While on a weekend out of Johannesburg, J. BROOKS SPECTOR gets to contemplate the shambolic nature of the Trump administration’s ideas for managing foreign policy, amid a more general field of false messages and contradictory musings. Not pretty. Bigly.
Over the weekend, this writer was able to get away for two days among the hills, forests and farms near the small town of Machadodorp, right at the edge of the Great Escarpment in Mpumalanga Province, to take in a site-specific outdoor dance festival. The dancing and the nearly unlimited vistas helped clear the mind from months of infestation by politics – American and South African both. As a result of this exercise, in our house it has now been declared that for the sake of our equanimity, all future Saturdays should be Trump-free zones. The problem, however, is that one must eventually return from the mountains and then catch up on the events that have transpired in Donald Trump’s alt-universe in the meantime.
And so, yet again, we take up the threads of that untidy, unruly universe in an effort to understand what is happening in America’s politics and how those developments affect the rest of the real world. Perhaps the most revealing moment comes from a presidential speech, delivered in Melbourne, Florida over the weekend. Melbourne is in Brevard County, a part of Florida that went heavily for Trump in the recent election, even though its economy is substantially tied to government spending via Nasa activities, since Cape Kennedy’s facilities are located there, along with various support industries.
The president’s speech had the familiar circumstances of an awaiting crowd in an airplane hangar as the Trump-bearing jet, this time Air Force One, swept by before it taxied to a stop. Thereupon, thousands of the faithful were there to cheer all the familiar applause lines about his draining of the Washington swamp; that the media tells fake news and is the enemy of the American people; that he has inherited a mess domestically and internationally; there will be a wall, and all the other familiar applause lines. But this happened just as Trump’s political agents had filed preliminary papers to set up his second run for the presidency. Accordingly, this Melbourne pep rally should be viewed as the launch of his 2020 re-election campaign, just one month into his current presidency.
In his Saturday speech, he once again told the in situ crowd that the mass media is their worst enemy, what with their fake news about real facts and all those despicable but real leaks (from the open sieve of his presidential administration). But – most astonishingly – he spoke of a terror incident in Sweden, one he had presumably learned about from Fox News, which has yet again proved the inescapable necessity for his Muslim immigrants and refugee ban being stymied by “so-called” judges.
There was, of course, only one problem with this – there had been no terror attack in Sweden. None. Well, of course there had been no Bowling Green (Kentucky) Massacre either (presumably an utterance that referred to two Iraqis living in the US who had been accused of trying to finance killings in Iraq) – even if Kellyanne Conway had tried to moot just such a made-up horror tale on television a few days earlier in support of the executive order on travel. The Trump administration seems determined to create incidents knitted out of stray comments on Fox News to defend their policies.
But never mind, there was also his performance at his bizarre Thursday press conference, before departing for Melbourne and his weekend at Mar-a-Lago, the oh-so-private, for-profit club owned by Trump that has become the so-called winter White House. Mar-a-Lago was where top secret discussions over a North Korean missile launch had taken place between the president and Japanese prime minister right in front of a room of club members while they munched on their turkey burgers, taco bowls and Caesar salads.
At that 77-minute press conference, the one where the president yet again repeated all his old complaints about his Democratic rival and the vengeful, hate-filled media, when he was fact-checked by one brave reporter over the president’s frequently repeated assertions about his imaginary, overwhelming electoral victory, he blandly asserted that, well, he’d gotten the information from someone, somewhere, so it’s out there – even if it doesn’t accord with the obvious facts. Trump has never been one constrained by facts – or by the fact checkers, apparently.
It became progressively weirder when his “rants and raves” (his words) spilled over to questioning the motives of reporters asking about the rise of anti-Semitism in America, the truth of the matter behind the removal of ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (on Monday the administration announced the appointment of respected military strategist Lt-Gen H R McMaster as the new pick), as well as whether he would meet with the Congressional Black Caucus.
Truthfully, together with his Melbourne appearance, the press conference was red meat to his most ardent supporters and may well have helped enhance their feelings for him. But that can only go so far. The most recent polling – from numerous surveys – shows his favourability ratings hover just under 40%, suspiciously close to his polling during the primaries, and not dissimilar to his numbers from the general election as well. But, important, his “performances” – as opposed to his actual presidential performance – have done little to consolidate his support beyond that original trumpenproletariat of the economically disaffected, the racially fearful, and the concerned-about-immigrants-and-Islam base of backers that he had begun with when he was in full campaign mode.
