What is mystifying about the ongoing saga of Donald Trump’s tweets accusing his White House predecessor of “tapping”his Trump Tower phones is the expectation that he will eventually admit his error. Everyone but his White House entourage has declared that the charges are empty – Republicans, the FBI, veteran intelligence experts and, of course, the Democrats. It seems obvious that this latest swipe at Barack Obama is a continuation of his attempt to smear Obama as an ineligible president. And it was years, under the pressure of a campaign, before he relinquished that one.
Why then expect the Fantasist-in-Chief to correct his lie?
Far from it, Trump has reinforced the fabrication by enmeshing the visiting German chancellor and an enraged British intelligence in it. So the American public must come to terms with a defect of character in the new president. Voters were warned by the ghostwriter of his book “The Art of the Deal” that Trump has a problem with truth. The debasement of fact is now routine in domestic affairs and sometimes self-correcting. But in foreign relations, fantasy can be dangerous.
In one of his few adult appointments, Trump on his second try has chosen as his National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, a highly regarded Army officer. That official’s primary task is to gather advice from the foreign-policy establishment and refine it for the president. The office, like the National Security Council, is a creation of the Cold War and has been held by such heavyweights as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniev Brzezinski. But Trump has a record of resisting professional intelligence – witness his bypassing of briefing opportunities during the campaign and subsequent skirmishes with professionals in the field.
Those who wonder how this collaboration will work out can consult McMaster’s book, “Dereliction of Duty.” As a young officer, McMaster won a doctorate in history at Chapel Hill with a dissertation on the Vietnam War. The “dereliction,” in McMaster’s readable analysis, was a failure of truth. It was prompted in the first place by Lyndon Johnson’s fear of losing the 1964 election if the extent of the American commitment became known and his ambition to become a celebrated domestic reformer like FDR. It included the “silence” of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, too divided by service rivalries to formulate compelling military advice. It included the confidence fostered by Defense Secretary Robert McNama’s Pentagon statisticians that military force could be applied, not to win, but as calibrated in stages to “signal” to the foe in Hanoi what the U. S. might do to stop their support of the Viet Cong. That illusion was allied to an underestimate of the force of Asian nationalism and post-colonial history, as personified in Ho Chi Minh, who had sought sympathetic attention of the West since his days as a Paris waiter before and after the First World War.
Above all, McMaster excoriates the deception. In “Dereliction of Duty” his thesis rises to a scorching crescendo: By 1965, he writes, “the [Johnson] administration’s lies to the American public had grown in magnitude as... the effort in Vietnam escalated”; “the Joint Chiefs of Staff became accomplices in the president’s deception”; LBJ “circumvented the Constitution,” Et cetera. He does not shrink from the word “lie” in all its forms.
Not that this will come as news to those who were paying attention as the Vietnam tragedy unfolded in the mid- and late 1960s, and who recall the Johnson “credibility gap.” But McMaster brings sharply focused military judgment to an all too familiar tale. “Dereliction” is a young man’s book – penetrating if rather one dimensional history, a bit warped by the exclusive documentary focus on military strategy. There is little balancing by the competing domestic and human imperatives that Johnson felt, including the urgent fight for the great civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965.
But Trump’s new National Security Adviser brings informed testimony to the crucial role of truth and fact in foreign policy. What happens when in a crisis he counsels a president who revels in fantasy and tends to lash out at those who try to correct him? Will McMaster’s hard truths, armed with a best-selling book, be a match for presidential fantasy?
General McMaster has his work cut out.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.