If there is anyone more dangerous than Donald Trump when he thinks he is invincible, it is Donald Trump when he fears he is vulnerable.
It is, therefore, seriously troubling to watch him unravel as the impeachment vultures start circling above his head, and his previously sycophantic acolytes begin to distance themselves from him. (According to one report yesterday, ‘White House officials close to President Donald Trump are pulling off a disappearing act, remaining largely absent from public view, in the middle of the storm over impeachment.’)
And his mood will not have improved with last night’s news that two business associates of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the man at the centre of the Ukraine shake-down allegations, have been arrested at Dulles airport with one-way tickets to Frankfurt and charged with plotting to channel foreign cash into a pro-Trump political action committee. Trump insists he doesn’t know them, although he accepts he might have been photographed with them. (He was: here’s the photo.)
Immediately after the presidential election in November 2016, I wrote a piece headlined ‘Caution: dangerous world ahead.’ ‘The election of Donald Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place,’ I wrote. ‘What scares me most about [him] is not only that he is a deeply unpleasant man with deeply unpleasant views but also that he is grotesquely, frighteningly incompetent and woefully unprepared for the task ahead.’
It was one of those occasions when I hoped I would be proved wrong. Perhaps he would put together a team of senior advisers who knew what they were doing and could prevent him making too many mistakes.
So here we are, with a president who sees nothing wrong with asking the president of Ukraine to dig up some dirt on a political rival, then doubles down by asking China to do the same, and then after a weekend chat on the phone with President Erdoğan of Turkey, announces a major change of US policy in Syria which is likely to leave his erstwhile Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turkish military.
But hey, who cares? In the words of Trump himself (and remember, he is also commander-in-chief of the US military): ‘The Kurds didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us in Normandy.’(If you don’t believe that he really said it, here’s the clip. He was wrong, anyway: in fact, thousands of Kurds fought with the British in Iraq during WWII.)
And in response to suggestions that thousands of imprisoned Islamic State fighters might now be sprung from Kurdish custody, hey, what’s the problem? ‘They’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go.’
No one expects consistency from Donald Trump, but for the record, here is what he said a year ago about the Kurdish fighters whom he has now abandoned: ‘We’re trying to help them a lot … We have to help them. I want to help them. They fought with us. They died with us. They died. We lost tens of thousands of Kurds, died fighting ISIS. They’re great people. And we have not forgotten. We don’t forget.’
How hollow those words sound now.
Turkey says it wants to create a 20-mile deep ‘safe zone’ along its border with Syria, and appears to be hoping that it can establish a Kurd-free area into which it can then resettle at least some of the three million Syrian refugees who have sought shelter on its territory over the past eight years. The words ‘ethnic cleansing’ spring to mind.
Trump likes to boast that under his leadership, the US destroyed the IS threat. The truth is that it was largely Kurdish fighters who took on IS, with US assistance. So now, the way Trump sees it, who needs the Kurds any more? Erdoğan has always hated the US-Kurdish alliance – to Turkey, the Kurds pose a major security threat – so he asked Trump to move US forces out of the way, and bingo! Turkey moved in.
It has been much too easy over the past three years to dismiss Trump as a ludicrous clown, to be mocked mercilessly but not to be taken too seriously. It was always a mistake, but now the evidence is clearer than ever: Turkish warplanes are in action over Syria, their troops are on the ground, and civilians are fleeing from their homes in fear.
As the historian Simon Schama observed pithily: ‘Just because he’s a lunatic doesn’t mean he’s also not very very stupid.
A former senior official in the US State Department during the Obama era, Amanda Sloat, wrote in the Washington Post: ‘Trump’s hasty decision to withdraw US advisers from the Syrian border, and at least tacitly approve a Turkish military operation, was sloppy and cruel … Renewed fighting will harm civilians in a now-peaceful part of a war-torn country, enable the Islamic State to regroup, and empower Russia and Iran, who are backing the Assad regime and hungry for more influence.’
This all raises a deeply worrying question. What might Trump do next as the impeachment process tightens its grip? To put it melodramatically, how many more people will die as a result of his woeful ignorance and emotional incontinence?
Anyone who follows his rantings on Twitter (I don’t recommend it) will know how enraged he is at opinion polls showing that public support for his impeachment is steadily growing. After Fox News – yes, Fox News – reported that more than half of American voters now want him to be impeached and removed from office, he responded: ‘From the day I announced I was running for President, I have NEVER had a good Fox News poll. Whoever their Pollster is, they suck … Fox News doesn’t deliver for US any more. It is so different than it used to be. Oh well, I’m President.’
Twenty years ago, in the film Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, a fictional US President invented a fictional war to divert attention from his domestic political difficulties. That was satire, but this is reality. To the great misfortune of the hundreds of thousands of people living along the Syrian-Turkish border, there is nothing fictional about this president – or this war.