In 1974, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia sang, for the first time, “Ship of Fools:”
“Ship of fools on a cruel sea, ship of fools sail away from me / It was later than I thought when I first believed you / Now I cannot share your laughter, ship of fools.”
Today’s seas are full of dangers. From the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Malacca, from the Sea of Japan to Crimea’s Kerch Strait, American geopolitical and economic interests are being buffeted by regional and global, traditional and asymmetrical, threats.
And in response to those threats we’re finding not leadership with a sturdy hand on the rudder but a leadership choosing to respond in an erratic, unmodulated, uninformed, dangerous, and at times, strategically incoherent manner.
It’s hard to know where to start.
“Went to see the captain, strangest I could find / Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line / I won’t slave for beggar’s pay, likewise gold and jewels / But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.”- Jerry Garcia
In response to members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Egypt, breaking relations with Qatar, President Trump rushed to take credit:
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!”
“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
Trump’s reckless tweets – tweets seemingly suggesting he supported action against Qatar – suggested he didn’t know that Qatar hosts 10,000 American troops at the “Al Udeid” – our largest Middle Eastern base. They suggest he doesn’t know that the Pentagon is in regular consultation with Qatar’s military and political leadership on how to counter terrorism and extremism, that Qatar’s essential to supporting our regional missions.
That he’s ignorant of the fact that several foreign universities have campuses in Qatar – including Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Texas A&M, and the Weill Cornell Medical College – all working toward expanding educational opportunities in the Middle East.
Even more reckless was Trump’s White House blame-the-victim statement that condemned recent ISIS terrorist attacks on Shiite Iran while also suggesting that Tehran, as a sponsor of terrorism, bore some of the blame:
“We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times. We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”
Contrast that statement with how 60,000 Iranians observed a moment of silence in a soccer stadium on 9/11 and where hundreds held a candle-lit vigil in downtown Tehran chanting “We are all Americans.”
Contrast Trump’s statement with that Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami delivered to America on 9/11:
“My deep sympathy goes out to the American nation, particularly those who have suffered from the attacks and also the families of the victims. Terrorism is doomed, and the international community should stem it and take effective measures in a bid to eradicate it.”
Perhaps there’s no more glaring example of ignorance than Trump’s reaction to recent ISIS-inspired terror attacks in London. Before even publicly expressing condolences to the British people – citizen’s of one of American’s closest and oldest allies – the American president felt obliged to tweet:
“At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed,’” Trump tweeted, deliberately taking the words of London’s Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, out-of-context, a comment many read as a dog-whistle.
“We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don’t get smart it will only get worse,” he continued, selfishly linking a plea for his constitutionally-stalled Muslim Ban to London’s tragedy.
The former head of our CIA and NSA, Michael Hayden, called Trump’s criticism of Sadiq Khan “… stunning for all of us in America – and indefensible.”
“How could anyone,” Hayden continued, “with a sound view of terrorism, the effects of terrorism, the Anglo-American relationship, the special intelligence relationship – how could anyone with any of that in their background believe that what was tweeted was a good idea.”
The problem is that Trump, adrift in his Ship of Fools, has none of that in his background and in his ignorance is steering America’s ship of state toward uncharted shoals.
In his introduction to Foucault’s “Madness and Civilization” Jose Barchilon writes:
“Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then “knew,” had an affinity for each other. Thus, ‘Ship of Fools’ crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls… The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors …”
Today, we watch, most often aghast, as Trump’s Ship of Fools maneuvers from port of port, not entertaining but frightening the natives with the unpredictable antics of its pathetic cargo led by a narcissistic, ignorant and emotionally volatile leader whose ego’s so fragile it can be entertained and feted for power and profit.
In Brussels at a NATO meeting, Trump, ignoring the advice of all adults in the room – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (overseeing a depleted Sate Department), National security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis – impulsively and seemingly at the last minute stripped language from his speech reaffirming America’s commitment to NATO’s Article 5.
Thankfully, there’re Americans who’ll stand against such ignorance, who will protect America’s interests, who will call out the admiral for wearing no clothes, Americans for whom there is no great laughter at sideshows but for whom there is truth, honor and service.
There will always be a Sally Yates and James Comey who will speak truth to power.
There will be those who will rebuke the president, as did Lewis Lukens, America’s chargé d’affaires in London, tweeting: “I commend the strong leadership of the @MayorofLondon as he leads the city forward after this heinous attack.”
There will be those who will sacrifice a decades-old career, as did David Rank, America’s highest ranking diplomat at the American Embassy in Beijing, who resigned from our Foreign Service because of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.
There will be those who will stand in alliance with our NATO allies, who will not shove aside Montenegro’s Prime Minister, who will not let Putin have his way in the Crimea, who will protect the weak and oppressed, who will assure that the promise of light in the City upon the Hill isn’t extinguished.
Americans who will right the ship of state before it’s but a ghost.
“It was later than I thought when I first believed you / Now I cannot share your laughter, ship of fools.” – Jerry Garcia.
Image above: Ship of Fools – German Woodcut 1549