“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” That old adage, often attributed to Winston Churchill, is probably not bad advice for a nation that is desperately trying to understand the erratic policies of a president who refuses to follow any rules, traditions or processes of foreign policy.
Any other recent president of the United States would be so embarrassed by the mistakes made in the last week from hell that there would be serious questions raised about whether that presidency could survive politically.
It is without any modern precedent that a president would in just days undermine the fiscal and military support for the NATO Alliance; criticize our closest ally Great Britain and Prime Minister Theresa May over Brexit; label the European Union a “foe”; and end a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin with a press conference in which he says he trusts the Russians more than he trusts his own intelligence and law enforcement agencies when it comes to who is responsible for interfering in the U.S. elections.
All of this was then followed by a badly scripted effort to correct what the president said. And now there is a new invitation to Putin to visit the White House, while it is still not clear what was discussed or agreed to in Helsinki.
Worst of all, to cap it all off, Trump is following the example of Putin by retaliating against the critics of his trip by considering revoking their security clearances.
Unfortunately, the only person who does not consider all of this a foreign policy and political disaster is Trump himself. On the contrary, he believes it was all a “tremendous success.”
Why? Because this president measures success by his own definition of what happened, rather than by reality. And besides, he believes that he alone is capable of making a deal. He operated that way as a New York developer and he uses the same tactics as the United States president.
The problem is that while a certain amount of tactical chaos can be useful in diplomacy, in the short term strategic chaos is dangerous because noone knows where it will ultimately lead.
This president is good at tearing down the bridges of past policy, but has yet to build any new or lasting strategies for the future.
He has withdrawn from TPP, NAFTA, the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and imposed new tariffs threatening a trade war—all without any clear strategy to resolve these controversies. Even after proclaiming the North Korea summit a success, he has yet to provide an enforceable path for denuclearization.
And now with Russia, there is confusion over what exactly the president agreed to in his private meeting with Putin and whether he truly understands that Russia is trying to undermine our democracy and interfere with the election process in this country.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks about his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during a meeting with House Republicans in the Cabinet Room of the White House on July 17, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In all this chaos and confusion, it is important for the United States, in Churchill’s words, to “keep going” and find a path forward to put in place a more stable foreign policy and national security relationship with the world. The institutions of our democracy need to respond to provide greater certainty that the United States will not abandon our responsibility to security and to our allies. What, then, will it take to calm the waters for our erratic ship of state?
1. Congress must lead. The Republican and Democratic leadership must find legislative ways to force action against Russia, reinforce our alliances, and support our intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
2. Others in the administration must speak the truth. It is critical that those in our diplomatic, national security, intelligence and law enforcement areas continue to be honest about what our adversaries are up to and how we can better defend ourselves and our allies.
3. Special counsel Robert Mueller must be allowed to complete his investigation. This is the primary investigation that will determine what the Russians were up to and why, whether the president or anyone in his campaign colluded with them, and what enforcement steps will be taken to hold those responsible to the law. It would be good for everyone, including the president, to let the special counsel do his job and finish the investigation.
4. The president must decide between chaos and leadership. It may be impossible for this president to change his ways, but he needs to realize that the constant flow of unprecedented words, tweets, lies and mistakes are wearing thin on the American people and will weaken both his presidency and the nation. Of course, he was elected to stir the pot and make change, but he was also elected to govern. If he is willing to learn, to listen to his key national security advisors, and work to develop stable and rational leadership for the future, he just might be able to “keep going.”
Churchill knew how to do that. Whether President Trump learns that lesson will tell us a lot about how long the hell we are going through will last.
Leon E. Panetta is a former C.I.A. director and secretary of defense under President Obama.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.