As the Watergate scandal began to completely overwhelm the Nixon presidency, in October of 1973, a potential geopolitical calamity occurred in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria launched the final Arab attempt to conquer and destroy the State of Israel by conventional means, taking advantage of the Israelis’ relative unpreparedness on the Yom Kippur holiday to mount a massive armoured invasion on two fronts that looked, for a few days, as if it was going to succeed. Rumours persist that when the Israelis were up against it, contemplating the annihilation of the Jewish State, the Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, prepared for the use of atomic weapons – which, we now believe, they possessed in quantity at the time. There was dark talk of “the fall of the Third Temple”, and “drastic measures” to save the embattled nation.
Later, when the tide was turned and Israel was grinding the Arab armies down to a powder, the Soviets sent clear and tangible signals that they would intervene militarily rather than see their client states go down, and in response the U.S. armed forces were put on heightened alert, “Defence Condition 3”. The change in posture to DefCon 3 put nuclear forces on something dangerously close to a war footing, not on a hair trigger but cocked and loaded, while the aircraft carriers of the Sixth Fleet were ordered towards the Eastern Mediterranean, and a frantic American diplomatic effort was initiated to rein the Israelis in, broker a peace, and avoid a superpower confrontation that might end in the unthinkable.
Through it all, Nixon was an addled mess, drunk and rambling around the White House at all hours like a lost patient from the Bethesda psych ward. It’s believed, though so far as I know never really confirmed, that Defence Secretary James Schlesinger had instructed the Joint Chiefs to ignore any Presidential orders with respect to the use of nuclear weapons unless he, Schlesinger, personally affirmed them – which, if true, was gravely illegal, but the story is that Schlesinger, deeply alarmed, preferred unlawful insubordination to the standing risk that Nixon might go ape shit during one of his dark nights of the soul, and try to blow up the whole frigging world. That’s how bad it was.
Isolated and out of the play, Nixon was only vaguely aware of what was happening. As the Syrians were routed, and the Israelis completed an encirclement of the entire Egyptian Third Army, it was largely Henry Kissinger who handled the crisis and steered the Yom Kippur war to its blessedly non-fatal conclusion, negotiating a cease fire that wavered, but finally held. The Russians stood down, the carriers went back on routine patrol, and the posture was set back to DefCon5.
Think of it. At this crucial moment of crisis, the President of the United States was pissed to the gills, sleep-deprived, paranoid and enraged enough at his enemies to lash out erratically in all directions, and all but fit for removal from office under the 25th Amendment.
Now, imagine that scenario playing out again, only substitute Trump for Nixon, and those awful bastards John Bolton and Mike Pompeo for Kissinger.
Trump hasn’t been tested yet by a real international geopolitical crisis, but there are lots of irons in the fire out there. Old student of strategic studies that I am, I can cook up lots of plausible scenarios, involving Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and so on. Here’s one, off the top of my head: Iranian hard-liners, now wielding the whip hand within their theocratic regime following Trump’s obliteration of Obama’s nuclear weapons treaty, start in again on enriching uranium, and Israel decides to strike. In retaliation, the Iranians mine the Strait of Hormuz and begin attacking oil tankers and Gulf oil facilities in an attempt to choke off the flow of 20% of the world’s oil supply and punish America. Boom. There you go, kids, World War III. Just add oil.
Anyway, it’s not the scenarios you can readily imagine that are the real problem, it’s the bolts out of the blue that catch you with your trousers down around your ankles. It’s the dreadful shocks like Pearl Harbour. Nobody in the intelligence services of Israel or the U.S. thought Syria and Egypt were about to storm into the Golan Heights and the Sinai in October, 1973. Nobody expected North Korea to try to conquer the whole Korean Peninsula in 1950. Nobody expected Khruschev to install ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962. Nobody at the highest policy levels was ready, despite a wealth of intelligence warnings, for 9/11.
In a violent, unpredictable world, anything can happen, no matter the American domestic political situation. When a President is weak, distracted, and utterly bereft of political capital, the risk level rises precipitously, and there’s no telling which bad actor out there will figure that now is a good time to try to pull something.
Quite apart from that category of existential threat, there’s the danger that Trump poses to democracy and the Constitution as this drags on and his mental state continues to decompensate. Kathy sent me a rather unsettling article from the Weekly Standard today, the thesis of which was that Trump, as the walls close in, would burn everything down to the ground, fire all his tormentors, pardon all his henchmen, and dig in for the siege:
It makes sense. As Kathy said in her email to me, “this is scary and probably correct”. Yup. Donald Trump, like Richard Nixon, is a wounded animal, enraged and unpredictable. He doesn’t drink (or so he claims), but he’s batshit crazy, painfully stupid, and probably in the early stages of dementia. Unlike Nixon, who, when push came to shove, seemed unwilling to stress the Constitution past its breaking point, Trump is probably capable of doing permanent damage to the American political system in trying to save his doomed administration. Unlike Nixon, who was very intelligent, and could in any case be kept more or less on the straight and narrow by the likes of Brent Scowcroft, Al Haig, Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger, Dumbass Donny is surrounded by incompetent knaves, and a loose pack of spineless and unscrupulous toadies and enablers who obviously have no ability to influence policy, nor any moral compass that might lead them toward the right choices if they did. That includes supposed adult in the room General Kelly, who has shown himself repeatedly to be an unprincipled scoundrel with an instinctive preference for cruelty and self-serving subterfuge.
During Watergate, after the “smoking gun” tapes were ordered produced by the Supreme Court, and impeachment became a certainty, a group of senior Republican Senators, led by Barry Goldwater, took a walk up Pennsylvania Avenue to meet Nixon and tell him the jig was up. They told him that when – not if – impeached, he would be removed from office, plain and simple, and they would themselves vote to make sure of it. This is why Nixon resigned, and put America out of his misery. Needless to say, sadly, there are no similarly level-headed Republican Senators who will do any such thing, today. Trump will continue to enjoy their boot-licking support, and moronic and deluded as he is, will continue to believe he can still skate on all this, just as he has all his life.
He’s wrong. He may be immune while he holds office, and the Senate may acquit him in any impeachment trial, but Mueller hasn’t even gotten started yet, really, and now State Attorneys General are beginning to close in. Eric and Donald Junior enjoy no presidential immunity, Trump can’t pardon anybody on State charges, and sooner or later he won’t be President any more. Meanwhile, the Donald, so famous for demanding absolute loyalty, bestows none, and will receive none. All of his co-conspirators will flip like flapjacks, count on it, and the list of treasonous crimes for which the proof will be assembled will be enough to consign him, one way or another, to the grounds of some white collar prison until the day he dies, and historians will wonder in years to come how he avoided getting strapped to a gurney like Timothy McVeigh, so vile and fundamentally traitorous will his sins seem in retrospect. To fend that off, even though he can’t, Trump will do anything he can while he still wields power. There is no self-imposed limit. He’ll grunt, flail, froth at the mouth, and destroy every institution that upholds the rule of law, if he can. This will get ugly.
How ugly? Well, there’s nothing like a good war to distract the masses and get the troops to rally ’round the flag, is there? One wonders if somebody, General Mattis maybe, has had a quiet sidebar with the Joint Chiefs about authorizing the use of America’s vast nuclear arsenal. Pray that it’s so.