Trump’s Foreign Policy Ignorance
More than any recent President, Donald Trump displays a tremendous amount ignorance about the world. Even worse is the fact that he seems proud of it.
The latest issue of Time Magazine offers a troubling glimpse into the President’s intelligence briefings and the extent of his ignorance about foreign policy and the world:
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s renewed attacks on the U.S. intelligence community this week, senior intelligence briefers are breaking two years of silence to warn that the President is endangering American security with what they say is a stubborn disregard for their assessments.
Citing multiple in-person episodes, these intelligence officials say Trump displays what one called “willful ignorance” when presented with analyses generated by America’s $81 billion-a-year intelligence services. The officials, who include analysts who prepare Trump’s briefs and the briefers themselves, describe futile attempts to keep his attention by using visual aids, confining some briefing points to two or three sentences, and repeating his name and title as frequently as possible.
What is most troubling, say these officials and others in government and on Capitol Hill who have been briefed on the episodes, are Trump’s angry reactions when he is given information that contradicts positions he has taken or beliefs he holds. Two intelligence officers even reported that they have been warned to avoid giving the President intelligence assessments that contradict stances he has taken in public.
That reaction was on display this week. At a Congressional hearing on national security threats, the leaders of all the major intelligence agencies, including the Directors of National Intelligence, the CIA and the FBI contradicted Trump on issues relating to North Korea, Russia, the Islamic State, and Iran. In response, Trump said the intelligence chiefs were “passive and naïve” and suggested they “should go back to school.”
As if contradicting the actual experts wasn’t bad enough, the reports make it seem as if the President isn’t interested in the details of foreign policy and largely ignorant about relatively simple matters like geography:
In another briefing on South Asia, Trump’s advisors brought a map of the region from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, according to intelligence officers with knowledge of the meeting and congressional officials who were briefed on it. Trump, they said, pointed at the map and said he knew that Nepal was part of India, only to be told that it is an independent nation. When said he was familiar with Bhutan and knew it, too, was part of India, his briefers told him that Bhutan was an independent kingdom. Last August, Politico reported on president’s mispronunciation of the names of the two countries during the same briefing.
He also doesn’t seem interested in hearing facts that contradict the rosy view he likes to present about his foreign policy “achievements,” particularly with respect to North Korea:
But the disconnect between Trump and his intelligence briefers is no joke, the officials say. Several pointed to concerns regarding Trump’s assessment of the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. After Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un last summer, the North claimed to have destroyed its major underground nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri, and Trump has gone out of his way to credit the claim.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGIA), which oversees the spy satellites that map and photograph key areas, had tried to impress upon Trump the size and complexity of the North Korean site. In preparing one briefing for the President on the issue early in his administration, the NGIA built a model of the facility with a removable roof, according to two officials. To help Trump grasp the size of the facility, the NGIA briefers built a miniature version New York’s Statue of Liberty to scale and put it inside the model.
Intelligence officials from multiple agencies later warned Trump that entrances at the facility that had been closed after the summit could still be reopened. But the president has ignored the agencies’ warnings and has exaggerated the steps North Korea has taken to shutter the facility, those officials and two others say. That is a particular concern now, ahead of a possible second summit with the Kim Jong-Un later this month.
Daniel Larison comments:
Trump’s lack of knowledge and dismal understanding of major issues have always been some of his biggest weaknesses, but the problem here is even worse than that. The president is not merely ignorant and unfamiliar with the relevant issues. We have known that all along. According to this report, he is determined to remain ignorant and fixed in his mistaken views about a wide range of issues, and the officials serving under him are enabling this so that they don’t make him angry at them. The point isn’t that intelligence agencies get everything right (they don’t), but on the issues where the president has publicly differed from their assessments he is consistently getting things wrong because that makes it easier for him to pretend that his policies are succeeding when everyone else can see that they aren’t.
That invincible ignorance has serious consequences for U.S. policies and interests and for our relations with other states. One of those consequences was the decision to renege on the nuclear deal with Iran because the president wrongly believed that they aren’t complying with the deal when all evidence shows that they have been complying from the beginning. Trump declared the deal to be “horrible,” and so he refuses to consider the proof that shows his opposition to be baseless. At the same time, he imagines that there has been great progress with North Korean disarmament because it flatters him to think that this is true.
