Vote for Trump’s Policies, Not for His Personality

October 15, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: Politics Tags: ElectionChinaXi JinpingDonald TrumpPolicy

Vote for Trump’s Policies, Not for His Personality

Joe Biden certainly seems a decent and compassionate human being and projects more empathy and personal caring than does Donald Trump. He might even be fun to have a beer with. But the history of his judgment on national security decisionmakingas attested by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates who served in the Obama administration with himis extremely worrisome at this time of global challenge.

Any American policy toward Asia must come urgently to grips with the reality of China . . . recognizing the present and potential danger from Communist China, and taking measures designed to meet that danger . . . The world cannot be safe until China changes . . . by accepting the basic rules of international civility.

Unless the threat from China was handled properly, he wrote, it “will pose the greatest danger of a confrontation which could escalate into World War III.”

Having served in the Nixon administration, as well as those of George W. Bush and Obama (as a holdover for a year), I have been absorbed with foreign policy and national security for decades. The Trump administration is the first one in my professional life that has come to grips with the multi-level existential challenges Communist China poses to the United States and the West. Those who share that perspective but find much to dislike, or even fear, about Trump will have to grapple with the same choice I am confronting.

Robert Gates, who has served eight administrations and is widely seen as a model of professional rectitude in public service, recently confronted his own personal dilemma. In a NewsHour interview with Judy Woodruff, he was highly critical of Trump’s governing style, “It's quite clear that being a unifying president is pretty low on the priority of our current incumbent. I think he is a divider, and I think he does so quite consciously.”

At the end of the interview, Woodruff returned to the subject.

1. Judy Woodruff: Last thing I want to ask you about is what's happening in November.

You, in your last book, wrote of Joe Biden, former Vice President Biden, that he had been wrong on virtually every important foreign policy or national security issue of the last four decades.

So, you clearly have strong views about his policy chops. You have also, though, said that you have questions about President Trump's character . . [E]arlier in this interview . . . you spoke about dividing the American people. Which, if it comes down to policy positions vs. character, which one matters more?

2. Robert Gates: Well, I think that's what the American people are going to decide in November.

3. Judy Woodruff: And what about what Robert Gates thinks?

4. Robert Gates: What Robert Gates thinks, he will keep to himself.

5. Judy Woodruff: All right, we will leave it at that.


Policy positions vs. character, which matters more? Stirring divisiveness among the American people vs. consistently getting national security and foreign policy wrong--which is more perilous to the nation? The answers are more nuanced and complex than the question suggests, which is no doubt why Gates’ response was an enigmatic chuckle.

There are many facets to character--honesty, integrity, empathy, compassion, courage, loyalty, steadfastness. And some qualities grouped under the character label might better be defined as features of personality--dignity, courtesy, friendliness, cheerfulness, sense of humor, likability, even sex appeal (see John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton).

Similarly, there is a plethora of policiesforeign and domesticon which voters have almost an infinite variety of views. For me, national security is the ultimate concern--whether the United States is forced, or blunders, into a major war; if so, with whom; the prospect of victory, defeat, or stalemate; and the human, material, and economic costs. But, for others, economic security, educational opportunity, social justice, law and order, public health, environmental concerns, gun control, abortion, racial equality, threats to our democratic institutions are the most urgent and pressing issues.

All are valid. And one can be simultaneously concerned with some or all those domestic issuesas I am, liberal on some, conservative on othersand with the existential national security question as well. But, ultimately, priorities must be established and choices must be made, even if only between two unpalatable alternatives.

Voters sometimes fail to keep in mind that when they cast a vote for president, they are choosing more than an individual personality. They are selecting a set of policies associated with one political party or the other, often but not always enshrined in the party platform. Even more importantly, they are tying the nation’s future to a set of people who come into office with the president--staff, cabinet officers, outside advisers. Sometimes the occupant of the Oval Office has a history of established principles and policies which he draws upon to direct the actions of his subordinates in the administration. At other times, since a president cannot be an expert on everything (even if he thinks he is), he will rely heavily on the knowledge, experience, and predilections of those who work for him.

The proof of a president’s performance, and the requisite praise or blame, is in either what he directs his administration to do, or what he enables and authorizes it to do. In the end, the president is responsible for what his administration actually does and the outcome of its policies and actions. The bottom line in this election for me is that the policy choices of previous administrations have demonstrably failed in preventing the crisis we are now in with Chinaand Trump is the first president to begin turning things around, albeit in his own disruptive manner. It seems far more likely that his administration will continue on that course than that a Biden administration will reverse the earlier Clinton-Bush-Obama-Biden policies and follow the Trump way. This is one time when, for me, the better course is not to change horses in mid-stream.

In my lifetime, I have seen the defeat of Naziism in Germany, Fascism in Italy and Spain, and Imperialism in Japan, through a massively destructive global war; then the downfall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe through the relatively “peaceful” transition of the Cold War. Collectively, hundreds of millions of lives were lost or otherwise destroyed in both world confrontations. During those titanic struggles, domestic issues had to be put aside until the existential conflicts were resolved.

I believe we are at another such potentially cataclysmic turning point and that the primary danger is from a powerful and aggressive Communist Chinawith the potential, as Nixon wrote, of igniting a third world warfollowed by the threat from an economically weaker but equally aggressive and nuclear-armed Russia. We are already mired in a new Cold War with both hostile powers. The threats must be managed or ended through economic, diplomatic, technological, and informational means similar to, but more advanced and sophisticated than, the non-kinetic instruments employed in Cold War I.

Through a series of actions and policy statements, the Trump administration seems committed to pursuing that critical national security agendaincluding the unprecedented explicit goal of ending the Chinese Communist regime after four decades of misguided and self-defeating accommodationist policies. I greatly fear that a change of administrations in Washington at this juncture would halt that progress and return us to the failed engagement approach of earlier administrations of both parties, most recently the Obama-Biden team.

There are foreign policy issues where I have disagreed strongly with Trump’s decisionsin virtually every case where he has overridden the advice of his national security team. I called his abandonment of the Kurds in Syria a “debaclethough it was in large part the result of his earlier mistake in not having turned around the abysmal situation left by the Obama-Biden administration that caused four hundred thousand Syrian deaths.

Joe Biden certainly seems a decent and compassionate human being and projects more empathy and personal caring than does Donald Trump. He might even be fun to have a beer with. But the history of his judgment on national security decisionmakingas attested by former Defense Secretary Gates who served in the Obama administration with himis extremely worrisome at this time of global challenge.

Gates evaded Judy Woodruff’s question on prioritizing national security and personal characterwhich sometimes go together, but not always. For me, war and peace trumps all. Whatever his personality and character flaws, Trump, by relying on his foreign policy team and giving them a relatively free hand, is enabling unparalleled sound policies on China.

So, I will cast my vote:

for the American workers whose jobs and livelihood have been destroyed by China’s dishonesty and U.S. officials’ naivete on trade and economic relations

for the Western entrepreneurs, scientists, and scholars who toil and create, only to have their intellectual property stolen and exploited by Chinese entities

for the American sailors and airmen who risk their lives each day to forestall Chinese aggression and withstand belligerent threats to send their ships and planes to the bottom of the South China Sea for enforcing international law and freedom of the seasand for their families

for the Uighur people who are being crushed in concentration camps in East Turkestan/Xinjiang