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President Trump at a press conference in the East Room of the White House, on April 20, 2017. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images; Screen shot from Rocky and Bullwinkle episode "Upsidasium.”)

At Sea With Capt. ‘Wrong Way’ Trump

A rudderless ship of state creates chaos and erratically steers us into a feckless foreign policy.

Michael Winship

Baby boomers like me fondly remember the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons of childhood (and adulthood, for that matter — in their grown-up jokes and cultural references they presaged The Simpsons by a good 25 years and are still pretty hilarious).

You may particularly recall one Rocky and Bullwinkle character, Capt. Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz, an addled mariner so spectacular in his incompetence that even his toy boats sank in the bathtub.

At one point, Peachfuzz managed to steer his ship into New York’s financial district — and I mean into, so much so that it was given the permanent address of 17 ½ Wall Street. Now at the helm of an investment firm, his board of directors wanted to get Capt. Peachfuzz as far away as possible and found him a job counting penguin eggs in Antarctica. But a secretary mistyped the form and Peachfuzz was made head of the nation’s intelligence community.

"When life starts imitating cartoons you know you’re in trouble, except that Donald 'Wrong Way' Trump isn’t accidentally head of central intelligence, he’s the president of the United States and may God have mercy on our souls."

You can see where I’m going with this. When life starts imitating cartoons you know you’re in trouble, except that Donald “Wrong Way” Trump isn’t accidentally head of central intelligence, he’s the president of the United States and may God have mercy on our souls.

The nautical reference is especially appropriate, of course, with “Wrong Way” Trump’s announcement last week that “an armada, very powerful” was headed toward North Korea in response to that nation’s growing nuclear threat. In fact, that “armada,” the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and a Navy strike group, was heading in the opposite direction, toward Australia — meaning, as my friend Jeremy said, that the ships were prepared, if North Korea made the wrong move, to attack Melbourne.

Apparently, the confusion began with an April 9 announcement from the US Pacific Command and was amplified by statements from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other military officials before Trump spoke out. But as The Washington Post noted:

“…the perception of a carrier strike group steaming toward North Korea at a time of swiftly escalating tension also served the interests of Trump and his top advisers, who were keen to send a deterrent message to Pyongyang and illustrate its break with the policies of former president Barack Obama.”

Having wrapped up maneuvers in the Indian Ocean, the ships now are turned around and finally heading toward the Korean peninsula. At least that’s what White House press secretary Sean Spicer says, so you can take that to the bank! But the incident serves to illustrate the rudderless incoherence of the Trump administration and the lack of even the inkling of a cogent foreign or defense policy. “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz could have done no worse.

In recent days, we’ve heard inconsistent policy statements, and not just about where the hell our ships are. There have been flip-flops on China and Russia as well as conflicting declarations when it comes to President Bashar al-Assad’s brutality in Syria and the contested referendum in Turkey that by a narrow margin gave President Recep Tayyip Erdogan increased dictatorial control over his government. Trump called to heartily congratulate Erdogan on his win, yet at the same time the State Department warned the Turkish leader against ignoring the “rule of law” and urged him to respect “a diverse and free media.”

At The Post, David Nakamura and Karen DeYoung report:

“Although every administration experiences growing pains, the recent succession of mixed signals over key national security issues has stood out, painting a picture to some of an administration that has not fully developed its policies or a broader international agenda and whose key agencies are not communicating with one another — or the White House. It is a situation that has led foreign diplomats and congressional lawmakers to express uncertainty about the administration’s goals and about who is speaking on its behalf.”

That’s putting it mildly. An Associated Press dispatch from Seoul this week about how nervous South Koreans felt about Trump led with three simple words: “Unpredictable. Unhinged. Dangerous.”

Former national security officials say that a large part of the problem is that Trump still has failed to make hundreds of appointments, including to many critical positions at both the State Department and Pentagon. It’s a combination of ineptitude and a resistance to doing things the way they’ve been done in the past. The Post’s Nakamura and De Young write:

“The result is that the normally meticulous care that goes into formulating and coordinating US government policy positions or even simple statements is often absent. Institutional memory is lacking, these former officials said, and mistakes and contradictions easily slip through the cracks.”

But it’s not just that; we’re also dealing with an incurious president who appears to recite what little he knows about world history phonetically and whose attention span when it comes to international relations seems minimal and based on impulse with little attention to the potential blowback from his snap judgments. Having him face off against North Korea’s willfully naïve and equally impulsive Kim Jong-un is a ghastly prospect.

Chaos worked for Capt. Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz — he always seemed to land on his sea legs. And in comparison to the cartoonish Trump, his fictional character was far more benign. At one point, when his ship’s crew was contemplating mutiny, they decided instead to build a fake command deck and let Peachfuzz stand at the phony controls, thinking his orders were being obeyed.

Would that we could build a duplicate fake Oval Office and have Donald “Wrong Way” Trump bark orders and push all the buttons he wants, believing his every wish was our command. Then maybe the rest of us could move on with the business of the republic, reestablish America’s place as a member of the world community and finally get a good night’s sleep.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. 

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