By Paul R. Pillar
Sometimes an accusation that a mote is in someone else’s eye (to paraphrase a biblical quotation) ought to underscore the significance of the beam that is in the accuser’s eye. Donald Trump’s tactic of accusing his critics of some of the very sorts of misconduct for which he is criticized has generated many such mote-and-beam situations over the past three years. Given the reach of party tribalism and demagogic appeal, use of the tactic extends far beyond Trump himself to many of his defenders.
Among the most recent and scurrilous instances of the tactic have been the efforts to smear public officials who, while telling uncomfortable truths central to the current impeachment investigation, have given no indication that their careers have ever departed from loyal and honorable service to the United States. Victims of the smears have included ambassadors, military officers, and other career officials.
Among the most visibly unjustified of the smears have been those directed against Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a U.S. Army infantry officer who has been wounded in combat and has served as the principal expert on Ukraine at the National Security Council. The efforts to discredit Vindman have gone so far as to question his loyalty to his country. Columnist Max Boot—who, like Vindman and his twin brother, came to the United States as a young child when his parents fled the former Soviet Union—has good reason to write that “Vindman was not born here, but he is a far better American than the Trump toadies who question his loyalty.”
Indeed, let us talk about patriotism and loyalty. A dictionary definition of patriotism is “the quality of being patriotic; devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country.” Devotion to one’s country is not the only frame of reference within which one can exhibit admirable loyalty. On a smaller scale, devotion to one’s family, for example, is almost universally seen as commendable. On a larger scale, working on behalf of the interests of all humankind also is to be admired. But within the context of national debate and national institutions, devotion to the country ought to have priority, especially over narrower interests and loyalties and above all when those narrower interests conflict with the national interest.
Trump’s behavior that is at the center of the impeachment inquiry was unpatriotic. It entailed the subordination of the U.S. national interest (and its furtherance through relations with a major European country, U.S. foreign assistance programs, and presidential-level diplomacy) to the narrower interests of denigrating opposition political candidates and advancing one’s own political party.
It is not only Donald Trump who has exhibited this brand of unpatriotic behavior. There have been all too many other recent instances of U.S. foreign policy stances that are damaging to the national interest, but were taken solely to destroy or discredit achievements of a leader of the opposing political party or to play to the hobby horses of wealthy campaign donors or to what is perceived to be the obsessions of slices of the electorate.
Just this week, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared, “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.” There is no conceivable way that this declaration serves U.S. national interests—or serves international law, justice, peace in the Middle East, or any other admirable cause from the viewpoint of not only Americans but humankind. As former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer observes, the declaration is a further blow to any hope for progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace during the current administration. Pompeo’s slap in the face of the Fourth Geneva Convention is an invitation to not just Israel but any other regime to practice might-makes-right. His statement that “we have recognized the reality on the ground” makes as much sense as to say that assault or robbery should be legalized because that would recognize the reality that those offenses keep getting committed.
One motivation for making this declaration is to be found in the personal religious beliefs of some of those, including Pompeo, currently making policy on this issue. Another motivation, also including Pompeo, is the electoral one of catering to those campaign donors or slices of the electorate that are perceived as possibly making a winning difference in a future election. Both of these motivations subordinate the national interest to more parochial objectives and loyalties.
The narrowness of Pompeo’s objectives and loyalties is demonstrated by how, amid the impeachment inquiry, those loyalties do not even extend to employees in the U.S. government department he heads, some of whom have been targets of the smears. This posture by the secretary of state has earned him Thomas Friedman’s assessment that Pompeo, rather than taking an oath to defend and protect the Constitution, “took an oath to defend and protect Donald J. Trump and Pompeo’s own future political career — above all else — and that’s exactly what he’s been doing. Shame on him.” And Friedman’s appropriately harsh assessment came even before Gordon Sondland’s testimony implicating Pompeo directly in the Ukrainian caper and—to the extent the secretary of state had anything to do with denying Sondland access to telephone logs and emails relevant to his testimony—in trying to cover up the caper.
Devotion to and vigorous support for the country and its interests seem to have faded far into the background at high levels.
What may be most disturbing, with implications reaching beyond the current impeachment process, is not only that some politicians make or tolerate tawdry attacks but that such attacks have a constituency. The existence of that constituency is due partly to the propagation of falsehoods that much of the American population, with exposure to limited and biased sources of information, comes to believe. It also is due to the tribalization of politics having gone so far on one part of the American political spectrum that for a substantial portion of the American population, primary devotion and loyalty is not to the country but to a party. That amounts to a major deficit in patriotism. And no amount of flag-waving or explicit appeals to nationalism will cover up that sad fact.