opinion | With war looming in Ukraine, settling scores with Trump couldn’t be less important

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Last week also saw more coverage of memoirs and memoir-related books about the work or coverage of the former president. I look forward to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman’s “Confidence Man” because for years she and Trump have dueled, enemies who, to my knowledge of the modern presidency and modern journalism, are uniquely feuding. But who defeated whom will not be known for decades, and therein lies the problem. Any Trump-era memoirs are too distant from the events to be of much use.

Consider former Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper’s forthcoming tome, described by its editor as: “Former Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper reveals the shocking details of his turbulent tenure while serving in the Trump administration.” Expect one Settling accounts with Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, and senior flag officers, many of whom are skeptical of espers.

But here’s the story, unlikely to appear in Esper’s memoir, that escaped Beltway’s attention during Trump’s failed trial over his call in Ukraine and his alleged quid pro quo: If Ukraine is beaten fast, it becomes one based in large part on the failure of Esper and his team to provide the weapons and training to our allies that Trump – and Congress – authorized. Like Trump’s long-promised naval expansion, everything about lethal aid to Ukraine became a slog through the swamp of Esper’s Pentagon.

The only lesson Esper can teach future presidents is this: if you want something done by Pentagon civilians, ask for it every day. A weak Secretary of Defense means he will be MIA at key moments, lost in the corridors of the Pentagon like a new lieutenant on his first map course – a senior general’s assessment of Esper.

But boxes and books all seem absurd compared to what appears to be happening. About 14,000 people have died in the conflict since Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014. How many this time?

“All over Europe the lamps are going out,” remarked British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Gray on the eve of Britain’s entry into the First World War. “We won’t see them lit again in our lifetime.” A Russian invasion of Ukraine might not be such a moment, but it could be, and that’s the catch and the risk. Terrible mistakes can happen, as former NATO Commander-in-Chief and retired Adm. James Stavridis told me last week. His prediction that a US-backed Ukrainian resistance would emerge if Russia triumphed is sobering enough, even for civilians, to grasp, as are the mistakes both sides can make.

There will be members of Congress who want to promote a Ukrainian resistance, just as legendary Congressman Charlie Wilson, a Democrat from Texas, promoted the Afghan resistance in the 1980s. But the dangers of firing guns into Russian-controlled areas in Europe far outweigh those risked when guns rolled through Pakistan en route to the mujahideen four decades ago. To implement such a strategy, it would take a Pentagon boss in the shape of Caspar Weinberger or Robert Gates – very smart, very committed, not risk-averse. It would also take a CIA willing to help, with a director like the great William Casey. National security conservatives know that the defense was Trump’s weakest link, especially after General Jim Mattis left. If and when the GOP regains the White House, the new president will need civilians at the helm of the Pentagon and CIA who are neither absent-minded nor timid. Pompeo knows that. So do many other would-be presidents. Some not.

For a long time, the left simply believed as a dogma that Trump was under the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though Trump appeared to be so closely associated with the Kremlin that Russia could only invade Ukraine under President Barack Obama and now possibly President Biden. Putin’s reluctance to challenge Trump, as he did with both his successor and predecessor, was not because Esper had mastered the details or because of the kind of help we actually provided. One cannot blame Putin for finding the entire Trump-era Pentagon as his commander-in-chief opaque, unsubject to rational calculation, and therefore best left on the sidelines, knotted through Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever the reasons, Putin did not threaten Ukraine during the Trump years. He does now.

And if he invades Ukraine, the current White House occupant could take a backseat to broader popular sentiment. This month, Americans have en masse rejected the Olympics and expressed dislike for China’s “genocidal games.” This dislike will soon be matched by a new level of contempt for Putin and his oligarchs, and hopefully support for unprecedented sanctions – and yes, even a second Afghanistan for Russia.

Tales of books paying bills or peddling gossip, and boxes of documents not sitting on the right shelves are just the trappings of our media’s clueless excesses. With Europe’s first major war in decades looming, could anything else matter less?

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