But his support is certainly not growing. And that must be worrying to experienced Republican politicians who must defend themselves – and the current administration – in the run-up to the mid-term election in 2018, if things continue as they have been going. For such political figures, the slow pace of congressional action on budgets, the proposed replacement of Obamacare and other putatively popular actions all cast a shadow on Republicans in races less than two years from now, although more Democrats than Republicans must defend Senate seats in that election. Nevertheless, the often-mooted “repeal and replace” plan for Obamacare is becoming something of an awkward hot potato for some Republicans since the actual ramifications of the law’s demise are beginning to become clearer to numbers of voters previously opposed to it. Republican congressmen are already dealing with protesters at angry reportback meetings during Congress’ current recess.
Although Trump continues to assert that his new administration is on a unique trajectory to be more successful and more active than any other previous administration and that “it is a well-oiled machine”, in truth it is neither of these. Start with the easy questions first. In just one month, the Trump administration has had to jettison his national security adviser, retired General Mike Flynn, for creating a cloud of embarrassment, confusion and prevarication over his relationship with the Russian ambassador to the US. And an issue that is pushing reluctant Republican congressmen and senators to begin investigations into the nature of the Russian involvement in the American election and the ties of Trump campaign staffers – and the candidate himself – with Russia.
Moreover, Trump has been forced to let his nomination of the man who would have become his secretary of labour slip away because of the nominee’s troubling personal issues (an undocumented foreign housekeeper in his home), work issues (opposition to increases in minimum wage levels and the use of sexually suggestive advertising for his fast food companies) and a more general unsuitability for the very basic purpose of that post on the basis of his comments. Then there has been the selection of, and initial public humiliation of, his new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, as well as the selection as head of the Environmental Protection Agency of Scott Pruitt, a man who, as attorney general of Oklahoma, had repeatedly sued the EPA over, well, environmental protection.
Meanwhile, beyond his ongoing squabble with the federal judiciary over that hastily drafted, ill-conceived seven-nation Muslim ban executive order that had been promulgated without significant consultation with the affected government departments, Trump continues to complain that his administration is being stymied by a reluctance of Senate Democrats to agree to his appointments. For Trump, those Democrats have been carrying out an obstreperous insistence the Senate must “advise and consent” on such nominations, per the Constitution, rather than just rubber-stamp them.
In response, Trump has been arguing that with these stumbling blocks, he cannot carry out the functions of government – and it is all the fault of the opposition. However, a deeper look shows that out of almost 700 crucial positions that must be filled by presidential appointees (out of some 4,000 presidential appointments of one type or another), the Trump administration has nominated fewer than 70 people to these positions. Essentially, that means no deputy secretaries, under-secretaries, assistant secretaries, administrators of most federal non-cabinet agencies, and virtually all ambassadors and related appointees have been named.
In the State Department, meanwhile, even as the new secretary Rex Tillerson has come on board, there has been an under-the-radar purge of senior staffing that removes crucial expertise and bureaucratic nous – beyond the initial departure of senior figures. Or, as MSNBC reported the other day,
“While Rex Tillerson is on his first overseas trip as Secretary of State, his aides laid off staff at the State Department on Thursday. Much of seventh-floor staff, who work for the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and the Counsellor offices, were told today that their services were no longer needed. These staffers in particular are often the conduit between the secretary’s office to the country bureaus, where the regional expertise is centred. Inside the State Department, some officials fear that this is a politically-minded purge that cuts out much-needed expertise from the policy-making, rather than simply reorganising the bureaucracy.
“There are clear signals being sent that many key foreign policy portfolios will be controlled directly by the White House, rather than through the professional diplomats.”
A big issue for some incoming cabinet appointees has been the refusal of the Trump White House to allow secretaries to select their own deputies and others further down the organisational chart, insisting on holding that prerogative closely inside the White House’s circles of influence and ideological purity. In fact, this policy has been hindering the hunt to fill Michael Flynn’s now-vacant chair. Trump’s original replacement, retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, reportedly turned down the position, after viewing Trump’s wild news conference of last week, as well as the fact that the White House would not accede to his condition of controlling appointments of his deputies within the National Security Council.
