Brussels and Trump

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on March 23, 2016

Brussels and Trump

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.

Brussels and Trump
Last night this columnist attended an off-the-record talk on international relations by a U.S. government official. Terrorism was among the topics discussed, and the talk was heavy on clichés. “Violent extremism” made an appearance, as did “ISIL.” We heard that the lack of economic opportunities was leaving young people vulnerable to “radicalization,” though no information was supplied about the identity of the radicalizers. We were warned of the dangers of “xenophobia.”

Oh, and there were a couple of supercilious remarks about “what the hell is going on in the U.S. presidential election.”

This morning we awoke to the news that terrorists—sorry, “violent extremists”—had murdered at least two dozen people in a series of bombings in Brussels. And it wasn’t long before Mr. What The Hell weighed in. “Do you all remember how beautiful and safe a place Brussels was,” tweeted Donald Trump. “Not anymore, it is from a different world! U.S. must be vigilant and smart!”

Soon enough, at least in America, Donald Trump had become the main topic of conversation. A comparison of his reaction with his rivals’ helps illuminate what the hell is going on with the U.S. presidential election.

The young-adult site Vox has a roundup. “I would close up our borders to people until we figure out what is going on. Look at Brussels, look at Paris, look at so many cities that were great cities,” Trump said on Fox news. Later, on MSNBC: “Waterboarding would be fine and if they could expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding. You have to get the information and you have to get it rapidly.”

Ted Cruz put out a statement titled “We Can No Longer Surrender to the Enemy Through Political Correctness.” In a tweet, he summed up the point: “We will name our enemy—radical Islamic terrorism. And we will defeat it.”

On the substance, Cruz is right to object to the administration’s obsession with euphemism. But his emphasis seems odd. Why assert that you’re going to name the enemy? Why not just name it? And isn’t defeating it the point? Cruz himself has stumbled into the PC trap of emphasizing semantics over substance.

As for John Kasich, his response was conventional. In a statement, he expressed “solidarity with the people of Belgium,” described terrorism as a threat to “our very way of life,” and said: “We must strengthen our alliances . . . and the international system that has been built on our common values since the end of the Second World War.” That last bit is an implicit rebuke of Trump, who yesterday, as the Washington Post reports, “questioned the United States’ continued involvement in NATO” in an interview with the Post.

Hillary Clinton’s statement was in a similar vein: She expressed “solidarity with our European allies” and concluded: “Today’s attacks will only strengthen our resolve to stand together as allies and defeat terrorism and radical jihadism around the world.” Bernie Sanders tweeted: “We offer our deepest condolences to the people of Brussels and stand with our European allies to offer any necessary assistance.”

The whole episode, it seems to us, is yet another testimony to Trump’s acute political instincts. He is alone among the candidates in addressing Americans’ anxiety that if our leaders are not careful, our country could end up like Western Europe, facing repeated attacks from a deadly internal enemy.

Foreign-policy experts don’t see it this way, and they have a point. Daniel Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School, summed up the attitude with a tweet mocking Trump’s assertion that he’d close the border “until we figure out what’s going on.” Drezner: “Given the caliber of his national security team, that means he’d have to close the borders permanently.”

That’s a fair hit. Trump’s team, announced yesterday, is by all accounts an unimpressive group. And although some of the common criticisms of Trump strike us as overwrought, the one that does not is that he is sorely—perhaps almost completely—lacking in knowledge of policy substance. We’d feel a lot less uneasy about the prospect of a Trump presidency if we thought his instincts would be tempered by the advice of experts.

That said, even if expertise is a necessary condition for good foreign policy, it is certainly not a sufficient one. No one doubts that President Obama is surrounded by experts, yet they failed to dissuade him from withdrawing fully from Iraq. That contributed to the rise of ISIS, as did his abortive near-intervention in Syria in 2013. In the latter case, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reports, he expressly rejected the expert consensus:

Obama understands that the decision he made to step back from air strikes, and to allow the violation of a red line he himself had drawn to go unpunished, will be interrogated mercilessly by historians. But today that decision is a source of deep satisfaction for him.

“I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the “Washington playbook.”

Note that the president does not express regret for damaging American credibility by issuing a serious threat that he ultimately decided not to carry out. He simply pooh-poohs the idea that credibility matters at all. One suspects that Trump, even without expert advice, would know better than to make this mistake. (True, he makes a lot of threats—but his bombastic style always leaves room for doubt that he means them.)

Here’s another example: No one doubts Mrs. Clinton surrounds herself with experts. One day last November, she did so literally, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. During that speech, she asserted categorically: “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” Has any foreign-policy expert—this columnist does not qualify—pointed out that this statement is simply and obviously false?

When conventional politicians, relying on expert advice, respond to terrorism with platitudes and even outright lies, it’s no wonder that someone like Trump can thrive as the only candidate who senses and responds, however imperfectly, to legitimate public fears. That is what the hell is going on in the U.S. election. Trump is a formidable politician. Somebody with his instincts and a degree of intellectual seriousness would be a formidable leader.

For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.