As Larison notes, all of this poses particular dangers for American foreign policy and our relationship with the rest of the world. For example, the President continues to appear to see NATO as some kind of club into which the members are required to pay “dues” and has repeatedly harangued member states for not meeting their obligations to the alliance. The obligation that he’s referring to, of course, is the agreement that was reached during the Obama Administration whereby member states would strive to increase their defense spending to an amount equal to 2% of the Gross Domestic Product, a goal that doesn’t have to be reached until 2020 at the earliest. Despite this fact, which the President has no doubt been made aware of numerous times, he has continued to push the false idea that NATO members are not paying their fair share into the alliance and that the alliance itself doesn’t benefit the United States. Trump also appears willing to ignore other facts, such as the brutality committed on a daily basis by regimes like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others with whom he has chosen to have a better relationship than he seems willing to maintain with long-standing allies in Europe and around the world.
The fact that the President is so obviously ignorant when it comes to foreign policy in general, about the history of some of the most volatile areas of the world such as the Middle East, and surprisingly ignorant when it comes to the basic facts of geography is hardly surprising, of course. From the time that he became a candidate for President in 2015 right up until his election victory in 2016 and beyond, the President has demonstrated time and again that he lives in a seemingly alternate reality where facts are essentially made up and the truth doesn’t matter. This, perhaps, is why he has developed such an astonishing track record of lies and half-truths in matters of both foreign and domestic policy, and why he’s been recording more verifiable lies than any President before him. It’s easy to lie when you live in a world where you make up your facts, ignore the experts around you, and display no desire at all to learn about the rest of the world. Indeed, Trump clearly seems to be the least intellectually engaged President we’ve had in quite a long time, perhaps the most intellectually disengaged in history. It’s not just that this President doesn’t know things, it’s that he doesn’t seem to want to learn and has no desire to listen to the advisers around him or anyone else who might question his judgment for that matter. What’s worse is that Trump not only doesn’t seem to care that he doesn’t know things, he seems proud of that fact, and his fan base clearly believes him more than they believe anyone who dares to disagree with him no matter how much of an expert they might be and regardless of the fact that, in many cases, there is evidence that he’s wrong.
He takes TV talking heads more seriously than he takes actual experts.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Recall that when he was a candidate Chuck Todd asked him where he got his foreign policy information and he said he got it from “watching the shows,” meaning cable news and the Sunday news shows.
@Doug Mataconis: Yup.
What is this!? A nuclear facility FOR ANTS!?!? How can North Korea be expected to make nuclear weapons if they can’t even fit inside the building?
@Stormy Dragon: Once they get past the size issue, they have to deal with him thinking it can be easily destroyer because it’s made of popsicle sticks and model glue.
This is why I think the only way for the US to repair itself is if we start to really emphasise the importance of truth and reality. And why they matter. We’ve got a culture where bullish*ting and “spin” is now considered “normal behaviour.” Not to mention “trolling” which seems to now be acceptable behaviour on the part of too many people.
The problem is–if you get into a habit of telling yourself stories, telling other people stories, and only looking for material that confirms your opinions, you are at some point going to run up against something which will show you how dreadfully wrong you are. And it will happen the hard way.
People like Rod Dreher over at TAC go nuts about SSM and supposed anti-religious regulations, but he never stops to think that evangelical support of an acute liar like Trump is going to have even more blowback. “Well, would you support Trump if he had helped procure abortions?” “oh no, never!” “What about if he lies up down and sideways about everything?” “Well, I guess we’ll have to put up with that.” As the statement goes: “madam, you have already made obvious what you are. We are just now haggling over the price.”
@Steven L. Taylor:
In one of my ebooks, a character who is sometimes a talking head themselves, says to his wife- “Cheryl, you know the talking heads as well as I do. They don’t know shit and are making it up as they go along.”
Another saying, not one I invented, goes something like- “A really smart person knows what they don’t know anything about.”
This makes it incredibly obvious El Dennison is incapable of discharging the duties of his office, and therefore even his most opportunistic supporters in Congress ought to be figuring out how to remove him.
