The president’s intervention in the SEAL case was reckless, but not the main event.
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In the ancient fable of Henny Penny, an acorn drops from a tree and bounces off the head of a chicken. Said fowl immediately concludes that the world is coming to an end and runs around crying that “the sky is falling,” thereby stoking hysteria throughout the barnyard.
President Donald Trump is our acorn. Time and again, he has demonstrated a remarkable talent for evoking a hysterical response from the media barnyard. Time and again, the firmament remains steadfastly in place. Yet when the next acorn inevitably drops, the sky-is-falling chorus resumes. The denizens of the barnyard appear incapable of learning.
Or is it that they just don’t wish to? After all, to announce that the end of the world is at hand is to claim a measure of self-importance. You might even get quoted in the Washington Post or be invited to appear on MSNBC.
Just last month, President Acorn created a tremendous stir in the chicken coop when he announced (for a second time) his intention to immediately withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. “Betrayal!” clucked his critics. Trump was abandoning a loyal ally and handing an unearned victory to autocrats in Ankara, Damascus, and Moscow. U.S. troop morale would collapse. Worst of all, Syrian Kurds faced possible, even likely, extermination.
But the sky did not fall. U.S. troops remain in Syria and won’t be leaving anytime soon. As with so many Trumpian pronouncements, this one fell well short of full implementation. Genocide has not happened. The Syrian Kurds survive. Indeed, The New York Times now reports that “American troops and Syrian Kurdish fighters are once again conducting large-scale counterterrorism missions” targeting ISIS.
Then just a few days ago, President Acorn apparently felt moved to insert himself into the military justice system by pardoning three members of the armed forces, one a convicted murderer, one awaiting trial for murder, and the third an egomaniacal Navy SEAL acquitted of murder but convicted of a lesser offense. Demonstrating ignorance on a Henny Penny scale, the commander-in-chief announced his intention to right the terrible wrong done to these three dubious characters. “We train our boys to be killing machines,” he complained, “then prosecute them when they kill!” Thanks to Trump, all three will now walk.
Take the commotion from the media barnyard at face value and you might conclude that Trump has dealt a terminal blow to good order and discipline in the armed forces. “Trump Betrays the Military,” reads the headline of one op-ed in the New York Times. “Trump Doesn’t Care About War Crimes,” chimes in The Nation. Trump’s “values are not those of our military,” a pair of long-forgotten former navy secretaries warn. “It will do grievous damage to our armed services if they become so.”
But the suggestion that Trump’s typically ill-considered and reckless intervention in this matter will somehow persuade men and women in the armed services to believe they too can get away with committing war crimes is absurd on the face of it. Among other things, the U.S. military does not look to the commander-in-chief to model its values, whether that individual’s name is Trump or Obama or Bush or Clinton. Furthermore, this president’s lease on the White House is only temporary and he may not be around all that much longer to issue get-out-of-jail-free cards. So once more, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Gander Lander, and Turkey Lurkey would do well to settle down.
Or perhaps they might consider the possibility that there are more important things to get excited about.
In nature, when acorns drop, they herald a change of seasons. It’s not the acorn itself that matters, but the conditions that cause it to fall and what they foretell.
The United States today is facing a change of seasons. The sky may not be falling, but the long summer of American global preeminence roughly dating from the moment when Donald Trump was born after World War II is ending. The signs are everywhere—from the onset of climate change to the reordering of power relationships in the Pacific to Washington’s inability to end the wars that it chooses to begin.
The members of the barnyard would do well to pay less attention to the antics of President Acorn and more attention to what he signifies.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, will be published on January 7.