I remember when as an American diplomat I realised my White House was no longer credible. We may be at that same point in the Trump presidency.
My moment was in 2006, in Hong Kong, where I was assigned to the American Consulate. It had been a difficult few years as an American diplomat, as crimes against humanity under the George W Bush administration were being talked about in government circles, even if they had not yet been acknowledged publicly. America was torturing people. American troops invaded Iraq under a blanket of lies. And America opened a prison at Guantanamo. It was there the United States held Omar Khadr, and the Canadians wanted him out.
Omar Khadr was a 15-year-old Canadian grabbed off the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2002, believed to have killed an American soldier. After learning the teenager had been tortured, the Canadians wanted him transferred to their custody for his own safety, and in 2006 ordered their diplomats to make that demand (a demarche in diplomatic language) to every American foreign service post. I had never heard of Khadr before, but hearing from the Canadians how he had been treated I realised America had no credibility left when, among other things, it criticised Saddam Hussein for harming his own people and used that behaviour as a secondary justification for the Iraq invasion.
At the table in Hong Kong we knew none of us were going to free Omar Khadr, but the Canadians did their job and I did mine, pre-written talking points all around. We knew each other, and our kids went to the same school. So informally I also heard “we may not be able to work with you anymore on a lot of things if this fails.” Canada had sent troops to Afghanistan, withheld them from Iraq under American criticism, but the message was now a step too far had been taken, and while routine business would continue, they were probably going to wait on any big stuff until George W Bush was out of office. (Khadr was released to Canadian custody in 2012, and freed in Canada in 2015.)
I am hearing from former colleagues in diplomacy and intelligence that Helsinki may have been a similar moment, requiring now a resolution of some sort to maintain credibility in America’s international interactions. Trump still has more than two years left of his term, perhaps six if he is re-elected – far too long to wait out given the number of global issues requiring international cooperation.
As a diplomat you represent your own complicated country, and all sides understand that. But from the secretary of state on down, credibility is a crucial tool in getting things done. Can you be trusted, not just personally, but to accurately convey what Washington wants to say to its allies, friends, and those it negotiates against? If you explain an American policy today, and the other side acts on that only to find the president tweeting out something else, however close your relationship may be personally with your counterparts, across the table you become a non-entity.
If I was in an embassy job today and was asked informally by an ally to explain the president’s remarks in Helsinki, I would stumble for coherence. I know those foreign diplomats are reading the same media I am: a columnist in the New York Times calling Trump a traitor, an article in New York magazine speculating Putin was Trump’s intelligence handler, a call by a former CIA director to impeach the president, former counter-terrorism coordinator Richard A Clarke speculating Trump was meeting with Putin to receive his next set of orders, a former intelligence officer warning “we’re on the cusp of losing the American constitutional republic forever,” or maybe just the parsed criticism of Trump from within his own party.
And alongside of all that, an indictment of Russian military personnel for hacking into the Democratic National Committee servers, the details released at a time that can only be read as an attempt to disrupt whatever initiatives Trump planned to pursue with Russia, followed by an arrest of a Russian agent timed to bookend the Helsinki summit. Some overseas will perceive those acts as a power struggle within the American government.
After what at best can be called a bizarre performance by Trump in Helsinki, how can American diplomats assure their counterparts they know who is in charge, that what they claim is American policy actually is policy, and that… that… in some way the president of the United States is not more sympathetic to an adversary than to his allies? No American diplomat today can answer to those points. It was thus unsurprising Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had little to say in Helsinki.
America’s global needs cannot wait out a Trump presidency, nor do they appear able to wait out whatever investigative process has been underway through two administrations. American intelligence officials began looking into “Russiagate” two years ago, with little substantive action taken by the Obama administration. The process has continued on the intelligence side undisturbed, along with new efforts by various parts of Congress, and by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The multiple threads do not appear driven by a sense of crisis, and that is wrong.
There have of course been far worse moments in American history: the presidents who watched helplessly as the storm over slavery broke into Civil War, FDR and the Japanese internment camps, Richard Nixon bombing Vietnamese civilians and prolonging the Vietnam war to help get himself reelected, and George W. Bush setting the Middle East aflame.
But we are here now, and the message from Helsinki is that it’s time for Washington’s investigators either to present evidence that Trump or his close associates actively worked with the Russian government, and thus remain beholden to it, or make it clear that is not the case. Getting things done in the world requires credibility, and it is now time to set aside chasing indictments that will never see the inside of a courtroom, those concerning financial crimes unconnected to the campaign, and a clumsy series of perjury cases. Post-Helsinki, we – America’s diplomats, its allies, its people – need to know who is running the United States.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of ‘We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People’ and ‘Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan’. Follow him on Twitter: @WeMeantWell