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Trump Is a Terrible Commander in Chief for a Trade War

It’s reasonable to put pressure on China for its revisionist behavior. But the president is not getting anything right.
August 26, 2019
Trump Is a Terrible Commander in Chief for a Trade War
(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

When I was young and naïve, I was young and naïve. Way back in May, I argued that “trade wars are good but hard to win.” I stand by what I wrote, but I forgot the first rule of war:  A war with an unhinged commander in chief is irredeemable.

I gave President Trump no credit for his execution of the trade war with China, and that was still too much.

On Friday, the president of the United States tweeted that he “hereby ordered” American companies to look into alternatives to China for investments. That followed an earlier tweet in which he wondered aloud whether Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, was as much of an enemy of the United States as Chairman Xi Jinping. On the bright side, he finally  admitted that Xi is, in fact, an enemy. Within minutes, Dow Jones dropped 426 points. 

This is following unhinged behavior for the past two weeks, even by Trump standards.

Larry Summers, the economist and former Harvard president who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, tweeted that Trump is unilaterally making China look benevolent through his disruptive and unhinged domestic behavior. In this trade war, Americans are caught in the commander in chief’s friendly fire upon friendly fire.

Most of my fellow conservatives object to the trade war because they believe in the value and benefits of free trade for the economy and workers. If one truly believes, as I do, that China poses a threat to the United States, then one needs to support coercing China into responsible behavior. The clock is ticking, and we need to increase pressure on China. A trade war is a better option than risking conventional war. But can anybody trust this president to lay out a prudent strategy and implement it steadily?

Exactly a year ago, John McCain passed away. Remembering him, former White House Counsel Peter Wallison wrote:

During the primary season before the 2008 presidential campaign, I was invited to a very small dinner attended by some senior McCain staff and close friends and was seated next to him. It was a low point in his campaign; he’d run out of money, he was down in the polls, and the war in Iraq — which he favored continuing and ramping up — was becoming increasingly unpopular. I asked him how he expected to win the GOP nomination when the Iraq war (this was before the surge) was looking increasingly hopeless. He looked at me steadily, with a certain determination in his face, and said, “I’d rather lose an election than lose a war.” From that point on I was on his side, and I believe he would have won the election and succeeded in Iraq were it not for the advent of the financial crisis in September that year. 

Donald Trump is the anti-McCain. Not only is he unhinged and unsteady, not only is he incapable of looking farther than his nose when it comes to foreign policy, but he also would rather lose a war than lose an election. 

Trump’s behavior is dangerous, but his sacrifice of everything he allegedly believes in—assuming he has any principles, at all, indeed a big if—to be good for our country out of concern for his reelection prospects is unpatriotic and narcissistic.

Victory in a trade war against China requires patience, endurance, subtlety, and attention to nuances. Donald Trump possesses none of those traits.

During the Civil War, Lincoln would go to the Library of Congress and stay up late at night to study strategy. During World War I, Clemenceau would go to the front lines to personally evaluate what was happening on the ground and get involved with the details of strategy and overrule his generals. During World War II, Churchill would tour northern Africa to redeem a war that was looking hopeless and would make sure to keep the homeland as stable as possible to maintain support for the war. During our trade war with China Donald Trump’s only concern is reelection. And this is a trade “war” and not an actual war.

Imagine, for a moment, that we were on the brink of a military campaign? Can you imagine Donald Trump, the man who called off an ongoing military strike against Iran because a lawyer whispered something in his ear, as a war commander?

I don’t know if a President Joe Biden, President Elizabeth Warren, or a President Bill Weld will prove to be fit enough to win a war, a trade war or a real one. I know for a fact that President Trump is not.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.