Donald Trump’s mockery of his intelligence chiefs this week ranks up there among the U.S. President’s most ignorant outbursts yet. His claim to know more about the geopolitical threats facing the United States than the heads of the 17 agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community would be funny, were it not so frightening.
Yet the bone-chilling reality of a President at odds with his administration’s own spy chiefs hit home as Mr. Trump contested the findings of the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment issued by his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats.
“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran,” Mr. Trump tweeted after Mr. Coats told the Senate intelligence committee that Iran is not currently working on a nuclear bomb. “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
The jibe is particularly ironic coming from someone as incurious and unschooled as Mr. Trump. Had the President bothered to read the 42-page summary Mr. Coats tabled before the Senate committee, instead of just catching the highlights on CNN, he would have found that the intelligence chiefs have a pretty good sense of what Iran is up to.
“Iran’s regional ambitions and improved military capabilities almost certainly will threaten U.S. interests in the coming year,” the Worldwide Threat Assessment notes. “Iran’s efforts to consolidate its influence in Syria and arm Hezbollah … underscore our growing concern about the long-term trajectory of Iranian influence in the region and the risk that conflict will escalate.”
A president who put his country’s national-security interests first – instead of favouring his own narrative of the threats facing the United States in order to protect his political and personal interests – would use the intelligence report to recalibrate his foreign policy accordingly.
Mr. Trump is not about to do so. That would mean having to repudiate his moves to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement, cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, undermine NATO, welcome the rise of nationalism in Europe, unilaterally impose tariffs on U.S. trading partners and ignore the geopolitical consequences of climate change.
The President is more in sync with the U.S. intelligence community in his assessment of the threat posed by China’s superpower ambitions, and the illicit means it employs to advance them. But it is not clear that Mr. Trump truly appreciates what’s at stake. All he seems to care about is reducing the U.S. trade deficit with China.
Speaking of naive, Mr. Trump continues to peddle the illusion that he has persuaded North Korea to denuclearize, despite claims to the contrary by those who know better than him. In his Senate testimony, Mr. Coats directly contradicted Mr. Trump, who has announced plans to meet for a second time with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
“We currently assess North Korea will seek to retain its [weapons of mass destruction] capability and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability,” Mr. Coats said, adding that those in charge in North Korea “ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”
As for the Islamic State, whose supposed defeat has been held up by Mr. Trump as the justification for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, the Worldwide Threat Assessment states: “We assess that ISIS will seek to exploit Sunni grievances, societal instability and stretched security forces to regain territory in Iraq and Syria in the long term.”
This is hardly the first time that Mr. Trump has publicly disavowed his national-security or intelligence experts. Indeed, some of those he hasn’t already fired have resigned in frustration at Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to surrender his preconceived notions.
Mr. Trump has chosen to play down the unanimous conclusion among intelligence experts that Russia sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, leaving many to conclude that he may indeed have something to hide. After he fired then-Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey in 2017, Mr. Trump became the subject of an FBI investigation into whether the President was “wittingly or unwittingly” working on Russia’s behalf, according to a New York Times report.
The President does not get everything wrong on foreign policy. And he seems aligned with the American electorate in seeking a retreat from U.S. involvement in other countries’ problems. What’s naive, however, is to think that ignoring those problems is risk-free.
“We are not the world’s policeman,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week after tabling a motion calling for the continued presence of U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan. “But we are the leader of the free world. And it is incumbent upon the United States to lead.”