Kurt Volker, who just resigned as special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, is testifying in closed session to Congress today, presumably to shed light on charges that President Trump improperly (and maybe impeach-ably) asked that country’s leader to investigate possible corruption by Democratic Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
As much as I’d like to know what Volker says on this score, I worry that neither the lawmakers questioning him nor America’s supposedly watchdog Mainstream Media will examine an issue that’s at least as important: Why on earth did the Trump administration hire Volker in the first place? Because the likeliest answer will provide more evidence about an immense flaw in Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, and a consequent, neglected danger to American democracy, that shows no sign of ending any time soon.
President Trump, after all, campaigned promising to disrupt and transform American foreign policy. Out would be what he condemned as a globalist strategy that inevitably led to Forever Wars in places like the Middle East, and benefited only the country’s elites. In would be an “America First” approach he claimed would serve the entire nation’s interests.
As I’ve explained, the President’s foreign policy record in office has been mixed, but America First elements have definitely been introduced. And one of the biggest examples is policy toward Russia – whether you believe Mr. Trump has been motivated by a conspiracy with Russia strongman Vladimir Putin to fix the 2016 election, or by a sincere determination to deal realistically with a major (and nuclear-armed) military power.
And one of the biggest pre-Trump U.S.-Russia sticking points had been Ukraine – whose independence (including the freedom to tilt toward the West if it wishes) globalist U.S. Presidents have tried to maintain, against Moscow’s designs, but which Russia believes belongs squarely within its sphere of influence.
I’ve previously argued against antagonizing Russia over Ukraine because the latter’s fate was never viewed as a vital U.S. interest even during the Cold War. The idea that it’s become more important now makes no sense at all from an American standpoint. Worse, the United States plainly lacks anything close to the military capability to help Ukraine decisively (just look at a map if you don’t already understand why). So policies like arming the country to the hilt, and encouraging the idea that it can resist Russian hegemony militarily, look suspiciously like virtue-signaling exercises to “fight to the last Ukrainian.” Vastly preferable for all concerned, as I see it, is something like the deal I first outlined here.
The President has said little explicitly on the subject, but his reluctance as early as the 2016 campaign to go all-in on Ukraine arms aid indicates he’s open to such thinking (again, whatever his motives).
Which is why the Kurt Volker appointment was so bizarre. For Volker has long supported a hard-line anti-Russia approach to Ukraine. In fact, he was such a strong backer of military aid (and a “military solution” to the ongoing crisis) that he viewed former President Barack Obama’s Ukraine policy as needlessly spineless. Indeed, Volker is a protege of the late Arizona Republican Senator John McCain – one of the most prominent of the Ukraine-Russia hawks, and a leading Trump critic on foreign policy and many other issues – and in 2012 became head of a new institute created at Arizona State University to promote such ideas. (That’s why the school’s student newspaper broke the story of his resignation from the Trump administration late last month.)
Neither Volker’s views nor his affiliation with McCain is the slightest bit improper. (His work for defense contractors who would profit handsomely from Ukraine arms sales? That’s another matter altogether.) What is downright weird – and troubling for two reasons – is Volker’s decision to take a job with Mr. Trump’s State Department.
The first reason has to do with whose agenda Volker was serving – the elected Mr. Trump’s, or the globalist foreign policy establishment in which he worked for three decades. Given all the evidence that’s emerged throughout the Trump administration of bureaucrats and even Trump appointees committing acts of “resistance”. (See here for numerous examples, along with this unprecedentedly anonymous New York Times op-ed.) Given Volker’s ties to McCain, and given the way the so-called Ukraine scandal has so suddenly become a threat to Mr. Trump’s presidency, it’s vital to know whether Volker was one of these subversives.
If anything, the second reason is more depressing. For Volker’s appointment in the first place once again reveals a chronic weakness of the Trump administration and “Trump-ism” that will take many years to address even if the President and his supporters started right now: Mr. Trump entered office well before he or like-minded individuals paid any attention to the task of developing a group of skilled policymakers and analysts capable of staffing an administration both competently and loyally. As a result, the President had no choice but to fill any number of key posts with figures who, even when Republican and/or conservative, were far from America Firsters.
Not that this situation excuses the resistance that so many of these officials have mounted. But until those with Trump-ian leanings and the needed resources start creating the institutions needed to give these ideas scale and staying power, conservative nationalism, or nationalist populism, or whatever you want to call it, may wind up as a flash in the pan. Moreover, even if its adherents can keep the presidency, the clandestine bureaucratic revolt that’s been waged for three years, with all its dangers to accountable, democratic government, is only likely to worsen. And you should worry about that even if you’re a Never Trump-er.