Chaos and Inertia May Delay Trump’s Foreign Agenda

February 26th, 2017 No Comments

(Note: The Portuguese translation of this article in the Jornal Tribuna de Macau can be found HERE)         

There is a growing perception in the U.S. and around the world, fed by American media, that we are witnessing institutional chaos during Donald’s Trump first month in office. Trump may be contributing to this turmoil by appearing overwhelmed by his own political agenda, even as polls show that less than 40% of American voters now support him.
Recently he has been hampered by a lack of competent appointees, and intense criticism to his first Executive Order banning refugees from seven Muslim countries, which the courts have overturned. It was later revealed that his aides may have attempted to negotiate with Russia before he took office, which is a violation of existing law and is now mushrooming into a larger investigation. There are also conflicts of interest from several companies he owns, which cannot be resolved until he releases his financial records. The administration looks so besieged that its spokespeople contradict themselves almost daily, and sometimes give false information while attempting to explain Trump’s often unintelligible statements.

While the situation may look bad, some of the worst effects have been limited by the U.S. courts and saner members of his own party in Congress. In fact, the rule of law and Trump’s scattered approach to government have slowed the implementation of his own domestic agenda, and left intact most of Obama’s international policies. Although the situation seems to change by the minute, let us review the latest developments, then suggest where Trump may be heading in the short run.

Trump’s false steps

There is usually no good outcome from having an adversarial relationship with the media. This is especially true of leaders that have no direct leverage over what is said, written, or televised about them. Trump’s relations have been calculated to appeal to his supporters, who are told to look upon CNN, the BBC, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other mainstream outlets as producers of “False News”. Trump’s “truths” only come from frequent Tweets, his long-winded press conferences, and from the website of his chief advisor, Steve Bannon, an advocate of far-right conspiracies. As a result, Trump rarely answers questions from reporters and grants few interviews. The media must now rely on leaked or discovered information dug up by correspondents who may be looking for their “Watergate” moment to expose his suspected misdeeds.

According to Trump, leaked information may be coming from inside the FBI, CIA, and the NSA, that is, the United States intelligence community. But most media are reporting that much of it is coming from his own staff, many of whom are jockeying for position within the administration. This apparent conflict provides fodder for opposing Democrats in Congress, who Trump often criticizes or ignores. Many comedians, talk show hosts, and entertainers are also benefiting by incorporating Trump’s missteps into their material or speaking out during award shows. The ratings for all have risen dramatically since the election.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to criticize the Democratic Party, and has made a point of stressing that he won the presidential election with the most electoral college votes in history with 304. (Reagan actually had 525.) Trump then announced the creation of a special committee to investigate “voter fraud” as the reason he lost to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes. Several Republicans are attempting to ignore this recent initiative.

More troubling is the situation regarding Michael Flynn, Trump’s nominee for National Security Adviser. Flynn resigned or was fired (the truth, as always, is elusive) because he is accused of speaking with the Russian ambassador about lifting sanctions immediately after Obama imposed them on December 29, 2016. Putin deferred reciprocating the next day, and was followed by a congratulatory Tweet from Trump. Although Flynn is not being prosecuted by the FBI, the lingering question is whether Flynn was working on his own or under instructions from the incoming administration. The latter would be considered a serious violation of federal law.  Several Democrats and a few Republicans are now pushing for an independent investigation into Russian collusion, joining the investigation with verified facts that Putin ordered the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. If this committee is ever created, the future of the Trump administration could be in jeopardy.

What about the Domestic Agenda and Foreign Relations?

In all the confusion Trump’s initiatives to crack down on illegal immigrants, build a border wall at the Mexican border, repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and reduce environmental regulations have made little progress toward becoming law. Many probably will be enacted by Executive Order, and again subjected to scrutiny by the courts. Some are already being challenged by fifteen (15) different states, including California, New York, and Minnesota. As a result, different versions of the immigration order and the health care bill are being refined, while protests by several hundred thousand people appear weekly, and millions more organize over social media. The road to final enactment for any Trump revision will be long and hard. There is also a chance that some may be delayed or will never be enacted if Democrats win a majority in the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate in mid-term elections scheduled for November 2018.

In the meantime, Trump’s foreign agenda is incomplete. The Iranian nuclear deal signed by Obama remains untouched and will probably survive, despite recent provocations of short-range missile testing, which Trump has ignored. After lightly criticizing Israel for building more settlements on the West Bank, Trump is now giving mixed signals to Netanyahu about whether he supports a one or two-state strategy with Palestine. Even relations with Russia, which many are expecting to be lenient despite the hacking issue, are at a standstill because of the recent allegations of collusion during the election. All this has made U.S. military commanders nervous, especially those in NATO and the Pacific, who worry that a distracted Trump administration is allowing the U.S. to give up its role as a world power.

Trump’s policies toward Asia are even less clear, if that is possible. Just after his election Trump spoke on the phone with the president of Taiwan, suggesting to many that he intends to recognize the island’s political status. China, of course, strongly criticized the move, as well as Trump’s initial threats to begin a trade war. A few weeks later, Trump contacted President Xi Jingping to reiterate Obama’s “One China” policy. The contradiction must be giving the Chinese foreign ministry fits, and perhaps reason to doubt Trump’s sincerity. Shortly after, as if to confirm those doubts, Trump hosted Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington and Florida to assure him that the U.S. would defend Japanese claims in the South China Sea. Then during dinner with Abe, Trump conferred with aides after North Korea tested a long-range ballistic missile. There was no indication whether the administration would be asking for China’s assistance to control Kim Jong Un.

What should we expect from Trump?

Trump is without doubt unpredictable. Clearly, he has been distracted from international issues because of the need to fight battles at home. Detractors theorize that this may be due to his lack of experience, while his supporters suggest that he is simply having a difficult transition into office. There may be more to Trump’s limited attention span than meets the eye however.

One attribute that Trump often boasts about is his ability to make deals. But as he begins negotiations with more experienced world leaders, he apparently doesn’t realize that each deal made as President of the United States affects other deals he will make to push his foreign agenda. In other words, something stated publicly or a concession made in one deal will likely impinge on another. Each of these efforts will be scrutinized intensely by the media and foreign intelligence agencies. Nothing will be considered in isolation, given Trump’s reputation. This will put added pressure on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, the new Secretary of Defense, to calm international concern about their commander-in-chief’s ability to lead. One of the unspoken fears of U.S. officials is that world leaders who oppose Trump’s policies will take advantage of his contradictory statements by acting in a sensitive area, then use his discrepancies to discredit and outmaneuver the United States. Russia’s potential ability to blackmail Trump and expand into the Ukraine without fear of further sanctions is only one such scenario.

All of this, or course, remains speculative. No one can predict the future, especially Trump’s future. But there continue to be indications of a deeper crisis that may be brewing. It will be up to the guardians of the United States Constitution, that is, the federal court system, the two houses of Congress, and the American people to contain the damage. As a former professor of mine once wrote of another crisis: “The Whole World is Watching”.

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