The United States, the acknowledged world leader in the post-World War II era, is in retreat and decline. Among America’s closest international friends the deterioration of our country’s standing is simply astounding. In a recent survey of our once closest European allies, only 28 percent of the residents of the United Kingdom said the U.S. would act responsibly in the world. In France, 3 percent — you read that correctly — think the U.S. is best positioned to confront global challenges.
That this disastrous retreat has taken place under a Republican administration and with a GOP-controlled Senate is a stark reminder of how far Donald Trump’s Republican Party has retreated from the place Ronald Reagan once proclaimed the “shining city on a hill.”
The No. 3 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, actually said the quiet part out loud this week, admitting that Trump not only owns the GOP soul, but apparently more importantly has also squeezed the last ounce of independence from his frightened lackeys. “I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together,” Thune said as he placed a priority on reelection at the expense of absolutely everything else.
As capable as the president has been of destroying U.S. credibility and puncturing the myth of American exceptionalism, he didn’t get us here all by himself. He had a lot of help from this feckless, rudderless, incompetent collection of Republican senators and members of Congress. And no one wears the feckless label more notably than Idaho’s Jim Risch, who, in title only, sits atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A comprehensive listing of Trumpian ineptitude in the foreign policy combined with the willful rejection of critical allies and international institutions would fill a library shelf, so consider just the most recent examples of America trashing itself with Republican approval.
Anyone with a sense of how political leadership works would have known that a crisis such as a global pandemic would lay bare Trump’s unfitness.
“Trump’s handling of the pandemic at home and abroad has exposed more painfully than anything since he took office the meaning of America First,” says William Burns, a 33-year career foreign policy professional who now heads the Carnegie Endowment. “America is first in the world in deaths, first in the world in infections and we stand out as an emblem of global incompetence. The damage to America’s influence and reputation will be very hard to undo.”
Risch was Tweeting on Jan. 24: “Today I was briefed by leading global health experts about the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China. We learned that the risk of transmission within the U.S. is low at present. I will continue to work closely with U.S. officials to ensure Americans are protected.”
But what has he actually done?
Well, he’s embraced the White House blame China message, while totally ignoring the epicenter of the crisis — the White House. Even that raises the question of just what is Risch’s China strategy? Trump’s only approach, beyond unbroken fidelity to China’s dictatorial leader, involves tariffs that have crippled trade, while forcing U.S. taxpayers to bail out American farmers.
And what of the World Health Organization? If the WHO needs reform, is the best strategy to eliminate U.S. funding in the middle of the pandemic? Again, the Idaho senator has no strategy and nothing to say.
Meanwhile, under cover of COVID-19 confusion, Trump has fired the inspector general at the State Department, Steve Linick, an issue that had the Foreign Relations Committee a real chairman would be front and center on the committee’s agenda. Risch has said nothing and will do nothing even in the face of published reports that the firing is linked to a number of questionable actions, including an investigation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to circumvent Congress and make a controversial $6 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. (I asked Risch’s office for a comment on the IG firing and received no response.)
Trump’s cashiering of Linick marks the fourth such dismissal in three months and is an obvious effort to eliminate any visage of independent oversight of Trump and his administration’s conduct. The only Republican to immediately express concern about this blatant authoritarianism was Utah’s Mitt Romney, who called Trump’s action “a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.” Risch, meanwhile, is silent.
It is telling that in the year and a half Risch has been Foreign Relations chairman, Pompeo has not once appeared before the committee to answer questions about China, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, deteriorating relations with NATO countries or anything. With dereliction of his Senate duties — never more on display than the recent IG firing — Risch is abetting Trump’s efforts, as Aaron Blake wrote recently in the Washington Post, to “undermine independent oversight of his administration.”
For good measure this week, Risch, acting as ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, voted to advance the nomination of Texas Congressman John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence. Ratcliffe is a Trump toady widely described as the least qualified person ever nominated for such a position. Ratcliffe, with Risch’s help, will complete the politicization of the nation’s intelligence agencies.
To be sure, hypocrisy is part of this story as well.
Risch never tempered his criticism when a Democrat occupied the White House and his partisan disdain was regularly on display during the Obama administration.
“This is a foreign policy that is in shambles,” Risch said in 2012. “In the Middle East, it is a foreign policy of apology, it is a foreign policy of appeasement, it is a foreign policy of dithering and looking the other way. This cannot go on.”
Yet, when it comes to Trump, Risch doesn’t critique, analyze or even discuss; he accepts — everything.
Who benefits from Risch’s behavior and Trump’s foreign policy incoherence and incompetence? China, of course, (and Vladimir Putin’s Russia) whose aim is to diminish American influence and weaken historic alliances. Michael Fullilove, a decidedly pro-American scholar who heads the Lowy Institute, Australia’s largest think tank, described it succinctly: “We increasingly feel caught between a reckless China and a feckless America that no longer seems to care about its allies.”
Risch is on track to be remembered as the worst chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the post-war period. He’s certainly earned the distinction.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.