News of the downing of EgyptAir Flight 804 had barely crossed the wire before Donald Trump hopped on Twitter to declare the incident an act of terrorism. The strong man routine fits his profile, after all, his “foreign policy” includes “knocking the hell” out of ISIS, which is an applause line, not a strategy. The media is quick to bolster his tough guy image but we have seen this movie before and the bark is always worse than the bite.
In Nixon’s time, it was called the “madman” strategy – Nixon wanted his adversaries in China and North Vietnam to think he was such a loose cannon, he might unleash nuclear weapons to settle the Vietnam War. The only people who suffered were the innocent Vietnamese people, who were subject to a bombing campaign unseen in the history of war, and the soldiers on both sides who died in the jungles of Southeast Asia. When the bombs failed to work, “peace with honor” and “Vietnamization” became a rebranding effort for admitting a victory could not be won. For all his bluster, the peace treaty Nixon agreed to in 1973 was no better a deal than had been offered five years previously.
Less than a decade later, another swaggering cowboy named Ronald Reagan rode into Washington, D.C. promising to stand tall against the Commies. After-the-fact mythologizing claims the Iranians so feared Reagan they released our hostages the day he was sworn in, but in reality, the deal had been cut weeks before, the hostages were held until Carter left office as a final humiliation to the one-term President not because the mullahs were afraid of Reagan.
Indeed, just a few years later Reagan was selling arms to the Iranians to get hostages freed in Lebanon; this, after tucking tail and running from Beirut after our embassy was bombed in 1983. As detailed in Rachel Maddow’s book Drift, Reagan’s team could not even invade Grenada properly. The mission was bungled so badly, dozens of soldiers died.
And if the old saying “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” applies, it is uncertain what happens when we are fooled a third time, but that is exactly what happened when George W. Bush came into office. An Ivy-League educated son of privilege, “W” packaged himself as a Texas cowboy who loved nothing more than spending his down time (which was considerable) clearing brush at his ranch. Of course, he and his aides ignored warnings about Al Qaeda and even after September 11th, standing amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, his chesty proclamations would end up being largely hollow. Well before Iraq turned into a quagmire, he had failed to capture or kill the perpetrator of 9/11. Ultimately, he slinked out of office with record low approval ratings, the country trillions in debt and scarred by his actions.
Now, here comes Trump. A man who avoided serving in the Vietnam War and whose knowledge of the military could fit comfortably in a thimble. His rhetoric makes Bush’s “dead or alive” threats to Bin Laden and “axis of evil” non-sense look both sober and tame in comparison. Will Americans fall for the tough guy routine again?
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