Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Heart of Darkness, a.k.a. The Trump Administration

Foreign Policy's Max Boot captures the extreme dysfunction inside the Trump White House.

...the United States under President Donald Trump does not actually seem to have a foreign policy. Or, to be exact, it has several foreign policies — and it is not obvious whether anyone, including the president himself, speaks for the entire administration.

On Feb. 15, for example, Trump was asked, during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whether he still supported a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. His insouciant reply? “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.” This immediately prompted news coverage that, as a New York Times article had it, “President Trump jettisoned two decades of diplomatic orthodoxy on Wednesday by declaring that the United States would no longer insist on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.”

But had Trump meant to do that? His remarks sounded as if they were being improvised off the top of his head. Did they actually denote a change of policy? Sure enough, 24 hours later, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told reporters that “the two-state solution is what we support. Anybody that wants to say the United States does not support the two-state solution — that would be an error,” thus suggesting that the president was mistaken about his own administration’s policies. It soon emerged, thanks to Politico’s reporting, that the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had not been consulted or even informed beforehand about what was, in theory at least, a momentous policy shift: “At the White House, there was little thought about notifying the nation’s top diplomat because, as one senior staffer put it, ‘everyone knows Jared [Kushner] is running point on the Israel stuff.’”

Bannon sidelines the A-List Talent.

So much for the hopes that Trump’s seasoned cabinet appointees — especially retired Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security, retired Gen. James Mattis at Defense, and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at State — could direct administration policy on a more mainstream course. Perhaps they will exert a bigger influence down the road, especially now that they will have a valuable ally in the new national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, but so far their impact has been decidedly limited. They have had to fight for influence with Steve Bannon, the white nationalist ideologue who has been inexplicably granted a place on the National Security Council’s top-level Principals Committee, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who has been granted nebulous authority over areas such as Mexico and Israel. Bannon has even created his own shadow NSC, called the Strategic Initiatives Group, staffed by people such as the anti-Muslim extremist Sebastian Gorka.

Bannon showed just how much power he wields when he vetoed Tillerson’s choice for deputy secretary of state — Elliott Abrams. One suspects that, from Bannon’s standpoint, Abrams had multiple strikes against him: Not only is he Jewish and a “neocon,” hence hostile to isolationism and nativism, but he has vast policymaking experience stretching back to the Ronald Reagan administration. Bannon, who has never served in government outside his time as a junior naval officer decades ago, must have known Abrams would be a formidable bureaucratic adversary — one who could make up for Tillerson’s own lack of policy making background. So Bannon apparently sabotaged Abrams’s nomination by putting before Trump a single article that Abrams had written last year critical of him. That this is not just about loyalty to the president is obvious from the fact that Rick Perry, who once called Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” was appointed as energy secretary. But then nobody in the White House cares who runs the Energy Department or considers Perry any kind of threat. Abrams was different — and thus he could not be allowed to join the administration.

President Bannon’s insistence on maintaining control also appears to be behind the problems the administration is having in finding a new national security advisor to replace Flynn. The first choice — retired Vice Adm. Bob Harward — turned down the post after Trump made it clear that he would not be allowed to pick his own deputy (for some reason Harward did not think that K.T. McFarland was qualified despite her years of pithy Fox News commentary) or to get any guarantees of a clear chain of command that would exclude interference from Bannon and Kushner. This was, among other things, a message that Mattis, who is close to Harward and recommended him, does not exercise any more sway than Tillerson over key administration appointments.

Trump's Fog of Uncertainty and Confusion

Foreign officials watching this amazing and dispiriting spectacle are left in the uncomfortable position of not knowing who if anyone actually speaks for the United States. This became obvious over the weekend when Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis, among others, traveled to the Munich Security Conference to offer reassurance that the United States would remain committed to NATO and opposed to Russia. But of course European officials are well aware that Trump has repeatedly expressed his own skepticism of NATO and admiration of Vladimir Putin and has spoken longingly of doing a “deal” with Russia. Indeed, Time magazine reported that Bannon’s Strategic Initiatives Group is generating “its own assessment of Russia-policy options,” including concessions such as “reducing or removing the U.S. anti-ballistic-missile footprint in Central and Eastern Europe, easing sanctions imposed for election meddling or the invasion of Ukraine, or softening language on the Crimean annexation” — all options far removed from the tough talk in Munich.

Thus Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, pointedly replied to Mattis’s pro-NATO speech by expressing appreciation for the “secretary of defense’s strong commitment to NATO.” Not America’s strong commitment or the Trump administration’s strong commitment. Because who the hell knows anymore who actually speaks for America?

What a mess. Trump doesn't understand the significance of his own words or how his off-the-cuff comments undermine his own administration. Worse still, when he does manage to get people of experience and proven talent, his in-house Rasputin, Steve Bannon, sidelines them, usurping their powers for himself.

God save America - from Donald Trump.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Anyong.....and so it goes on and on.