Trump’s U-Turns Please DC Establishment But Make US A Less Reliable Partner
Yesterday, the cable talking heads were once again seeing a mythical Trump pivot as he engages in policies that the establishment generally approves of and seem based on reality. But the fact that Trump ended up in a place that seems sane and rational does not mean he got to that place by sane and rational reasoning.
Trump has made an incredible number of 180 degree turns to end up at the positions he espoused yesterday. His position on Syria today is directly opposed to his statements in prior years, during the campaign, and even administration positions advocated about a week ago. Today, Assad is an evil man who must go and the innocent men, women, and children that were killed by his gas attack show that he is a butcher. Apparently, the innocent men, women, and children that have been and continue to be killed by conventional weapons in Syria don’t, and never did, show up on Trump’s radar.
Regarding NATO, Trump said this, “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.” Virtually nothing has changed within NATO that would prompt this change in attitude which makes you wonder whether Trump could have just as easily have another change of heart about NATO somewhere down the road.
Trump also has seemed to twig that we will need China to help deal with the North Korean nuclear problem but now understands that, like so many things, it won’t be as easy as Trump had initially thought. Thankfully he has apparently “bonded” with President Xi and the Wall Street Journal reports that Xi had to explain the long and unhappy history between China and Korea that complicates the issue beyond just simply telling Kim Jong-un to stop. Said Trump, “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy. I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over North Korea]. But it’s not what you would think.” You think. In addition, and again in a total reversal from his prior position, Trump declared that the Chinese were “not currency manipulators”. Like NATO, there is nothing that has materially changed that would dictate this new position.
Regarding Russia, both Trump and Tillerson described the relations with that country as being at a low point. Trump even declared that it was possible that Putin knew about the Assad gas attack in advance, something that is actually quite probable.
All these moves reflect the realpolitik that appeals to the establishment and the neocons and is certainly a welcome change from the Trump/Bannon American nationalism that carried the day as the administration began. But I’m not sure that the idea that this reflects a Trump pivot or the ascendance of the Jared/Ivanka influence in the White House, as has been espoused for the last day by the cable TV talking heads, actually holds.
The warning signs of the administration’s ignorance and incompetence are still out there. Tillerson’s offhand comment “Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” must have sent chills down the spines of not only the Ukrainians but also a lot of Europeans, especially those in the Baltics, and our NATO allies. This was an open invitation to further Russian adventurism and other leaders around the world will also take note, deciding what other countries US taxpayers would also likely have no interest defending. In addition, Tillerson apparently did not confront Putin and the Russians about their interference in the US elections in any direct manner and, importantly, did not make time to meet with the beleaguered Russian democrats who are doing their best to stand up to Putin at great risk to their own personal safety. In addition, Trump could not even bring himself to criticize Putin directly when asked point blank today. All of these are missed opportunities to confront Putin and the Russians and the inability and reluctance of the Trump administration to do so raises real questions about the seriousness of the supposed effort and the administration’s position.
As far as China goes, Trump seems to have moved into total capitulation mode. Having folded in his attack on the “one China” policy and withdrawn from TPP, leaving China to lead the way on Asian trade, his meeting with Xi has produced even further concessions. He has now backed off his proposed tariffs on Chinese goods and refused to call them currency manipulators, both staples of his campaign. Even more, he is offering actual trade concessions in order to get Chinese help with North Korea.
And despite all the tough talk about Assad, there is still broad confusion of what our policy actually is. And virtually nothing Trump did or said today clarified that in any way.
Don’t get me wrong, recognizing that Assad is a vicious killer, that Putin and the Russians are playing dangerous games, and that we need China to help solve the North Korean problem are all huge steps forward for this administration. But these points are simply a recognition of reality. The problem is that it is still quite evident that Trump has no coherent policy or strategy to deal with any of these issues. And the ease with which has adopted these positions, which have all been antithetical to his electoral campaign and his administration’s rhetoric from just days ago, do not give one the sense of a President grappling with the issues. Rather, it further reinforces the idea that Trump simply lurches from one idea to the next with no coherent view or strategy. The fact that today’s ideas line up with the generally accepted state of the world does not mean Trump is dealing effectively, or even has a plan to deal effectively, with the problems we all face. For us and especially our allies, Trump’s ability to change position on a dime, often for no reason at all, actually creates even less trust and further degrades the willingness of others to rely on Trump going forward.
I’ve also written about this and other issues on my personal blog at [tidalsoundings.blogspot.com]