As 2019 looms, for the United States, can the new year be any worse than the final weeks of 2018? Donald Trump promised to drain the Washington swamp. Instead, he has turned his administration and the White House into the mother of all swamps, where incompetence has become the common denominator and chaos the dominant descriptor.
The president's base believes the president can do no wrong. Yet, the decisions to withdraw American forces from Syria and Afghanistan without a plan or answering the "what next" question are as flawed as depending on Saudi Arabia to fund reconstruction in Syria and Turkey to demolish the Islamic State. Worse, Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran are unchecked. And, regarding the Kurds, as the United States abandoned them in 1973 and 1991, the president is proving again Jack Kennedy's aphorism that the only thing worse than being an enemy of the United States is being an ally or friend.
Stock markets have crashed. The dismissal of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has deprived the president of whatever national security credibility he had left. The government shutdown over a mythical wall that can never be built on America's southern border and paid for by Mexico further challenges the rationality of the White House to govern. And the number of senior vacancies in the executive branch, including an acting chief of staff and secretary of defense, is another example of the petulance at the western end of Pennsylvania Avenue that keeps good people from serving.
In a few days, Democrats will control the House of Representatives. A flurry of investigations will follow, many justified and many long overdue after House Republicans prevaricated to protect the president. Senate Republicans should be worried about the stability of the president given the above along with a jihad against his former defense secretary; a Twitter pronouncement of "Tariff Man" that precipitated the Wall Street sell-off; a government shutdown he originally embraced; and his threat to fire the chairman of the Federal Reserve. This was not helped by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's ill-advised comment that the big U.S. banks were not at any credit risk, causing markets to assume the opposite.
Meanwhile, the embattled president, as he told the Washington Post, trusts his "gut" instincts far more than expert advice, assuming he is listening to any of it. That instinct, embracing Presidents Xi Jingping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un of North Korea, now seems far from infallible. North Korea is reversing course on denuclearization -- hardly a surprise given its past track record -- and no one wins a trade war with China or anyone else.
An economic recession certainly seems more plausible. Brexit likewise threatens not only the U.K. but the special relationship with the United States, its closest ally. Both main British political parties are profoundly divided on how or whether to leave the EU. Options range from bad to worse. And special counsel Robert Mueller is a dagger and a potential howitzer pointed at the presidency.
The United States has been in grave danger before. The Civil War; two world wars and a cold one; a Great Depression; the Cuban missile and the October 1973 crises that raised the specter of nuclear war; defeat in Vietnam; the stock market crashes of 1987 and 2008; September 11th; and other catastrophes were overcome. Still an impending sense of doom seems eerily relevant today as the least experienced and most unthoughtful president to hold that office in modern times is in charge. What more damage will he do?
Or by some miracle is a self-correcting and invisible force in play? Perhaps the president in his self-imposed Christmas exile at the White House could have a massive conversion in which logic, truth, analysis and objectivity matter again. Sound arguments, for example, in drawing down from Syria and Afghanistan could be fashioned, provided none are based on gut instincts. Markets can be reassured. But threats to fire the chairman of the Fed are not the best reassurances. Reconciliation with Democrats is not out of the question. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill made that happen more than three decades ago.
Having lived through five decades of these crises, including the Vietnam debacle, I hope America will endure this president's disastrous actions. Hope, however, is a weak reed for basing policy and favorable outcomes. Yet how is a president convinced -- who by all accounts, refuses to listen or read and takes advice from Fox News -- to lead in a positive, constructive and reasoned way? The answer to that question may well determine if the swamp will be drained or whether it will become an even more treacherous, consuming and dangerous quagmire.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.