More of the echo chamber. Haha
And, of course, these are the same people who tried to portray Obama as dumb/uninformed/unprepared for the job. We could power the world if we could just harness that cognitive dissonance somehow.
@Doug Mataconis: @Steven L. Taylor:
Quite so. Who can forget Trump saying that he knew more about ISIS than “the generals” because he watches “the shows”?
Hey Jake! Here’s an echo chamber for ya’.
REPUBLICAN President Donald Trump: “Grab them by the pussy!”
Bruce Michael Alexander: “…the President of the United States says it’s OK to grab women by their private parts.“
Socrates, or attributed to him.
The story is that the Oracle at Delphi proclaimed him to be the wisest man in Athens. Eventually he claimed if this was so, it was because “I alone know that I know nothing.”
And we were supposed to take him seriously, not literally.
I’ve never quite figured out what that phrase was supposed to mean, even to the Trumpkins. Was it some sort of code to them? Did they not believe all those chants of “build the wall” and “lock her up”?
@Stormy Dragon: I think a scale Statue of Liberty would really help show the size. I don’t throw why it was reported as a bad thing.
Besides, the ants outnumber us and outweigh us. I’d be scared if they got nuclear weapons.
@Stormy Dragon: Although, since you need a substantial amount of fissile material under pressure, you can’t really scale a nuclear weapon down arbitrarily.
I think ants might be too small to make nuclear weapons and reasonable delivery systems. It would certainly be a huge undertaking for their size.
@CSK: Not all Trump supporters used that phrase; it was a pseudo-intellectual rationalization given by supporters who were conscious of how dumb he sounded and wanted to give the impression he had a sly sophistication that went over the heads of his critics.
Here at OTB, the commenter most addicted to this line of reasoning was J*nos, who in 2016 explained Trump’s “Mexico will pay for it” promise as follows:
Notice the process here: he starts out by conceding that Trump is not literally going to get Mexico to pay for the wall–then by the end of the paragraph he’s essentially arguing Trump is going to do just that. He just tries to make it sound like it’s all part of some giant, awesome, 9D chess move that will confound all of Trump’s critics.
That’s what the “seriously, not literally” argument came down to: It was a form of willful self-delusion, an “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation where people convinced themselves and attempted to convince others to disbelieve the evidence of their senses.
I have to agree. Once you concede that being reality-based is not a prerequisite, there’s no way back out of the rabbit hole.
As I’ve said before, I find it intensely (if aggravatingly) ironic that it is the Republican Party, of all people, that have decided to go all in on Postmodernism as a philosophy. Is there any more anti-conservative way of thought than that?
I hope you realize I was referencing this Zoolander scene,
America in a nutshell. We all know the type. We deal with them daily. To get things done or to move on with life, it is easier just to…. – and that is how we got to this point
It’s likely worse than just ignorance.
If you’re Obama and you consult with your experts and go through a process to arrive at, ‘OK, we’ve decided the best thing is to do a treaty with Iran and hope that given the chance they’ll back off a little and want to join the rest of the world.’, it’s easy to get your administration to work together toward this goal.
If you’re Donald Trump and you’re deciding what to do based on what you think will get Trump Tower Moscow built and whatever Mohammad bin Salman is whispering in Jared’s ear, all you can do is lie and bluster.
The whole Party has the same problem. They can’t come out and say, ‘Hey, we know AGW is real and it’s going to be very bad, and tax cuts for the rich are stupid, but Charles Koch will cut off our contributions if we do anything about it.’ All they can do is lie and bluster.
We had a bit of the same problem with W, Cheney, and Prince Bandar.
Or to cover up/sanitize the fact that they were supporting Trump precisely because he’s a stupid, willfully ignorant, malevolent churl, i.e., a real American just like them.
Completely off-topic, but the Democratic-controlled Colorado Senate passed the national popular vote interstate compact, which which give Colorado’s EC votes to whichever candidate won the popular vote. Next stop is the house.
CO Republicans are in full “republic, not a democracy” mode and equating a democratic victory with mob rule.
Trump has not changed your life one bit yet all you people do is complain. Get a hobby. Trump is renting space in your head rent free.
