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The Nation’s new National Correspondent Jeet Heer sees the mix of warhawks Bolton and Pompeo, complicit Republicans, meek Democrats, and an erratic president as volatile and dangerous

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MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us. We’ve all been watching the increasing tension between the United States and Iran, taking us to the brink of another war. Iran downed an American drone on the heels of attacks against two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The US said the drone was in international waters, and guess what? The Iranians said it happened in their airspace. The US said Iran attacked the tankers, and Iran said no, it didn’t. However, to some analysts, the gravest danger rests in the incoherent— the words of our guest— inconsistent, and Twitter-dominated foreign policy that might trip us into a war. So, we start a conversation there with our guest, Jeet Heer— the newly-appointed National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation, and author of In love and Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays, and Profiles. Welcome, Jeet, to The Real News. Good to have you with us.

JEET HEER Good to be here.

MARC STEINER It’s very clear to me that your career in comics has prepared you for this White House more than anything else you’ve ever done, or anybody else has ever done.

JEET HEER Absolutely. I know because Trump is a cartoon character who happens to occupy the White House. He’s just part of our problem.

MARC STEINER And it sounds like it from the essay you wrote in The Nation, but let me go through this tweet you had. You had put out a tweet just recently that said that “It would be good if the Democrats running for president eschew the easy Putin’s puppet rhetoric and talked about the dangers of incoherence,” as I outlined here in your article.” In the article, you say, you write, “In truth, the real key to Trump’s foreign policy is neither neo-isolationism, nor subservience to Vladimir Putin, but rather, belligerent incoherence.” Let’s start there. Talk about literally what you mean. I mean, we quipped a moment ago about this comic book character, but talk about how that fits into all this.

JEET HEER Sure, sure. Yeah, I mean, Trump is not someone who has any grand strategy. His whole life has been about creating a persona. First, as this, you know, great billionaire, a self-made rich man. And now that he’s president, he likes to act like the tough guy. Also, part of his persona is that he’s a deal maker. And what we’ve seen over and over again with Iran, with North Korea, and with Russia, is that there’s a real lack of coordination between Trump and his main people. Trump is trying to make, he’s trying to make deals. He’s trying to keep back channels and open up conversations because he thinks he can do that, but he’s surrounded by people who are ultra-hawks and who are pursuing very aggressive foreign policy. So with Russia, I mean, they’re ramping up the cyber war and they’re talking about taking out Russia’s power grid.

With North Korea, Trump keeps saying he’s in love with Kim Jong-un and meanwhile, his advisors are sending out, you know, military excursions. With Iran, this isn’t widely reported, but there is a lot of evidence that Trump is trying to set up a back channel with the Iranians. I mean, he basically doesn’t like the Obama deal, but he wants to create his own deal. The Japanese Prime Minister Abe went to Iran and there’s a lot of evidence that he was carrying a message from Trump, but Trump’s advisers are very against that, and they have been working to undermine that and ramping up the war rhetoric. And so, that’s a very dangerous situation where you have an administration sending out radically different messages. I think, if you imagine if you’re an Iranian, or North Korean, or a Russian, you’re going to think, what’s going on here? You’re going to get paranoid, you’re going to get skittish, and this has emboldened the hardliners in Iran. And so, I think that’s the real root of this crisis right now.

MARC STEINER So part of your analysis here, you said, you know, in the past, American foreign policy and American presidents have had this good cop, bad cop relationship with people inside the administration. You mentioned, Eisenhower-Dulles and Nixon-Kissinger as this good cop, bad cop routine they had in dealing with foreign policy. Some people would argue, and you argue against this, that that’s exactly what’s happening with Pompeo and Bolton with Trump, but you see this relationship as much more anarchic and much more dangerous.

JEET HEER Yes, absolutely. Yeah. I don’t think it’s a good cop, bad cop routine. In part, because there’s considerable evidence that Bolton and Pompeo are keeping stuff from Trump, that Trump was not advised as to some of the actions that they’re doing against Russia, and with this Iranian business as well. I mean, just the whole timing of it—Just as Trump is trying to, you know, create a back channel, that’s exactly when the anti-Iranian rhetoric is ramped up, that’s when sanctions are increased. It doesn’t seem coordinated. It’s rather that Pompeo and Bolton know that Trump is not hands-on, know that he’s not following policy detail closely, know that he’s lazy, and are pushing their own agenda and that’s very dangerous.

MARC STEINER So I’m about to ask a question for the context here. You also write, “Does it even make sense to look for a devious design underwriting Trump’s foreign policy? Isn’t it more likely that the chaos we see on the surface is all there is? That in fact Trump is no mastermind, but a man of inchoate and barely articulate impulses?” And so, let’s talk about this for a moment. I mean, so on one level, many of us can look at him and feel that way. On the other, there is this world around him that put him into office, that backed him for the very reason because they wanted to have this, kind of, right-wing and nationalist and evangelical agenda to be put in place. So, talk a bit about how you see that contradiction.

