, however; annihilation was avoided. Learning from example, many developing countries have managed to build or buy the same kind of protection from regime change. China, India and Pakistan have succeeded in balancing their main opponent's power. Stasis reigns, for now. And let's set aside the crazy idea that North Korea's potential nuclear deterrent can be "taken out" by direct attack. From that, they are already quite safe, despite Trump's "fire and fury" rhetoric, aimed perhaps at stiffening China's resolve to work with us on this matter, claims David Ignatius (Washington Post, August 9).
The Middle East, however, is still in the throes of its post-Cold War unraveling. In 1989, after U.S. assistance in "winning" the war with Iran, Saddam Hussein stood up on his hind legs, threatened Israel and Saudi Arabia, and finally sent his army into Kuwait in 1990. Defeated and beaten down by 10 years of sanctions, his fate was finally sealed when the neoconservatives took power in the George W. Bush administration and were emboldened by the attacks of September 11, 2001, to change the regime in Baghdad. That mission was badly accomplished, Saddam was put to death, and his country was devastated by civil war. As a follow-on effect, in 2011 came the Arab uprisings, a ruined Syria, a global refugee crisis, a destabilized Jordan and Lebanon, the inception of the murderous Islamic State and the rapid spread of terrorism throughout the world (see our Capitol Hill symposium on avoiding chaos, and O'Driscoll for a bit of hope regarding the long road back to Iraqi unity). Meanwhile, let us pause for a moment to ponder the end of IS rule and mourn the thousands of Iraqis killed, maimed, traumatized and ruined in the great city of Mosul, after 3,000 years of multicultural life, now pulverized. It's as if an atomic bomb had exploded, but in extremely slow motion.
Ironically, a beneficiary of this chaos has been Iran, leading to the current panic over Tehran's ascendance, particularly as it is backed by Russia, a nuclear power with the ability to obliterate the United States. Washington has even assisted Iran with its enemy to the east, making as much trouble for the Afghan Taliban as possible. Not to mention that Iran may have the ability to produce a nuclear deterrent and might even be working in secret to make real our nightmare scenario. Could they already be in fail-safe territory? Not likely for the next 10 years, thanks to the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, spearheaded by President Obama and signed by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Donald J. Trump has made it known that he wants to vitiate that agreement if an excuse, any excuse, can be found. His deputies have three months to come up with one. Trump should be careful what he wishes for, however, if he believes Iran's only effective defense comes from nukes (see Bahgat / Ehteshami).