@jake: Do you possess psychic powers? You have no clue how Trump has affected the lives of anyone here, as there are plenty of people who have had their lives negatively impacted by this joke in the White House…as for getting a hobby, anything would be better than being a fluffer for President Pissy Pants…but do carry on if that’s what floats your boat…
@jake: Considering that a hell of a lot of my clients are worried about $money$ due to Trump’s shenanigans with the budget, which has a cascading effect on MY income, the Fat Orange One’s antics definitely HAS had an effect on my life.
Fail, you incompetent twit. Take a long walk off a short pier.
@jake: This is why I come here, the insightful conservative commentary.
Not only do you assume that no one here has been affected by Trump (which is complete bullshit), but you seem to think that so long as it just other people being hurt, we should all be fine with it (which is disgusting).
You’re not just factually wrong, you’re morally wrong as well. Insightful.
No Jake, he is all up on your head. I believe you are projecting, and I am sure some folks will come along to correct me if I used the wrong term.
Also, are you wearing khakis?
FWIW, the Trump administration’s policies have directly affected international enrollments at my university, which has directly affected several academic programs. Further, the immigration philosophy of the admin has directed impacted foreign-born employees seeking visas.
Real, concrete effects.
On the face of it, it’s not a bad idea at all. However, there simply isn’t time for that kind of thing for most briefings and the President is expected to be able to grasp things like relative size just from the briefing itself. That Trump has needed repeated visual aids, though (referenced earlier in the article) means he’s having a hard time following the info as delivered – the WH moves fast and he needs to be able to make calls without props.
Furthermore, he was in real estate! If anyone should have a good grasp on measurements describing the size of a facility, it would be him. If nothing else, his brain should be going “huh, so that’s like 20 of my tower? Damn!” He should be able to contextualize it with projects he’s worked on the same way people use football fields as a common measurement. Why? Because most Americans have seen a football field at some point and can use it as a reference point. Trump, egoist that he is, would be saying things like “yeah, that’s not so big. It’s only twice what Marg-a-Largo is!” and constantly using his own knowledge as a touchpoint….. but he’s not. They’re making scale models because he’s just not getting it.
That’s why it’s being reported as a bad thing. This is something he should be fine with and his “good brain” is just crapping out all over the place.
@KM: “fifty times large than a football field” means nothing. Humans have difficulty processing that, and putting it into perspective.
Maybe Trump should be better than the average person at this, but he isn’t. He never seemed that focused to me, except that it be bigger and gold. To be charitable to him, he might be focused on the financial side rather than the construction.
Tufte wrote some great books on making data accessible, and the people preparing these briefings should be following those books, or some similar guidelines. The presidents time is valuable (sadly, because he can only focus for five minutes a day), and they should be presenting data as clearly as possible.
If I were President, I would want overlays of the Statue of Liberty, the island of Manhattan, and the city of Seattle on basically everything where I needed to understand the size — things that I grasp the size of.
I don’t trust a lot of the anonymous sources in this article because of this — they have an agenda to make Trump look bad. I think the man is an idiot, and that he looks bad, so I generally agree with their agenda, but a reporter should either identify the agenda or find more neutral sources.
So, fake news that happens to be frighteningly accurate. (Once I see how an article handles something I know about, I tend to dismiss the article if it does so badly, even if it agrees with my other assumptions and beliefs)
But, isn’t the question of ants achieving nuclear capabilities a more interesting question? With those tiny little legs and mandibles, how are they going to get ten pounds of refined uranium — it’s so much bigger than them?
(Ok, fine, I’m not sure how big Manhattan is compared to Seattle. I think it would be from Northgate down to Beacon Hill, but I just don’t know… Manhattan is longer than people expect)
@grumpy realist: we are soooooo hosed
“Those bastards! They’re planning on stealing the Statue of Liberty and are going to hide it in their mountain base!” -Trump, probably
@CSK: “I’ve never quite figured out what that phrase was supposed to mean, even to the Trumpkins. Was it some sort of code to them? Did they not believe all those chants of “build the wall” and “lock her up”?”
‘Seriously but not literally’, IMHO, meant ‘We know he’s lying, but he’s lying for us, so it’s OK.’ In other words, ‘we are in on the con’.