JEET HEER Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think that Trump is in some ways a figurehead for policies that he doesn’t fully understand and he himself, you know, his worldview is just basically being a tough guy. Like, “America, I’m going to be a tough guy, America is going to be strong,” and that’s why he has empowered Bolton and Pompeo. He likes the way that Bolton talked on Fox News. The idea is to, you know, carry a big stick and threaten people, but Trump also has other impulses as well. He’s not as vested in these, all this sort of Washington foreign policy establishment views, and he’s very much aware of that some of his supporters are against war. I think that part of what’s been going on is that there’s been an effective lobbying of Trump from different factions, and that explains part of the incoherence. If you watch Fox News, people like Tucker Carlson are warning about the dangers of war and Trump’s mindset has the kind of incoherence of Fox News— like the desire for both America to be tough, but then maybe also somewhat isolationist or at least reluctant to carryout large-scale military endeavors.

MARC STEINER I mean, if your analysis is right and many people, some people, deeply agree with your analysis, that this could be, that we could be in serious danger. I mean, you know, you can do things tongue-in-cheek and you do write very well, but there’s a real danger here it seems when we’re talking being on the brink of war with Iran. That could inflame the entire region there, not just Iran. Israel could jump into the situation. Saudi Arabia could jump into it. It would completely unravel the already unraveled Iraq. I mean, it’s, you know what I’m saying? I mean, this is—

JEET HEER Yeah, no, no. Absolutely. It’s an incredibly dangerous situation. I mean, in some ways, it’s a long-tail risk. You could speculate that everybody will pull back from the brink, as Trump seems to have done at least last night, and that even the Iranians will exercise caution. They’ll poke at Trump to show that he’s a Twitter tiger, but they won’t go for full-scale war. But there’s also, because there’s all these mixed messages, there is a real possibility of real misunderstanding and a possibility of war erupting by accident. I think people need to understand that this is traditionally one of the ways in which war has erupted— the First World War, arguably the Korean War. Part of the origin of the Korean War was that Stalin was unsure about how far America would go, and he thought he got signals that America would be happy with a unified Korea, which was not what America was willing to accept. If you have mixed signals, that is an actual, legitimate path to war.

MARC STEINER So let’s talk about where we are now. We’ve seen Nancy Pelosi come out saying we’re in a dangerous situation. Warren has tweeted, and you can see that here, about the dangers of where his policies could take us. What you write in your piece, that the proper constitutional response would be for Democrats and Republicans to take hold of this, but you want to call the Republicans as too complicit and you call the Democrats as too feckless. Talk about what that dynamic is here, how you analyze that internally about what could stop our path to war, what the Congress might or might not do, and where you see this going if the Democrats are too feckless and the Republicans are too complicit?

JEET HEER Sure. I mean, what the Trump administration is claiming is that they don’t need authorization for war, that already with the, sort of, authorization that was given for the war on terror in the Bush era, they can launch an attack. I think that doesn’t seem right, but traditionally, Congress has given presidents a lot of leeway— we’ve had the imperial presidency since the 1940s— and it has been reluctant to challenge presidents, but I mean, there is one avenue open. Congress could say, let’s have an up and down vote on war. One could imagine that if Trump really wants to get himself out of this mess, he might go for that as Obama did with Syria where he found himself in a situation where was being pushed farther down than he wanted to go, and he said, well let’s have a vote. That is, to me, that seems like the one, sort of, path that’s open and may be a face-saving path as well for Trump. But also, more importantly, it would help redress the constitutional issue because I think one of the things with the Trump era is that Congress, even with the Democrats winning the House last year, they have not shown the proper checks and balances. We really need Congress to assert itself in this position, but I feel like they’ve been irresponsible.

MARC STEINER And, I guess, we’ll be following that. You’ll be following that in DC and on Capitol Hill as this, kind of, unfolds for all of us positioned as a nation. Just finally, I guess, your history of writing about the comics prepared you, as we said earlier, for this, for covering the White House as it is, but it’s almost like a horror comic [laughs] that we’re watching unfold.

JEET HEER Yes. [laughs] It is. It is a very scary, kind of, scenario. I mean, with luck, you know, if we see it through, it’ll be only because of what? It won’t be that the people in power acted in a responsible way because it has been irresponsibility all the way along. It’s not just Trump; it’s the people in this administration. And it’s not just Republicans; it’s Democrats who do not hold him accountable.

MARC STEINER Jeet Heer, first, congratulations to your new appointment as National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation. Good to have you and we look forward to talking to you a great deal more. Have a good rest of the day and thank you for your contribution today. We appreciate it.

JEET HEER Oh, good. Thank you. I really enjoyed it. It was a good conversation.

MARC STEINER We have been talking to Jeet Heer, the newly-appointed National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. You know we’ll be staying on top of this. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.