May 29, 2017–With President Donald J. Trump completing his first overseas tour the broad outlines of what will be his foreign and national security policies are beginning to come into focus. The good news is that, when confronted with the slapdash silliness of many things that he advocated as a political candidate, President Trump often relents and retreats to a more traditional and recognizable policy stance. The bad news is that, with distressing frequency, Mr. Trump hews to the slapdash and silly. Meanwhile, he is creating a policy machinery that promises to guarantee sloppy action.
Trump’s first trip ended in chaos as he denounced longstanding NATO allies, seemed to open up to their concerns on global warming, threaten economic war with Germany, while looking askance at our friends in France. Germany too. At a beer hall a couple of days after the bullish American had left, German chancellor Angela Merkel stood up to tell the crowd that the age of alliances is at an end. President Trump was warned going into this trip, he refused to relent, and the result has been predictable.
If that leaves your head spinning, there is more–in Israel where Trump had been promising friendship–and to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (an open affront to Palestinians and Arab countries)–he suddenly reverted to a version of the old American approach of encouraging a two-state peace. In Saudi Arabia Trump went native, did the sword dance restricted to men, and looked on while Saudi royal family members made donations to Ivanka Trump’s foundation dwarfing anything for which candidate Trump lambasted the Clinton foundation in the last election.
In the Middle East Trump remained silent on human rights–a major issue in the region. Indeed, he participated in an odd séance with a lighted globe and the Saudi king and Egyptian military president, in both of whose nations human rights are threatened. Trump has recently chummed up to the Philippine president who is carrying out an active pogrom in his country. Combined with actions on the European portion of the trip, Mr. Trump cozies up to dictators while castigating democracies.
China also has a problem with human rights, and it, too, has benefitted from a Trump flip flop. Denounced consistently is Iran, which has just re-elected a moderate president and exhibits signs of improvement. There the United States has conceded the Iranians are keeping their side of a bargain on nuclear developments, and is “rewarding” that with plans for new sanctions. The ISIS enemy is also consistently condemned though there most would agree.
Trump’s line on North Korea is aggressive, matching the irrationality of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. There is no reason to suppose this approach will lead anywhere good.
Then there is the Russian Caper. Fresh revelations about Trump officials and family members and Moscow’s manipulation of U.S. politics in the 2016 election emerged almost every day during the Trump trip, and a parade of his senior officials made their way home to deal with the fallout almost every day of the tour. The latest is that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, actually met with the Russian ambassador last December to request that he set up a Russian backchannel to afford secret communications with Moscow. The move smacks of espionage, reinforcing the impression the Russian Caper is every bit as sinister as some suspect.
Coming to the rescue, now again, is “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster (see “H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” May 17, 2017, here below), who called a press briefing (from which the Trump officials fled after half an hour, and which they refused to allow cameras) to calm the waters. While refusing to comment on “Backchannel Jared” directly, the new national security adviser sought to reassure Americans, saying, of the backchannel, “No, I would not be concerned about it.” Pressed to explain, McMaster went on, “We have backchannel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about backchannel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner.” Over the weekend Homeland Security secretary John Kelly joined McMaster in dereliction, not only repeating the total BS line that a backchannel controlled by a foreign power is completely innocuous, but asserting that what Kushner did was good for the country! (Whatever Backchannel Jared thought he was up to in this gambit it had nothing to do with the country.)
Here is the kernel of thought about the administration’s new national security machinery: backchannels from the White House to substitute for front channels through the Department of State. If you wondered how the Trumpists expected to get away with gutting the State Department, reducing it by a third in the next budget, here is the answer. The foreign policy will be run directly out of the White House, relying on backchannels. The diplomats’ role will be to explain–from the outside–the rationale for whatever Trump does. Woe to everyone who has yet to master the art of the flipflop.
Meanwhile, Hal McMaster confirms why I have given him the sobriquet “Appropriate Dereliction.” Dereliction is what McMaster has accused his forebears of–the military leaders in the Vietnam war, McMaster maintains, failed to stand up to their president when he was leading the country into the Big Muddy. Well, here we are, and for the second time McMaster has acted in public to excuse egregious behavior from the president’s inner circle. In speaking of backchannels McMaster was directly misleading–the ones he refers to are set up within the U.S. government and the communications usually transmitted by the CIA. What Backchannel Jared sought was a com link over Russian channels. That’s what you do when you need to consult on an ongoing operation and don’t want your own side to know about it. See what I mean about sinister?