American presidents are not subject to the opinions and judgements of the intelligence sector, which was explicitly designed to serve the president.
It continues to amaze how a self-professed “libertarian” could conceivably suggest any president defer to an unnacountable bureaucracy, not only for its flagrant inconsistency with what “libertarians” claim to believe in, but because it is exceedingly dangerous in any system which aspires to democratic control.
You’re right, they’re not.
But neither should they completely disregard the opinions and judgments and products of that sector–which, in some cases, have been obtained at considerable risk to the lives of its members–and replace them with…well, with whatever he saw on Fox and Friends. Or in a movie once. Or just pulled out of some dusty recesses of his “very good brain.” Or, worst of all, with something fed to him during a secret meeting with an adversary.
Presidents shouldn’t be dictated to by intel, but they should at least consider it in their decisions. It appears Trump has neither the inclination nor the intellectual capacity to do so.
Here’s the thing: there isn’t time for that, let alone space. Models aren’t whipped up in 10 minutes. Some of this information is hot off the presses so to speak and they won’t be able to get something mocked up for a briefing. Plus where are all these models going to go? Do you move the President from room to room for 5-20 min briefings while staffers madly construct /deconstruct them in a bizarre parade? If it’s something you need a model to show scale on, it’s not gonna be easily portable so you’re shifting the President and staff around the WH so he can essentially look at miniature figurines. For someone focused, it might be doable but can you see someone shuffling Mr. Executive-Time from office to office as they try to give briefings over their models?
Look, I like the model idea for certain things. It has a lot of merit and use. But it’s been stated by multiple sources that Trump requires more visual aids then normal to keep his attention, not necessary help him get the true scope of the issue. It’s not he’s a visual learner or does better with something concrete he can touch or manipulate. They’re doing it for the same reason children’s museums set up little interactive dioramas – here, play with this and hopefully you’ll pay attention while we explain it!
One grain at a time, one grain at a time. They mine it diligently and don’t care about the losses among the working class (there’s always more where that came from). It may not be in their great-grandchildren’s lifetimes but by God, they’ll be a nuclear power if it kills them!
Trump is our version of Iraq’s old Information Minister.
(Actually, I take that back. Some of Baghdad Bob’s statements turned out to be true, like “They are trying to say that the Iraqi is easy to capture, in order to deceive the world that it is a picnic… One day, they [will] start facing bitter facts.”)
, I thought, as I was running the New York Marathon many years ago. I also thought the 59th Street bridge was going to take me all the way to New Jersey cause it felt like I was climbing forever.
You’re right, my life is not changed because frankly, I don’t care about: (1) clean air and clean water, (2) granting private companies the right to exploit resources on federal lands, (3) our treaties and alliances with allies, (4) the manufacture of an ‘Immigration Crisis!’ in an effort to leverage closure of the federal government against the president’s altruistic demand to construct more wall on the southern border, and finally, (5) I don’t mind his support of White nationalism in America because god knows White men have been hapless victims of reverse racism since the Mayflower landed on the Massachusetts shore back in 1620.
@jake:..Trump has not changed your life one bit…
I am a healthy male human. If he tries to grab my crotch, I’ll knock his d!ck in the dirt!
If there is time to make the model, there is time for the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty is one of the easiest parts of the model — I’m assuming it is a toy, or a souvenir, just put in there.
That’s a possibility. Humans have created some amazing multigenerational things — giant Cathedrals that take six lifetimes to complete, and the like.
Given the short lifespan of ants, a large multigenerational nuclear program would make them a threat in just a few years. They might get it done in time to get Trump to hold a summit with them. We are so screwed. Those ants are going to walk right over him.
But, no doubt, feelin’ groovy.
@DrDaveT: Yeah, so I started singing that song in a crowd of marathon runners as we were running endlessly up toward the peak of the bridge, even as I passed the guy running in the 7′ tall cigarette costume (which took me 13.5 miles to catch, just BTW). Marathon runners can be pretty humorless after about mile 10, but I got nothing but a sh-t ton of dead air back from that little call and response. I just assumed there were no S&G fans in the immediate 20 yards.
Hello, lamp post
I’m confused. Is it the Trumpidians’ defense of Trump that their man is impotent and ineffectual?