Trump has probably never read the history of Russia’s “scorched earth tactics” that defeated Napoleon and Hitler but he has embraced them with a vengeance. Initially defeated in 1812 and 1941, respectively, the Russians pulled back into the interior, destroying the countryside making it unusable to the enemy while they prepared their counter attack. Unfortunately, scorched earth tactics made life pretty dreadful for the inhabitants of the lost territory. Narcissistic to a fault, Trump cannot bring himself to concede defeat. He knows he cannot undo the fact that 82 million Americans voted to see his back but believes that he can stage a comeback in 2024. (We can talk another day about whether he will be in jail or bankrupt, or both, by 2024.) His hopes of victory depend on ensuring the failure of President Joe Biden’s administration over the next four years.
What better way to do it than to destroy the mechanisms of government, enable the novel Coronavirus to devastate millions of lives and tank the economy? Trump also expects his co-conspirator, Senator Mitch McConnell, to block relief measures that could reverse the upcoming disaster. Trump and McConnell hope that they can do so much damage that Biden will be unable to get the economy back on track by 2024. McConnell will not disappoint Trump. Last April McConnell publicly said, "if I'm still the majority leader in the Senate [in 2020], think of me as the Grim Reaper. None of that stuff (a Democratic program) is going to pass." Trump knows his constituents. He destroyed their faith in democracy and he believes they will back his return as part of a “lost cause” almost as noxious as the “Lost Cause” of the failed slave-owners rebellion of 1860 that still animates his core.
Trump’s refusal to allow the formal transition to begin, compounded by his decapitation of government does immeasurable harm. This path leads irrevocably to hundreds of thousands more deaths as the virus overwhelms healthcare systems. Millions of small businesses and the jobs they provide will also disappear. If his plans succeed, our country faces a dreadful four years.
Obscured by the smoke of the fires Trump is igniting domestically, he has also gutted America’s national security apparatus. He has wrecked our diplomatic corps. He decapitated the Defense Department firing his own appointees (!) and replaced them with incompetent loyalists. The Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, and the FBI appear next on the chopping block. Trump’s purge of DoD leadership may well presage an order to bail out of Afghanistan and Iraq, making our 1975 departure from Saigon look like a holiday. Others fear that Trump may provoke a shooting war with Iran on the eve of his departure.
Or, he could do nothing except walk away and let one of the many flashpoints around the world blow the lid off. Whether we like it or not, the international order that made us wealthy and prevented a major war for 75 years depends on American leadership. The disintegration has already begun. The Taliban played Trump and are on the offensive in Afghanistan. ISIS has revived from Trump’s premature declaration of victory and the terrorist caliphate now kills people on three continents. Iran has amassed nuclear material at an all time high and increasingly circumvents his sanctions. Azerbaijan took advantage of America’s absence to settle scores with Armenia. Civil war has broken out in Ethiopia and threatens to drag in Eritrea. China threatens Taiwan and locks up trade deals everywhere. The European Union, our most important group of allies, is defending itself on many fronts. COVID has swept back worse than before. A “no-deal” Brexit (and a subsequent British economic collapse) appears unavoidable. Hungary and Poland have turned their backs on democracy.
Turkey’s Erdogan could well tip things over in the Eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan’s power depends on continuing to show victories to his nationalist and Islamist constituency. He cannot rest on his laurels, however. Putin appears to have checked Erdogan’s proxy victory in Azerbaijan by imposing a cease-fire and stationing Russian troops to enforce it. Russian forces in Syria have supported a new offensive against Idlib, the last holdout of Erdogan’s proxy militias.
Erdogan needs a victory. Erdogan’s supporter and enabler, Donald Trump, will be out of office in two months. By contrast, Biden, has publicly called Turkey “a real problem.” Trump protected Erdogan from a bipartisan sanctions resolution in Congress for buying Russian missiles; Biden seems unlikely to do the same. Erdogan needs to find other victories. He could delude himself into believing that his striking success with Turkish-developed drones in northern Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan gives him a strong card to play against a Greece weakened by a decade of economic depression. NATO continues to prove incapable of dealing with a dispute between members. The EU cowers when Erdogan threatens to release a new wave of refugees. Germany and Italy condemn Turkey rhetorically but snub Greek requests to stop selling powerful new weapons to Turkey. Erdogan could calculate that he could hazard a smash-and-grab operation or a provocation that would force Greece to react militarily at a place and time of military disadvantage. Trump would welcome leaving Biden one more intractable headache and Putin would enjoy a war between NATO allies. Both Putin and Trump, Erdogan would reason, can be counted on to let them at it. Other examples of things that could go wrong abound.
Trump, as usual, does what he believes is in his own interest. He has never shed tears for the human carnage he leaves behind him.