It’s hard not to feel these days like we’re back in 2017 or 2018, when the biggest threat to America’s national security was very clearly the American president, who was then Donald Trump. Who can forget the heart-stopping Helsinki press conference when Trump, in front of the whole world, took Vladimir Putin’s word on Russian election interference over that of American intelligence agencies? Or when Trump, still a candidate, publicly invited Russian intelligence to hack Hillary Clinton? Or when he nearly started a nuclear war with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un only to have the standoff devolve into an epistolary romance?
On top of that, even according to his own advisors, the man seemed to know little about the basics of foreign policy. That’s not a statement meant to be classist or elitist—though it’s hard to argue that against a self-proclaimed billionaire who went to Wharton—but I think that, if you become the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful and lethal military on Planet Earth, you should probably know where Ukraine is on a map and know that Finland is not part of Russia, two facts that, according to his erstwhile national security advisor John Bolton, Trump did not, in fact, know. And, arguably, being a novice at such things is not great tactically when you’re going up against a K.G.B.-trained man like Putin, who was by then on his fourth American president and knew exactly how to handle them. It was why, as Fiona Hill explained to me this past winter, Putin regularly and expertly manipulated Trump with elementary tricks like bringing young, attractive translators to their meetings. You can claim, as Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro did, to be in the Situation Room representing Johnny Six Pack, but I would argue that you’re not representing them very well if you’re letting every American adversary eat your lunch.
Which is why, when Joe Biden was elected and sworn in as president, the American foreign policy and national security establishment breathed a massive sigh of relief. Not only was Trump leaving the building—and the nuclear codes—he was being replaced by one of their own, a trusted member of the so-called Blob. He was well-versed in international affairs and he was bringing with him a whole coterie of foreign policy experts, the Tony Blinkens and the Jake Sullivans and the hundreds of people you have never heard of but who really know their stuff and really cared and had been waiting anxiously to save the ship of state from its deranged captain. Their moment had finally come.