Current bets now seem to be on the contentious, hardline, neocon veteran John Bolton as the next national security adviser. That might at least begin to deliver some consistency and structure to decision-making at that level – but it could come at the expense of any nuance in the decisions made or policies opted for. Of course Bolton’s own ideas towards Russia might well run into the very different ideas coming out of the mouth of the president over that relationship.
While all of this has been taking place, the world has not gone on vacation while the US sorts out its bureaucratic snarls. Just a partial inventory of what confronts the US internationally would begin with the mixed messages on Nato and the American relationship emanating from Washington. While the president has continued to downplay the importance of Nato and the need to move beyond this alliance in reaching an arrangement with Russia, in response to some astounded noises from the Europeans, secretaries of defence and state as well as the vice president have now crossed the Atlantic to speak at various forums and with various leaders in order to soothe growing fears that the US is about to turn away from an alliance that has been a crucial element of US global strategy since the late 1940s.
Meanwhile, there are several contentious issues in the Middle East as well that keep having their respective pots stirred. After the Iranians launched a test missile, the former national security adviser spoke of red lines being crossed, even as the president continued to thunder that the landmark P5+1/Iran nuclear agreement was fundamentally skewed in Iran’s favour. While allies and many others disagree on that judgement, including many Republican former officials, the president’s words seem determined to push the US towards new confrontations with Iran – even as Iran is also a central part of resolving the apocalypse that is consuming Syria, given Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria.
Additionally, with son-in-law senior adviser Jared Kushner now in charge of Middle East policy, during the recent visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the president similarly upturned a long-time strategic component of US policy by shrugging off the idea that a two-state solution for the Israel/Palestinian knot was a core part of US policy. Trump announced, seemingly out of the blue, that whatever works for the Israelis and Palestinians was fine for him, ignoring the massive power imbalance between the two parties, as well as the likelihood the stalemate would allow Netanyahu to continue his slow stall over reaching any real agreement and, meanwhile, going forward with the creeping expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Further, the president continues to insist that the key foreign policy challenge for the US is the defeat of ISIS and radical Islamist terror – and that such a goal has, as a major element in it, closer, better ties with Russia, almost regardless of other ramifications. This has obvious implications for the sustainability of the Assad regime in Syria by virtue of its ongoing support from Russia (and Iran) as well as how the US would need to shift towards the Russian version of a Syrian outcome for such a partnership to be viable in any way.
Aside from all of these issues – and the growing uncertainty, just for starters, of what is happening in North Korea with its own missile tests and the assassination of President Kim Jong-un’s half brother while he was in Malaysia – on February 18, the Trump administration deployed the US aircraft carrier group, headed by Nimitz class carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, to the South China Sea for patrols and exercises, although San Diego, California, is still the carrier group’s home port. This new deployment increases the possibilities of growing tension with China in that area.
The two nations are already in profound disagreement over China’s claim to sovereignty over the islets in the South China Sea and its programme of building small bases and airfields – and, effectively, artificial islands to host Chinese forces in the area. The area has growing strategic and economic importance. About 30% of total world ship-borne trade passes through the South China Sea each year, the waters are a key fishing area, while below the ocean floor are major oil and natural gas reserves.
While the US and various neighbouring nations have consistently disputed the Chinese claim over those islands, and an international maritime court has ruled against the Chinese (although the latter nation called that ruling “null and void”), a new element of mobile power in the mix can be expected to energise further Chinese resistance to a US presence. Initial Chinese responses were already rather vociferous, as China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, had denounced advance news of the deployment, saying, “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters. China respects and upholds the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea which countries enjoy under international law, but firmly opposes any country’s attempt to undermine China’s sovereignty and security in the name of the freedom of navigation and overflight.”
Even as the Trump administration continues to be a work-in-progress, some of that construction is being done at cross-purposes and full staffing remains a mess, making decision making, co-ordination and coherence a major problem. Meanwhile, the administration is also setting for itself contentious policy initiatives that may well make it all the more important for it to have a full team in place and working in harness. But that just doesn’t seem to be the Trump way. DM
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump signs H.J. Res. 38, disapproving the rule submitted by the US Department of the Interior known as the Stream Protection Rule, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, February 16, 2017. The Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, which was signed during the final month of the Obama administration, ‘addresses the impacts of surface coal mining operations on surface water, groundwater, and the productivity of mining operation sites’, according to the Congress.gov summary of the resolution. EPA/Ron Sachs / POOL
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved