Enemies Seek Advantage from Trump Distractions – A New York grand jury had indicted former President Donald Trump on 34 charges. Cable news and the print media will likely focus on the Trump drama 24/7 for weeks to come. The New York Police Department is on full alert as processing and proceedings begin. They should not be the only ones. The US military also needs to be on alert.
Adversaries read America’s political calendar to seize advantage from our distraction. North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950 as President Harry S. Truman, unpopular at the time, and the Democrats focused on midterm elections.
The Cuban Missile Crisis peaked in October 1962, again just prior to the close US midterm elections.
Iraq’s armies invaded Iran as the 1980 presidential campaign peaked. Decades later, I spoke with the late Bill Eagleton who at the time was America’s senior diplomat in Baghdad. The State Department initially assessed that the Iraqi army’s incursions would be small in scope and short-lived, as had every skirmish for the past several months. The scale shocked the White House that at the time focused on President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign.
In August 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces to invade Georgia against the backdrop of the US presidential campaign. Pakistan-backed terrorists attacked multiple sites in Mumbai just weeks after US presidential elections as Washington focused upon transition.
In September 2020, Azerbaijan and Turkey used US distraction with the final weeks of the Trump-Biden race to launch a multipronged assault on Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh. The war got barely any mention in the US press, as Biden vs. Trump polemics reached their peak.
Certainly, not every event revolves around America’s political calendar. Washington should not navel-gaze, but it should not also not be naïve. Despite the billions of dollars the United States spends on intelligence, diplomacy, and the military, successive administrations allow media to shape conversation not only in the public sphere but also within the White House. Politics consume. In addition, the structure of the bureaucracy and the focus of principals and their deputies on politics chokes the flow of information at the top. Inattentive and fatigue due to the presidents’ age only compounds the problem. Even in national security agencies and departments, headlines of the day trump singular focus on grave and growing threats.
There is no shortage of potential aggressors: China versus Taiwan; North Korea versus South Korea; Turkey versus Syrian Kurds; Venezuela against Guyana; Eritrea against Djibouti; Ethiopia against itself, or others conflicts not yet on America’s radar.
Revisionist states have long resisted the rules-based order. Multi-polarity is code for constraining America’s influence and reach on the global stage and ability. The media storm about Trump is just beginning. The issues at stake are real: equality of all Americans under the law; selective prosecution; political reprisal; and public faith in the justice system.
The threats that loom when America is distracted are just as real, however. The United States needs to get its domestic house in order; it cannot sweep the issues peaking in the Trump trial under the rug. Still, the cost of inattention to international security, however, could be even more grave.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).