The rise of Joe Biden is ushering in an array of old and new names vying for the president-elect’s ear, or the ears of those close to him or the ears of anyone who knows anyone who might be orbiting a planet that may be remote but not too far away from the sun as to be invisible.
Think of all the departments, agencies, commissions and committees with positions to be filled. In the coming weeks, so many experts, analysts and consultants will be coming out of the woodwork with opinions to express, surveys to cite and studies to present that Biden’s 78-year-old head will be spinning.
Or not. Maybe, after Jan. 20, he’ll retreat to the safety of the White House and his Delaware home, leaving his immediate underlings to sort out the confusion while he takes a break.
A whole lot will depend on the quality of the men and women he appoints, his confidence in them and their ability to pursue policies with a minimum of top-down supervision. In other words, no need to worry about the new president tweeting arbitrary shifts and twists reflecting often dubious gut instincts.
In foreign policy, the incoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, seem on paper like an ideal pair with sterling credentials dating from their days as students at Yale and Harvard through to the presidency of Barack Obama advising Biden as vice president.
That doesn’t mean the glow of their brilliance will always shine through conflicts and crises that Biden, no hawk or hardliner, might prefer to ignore or avoid. Nor should we expect that they’ll be able so easily and quickly to undo the damage wrought by the Trumpster as he goes on tearing down what he believes was an old order that he alone knows how to fix.
Trump has a few more weeks to compromise U.S. standing in the world before he slinks off to Mar-A-Lago, his Florida habitat where he loves to play golf, or maybe to Bedminster, a well-to-do community in New Jersey’s richest suburbs where he also plays golf. He’s already ordered back a few thousand U.S. troops from Syria and Iraq.
That’s on top of those he withdrew by tweet two years ago, bringing about the resignation of Jim Mattis, the retired marine general who had miraculously survived as his defense secretary without getting fired from the start of his term.
If there’s one adjective that characterizes Trump’s decisions, it’s unpredictable. No one had predicted Trump would in 2018 betray the Kurds with whom the Americans had been fighting, just as no one had predicted his latest decision to scale down U.S. strength in a region where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), beaten down but not into submission, still poses a serious threat and Iran increases its power in both countries.
Nor did anyone predict, the day after embracing and falling “in love” with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un at their first summit in Singapore the previous June, that Trump would suddenly call off joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
He exuded the utmost confidence, in a rambling press conference, that Kim would begin right away to get rid of his nuclear program. So why continue the war games when he and Kim had just agreed on a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula?” Those who saw that agreement as a meaningless non-deal, he said, choosing one of his favorite words, were “losers.”
Which brings us to the present. Watch out for Trump, in one angry moment, ordering the withdrawal of a few thousand troops from Korea, depleting the American force from 28,500 to possibly 22,000.
He would love to do that just to show Kim Jong-un, whom he still views as a bosom buddy, that he really meant it when he said he’d been “in love” with him ever since Singapore. In the same gesture, he could also show his annoyance with President Moon Jae-in for balking at his demands for an outrageous increase from the $927 million that South Korea paid last year to keep U.S. forces in South Korea “ready to fight tonight.”
Korea’s just one of a number of foreign lands where Trump has endangered American interests. China remains the biggest problem in Asia. Biden’s people have to deal with growing Chinese power around its entire periphery on top of unfair trade practices that defy Trump’s bluff and bluster, much less his futile attempts to do much about them.
Good thing he won’t be around to mess everything up.