Business As Usual, And Missed Opportunities: The Trump Record So Far

Entering office amid a whirlwind of promises of real change, Donald Trump’s actions thus far have fallen far short of the lavish promises that were used to seduce parts of the electorate.  We’ve seen this movie many times before:  presidents Clinton and Obama both promised everything yet delivered very little when it came to improving the lives of the average citizen at the end of the day.  The wealthy elites and the special interests never had it so good, of course.  An so far, it looks like it will be the same story with the Trump administration.

Syria 

The first–and most startling–example of breached campaign promises was the complete volte-face with regard to the Syrian conflict.  Readers will recall that the US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Jordan) have been pushing for regime change in Damascus through the use of its proxy Islamist rebel forces in the country.  Syria has been torn apart by these schemes; the secular Damascus government has been able to thwart them by calling on its own allies (Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Russia) to provide a counterweight to the US-backed aggression.  With the recent fall of the key city of Aleppo, it was clear that Damascus was on a trajectory to impose its will militarily on the rebels.

Of course, this outcome could not be accepted by the US and its allies, who had invested so much blood and treasure in the war.  From their perspective, it was vital to have something to show for all the carnage.  Regime change is–and remains–the cornerstone of US policy in the region; its goal is to re-shape the region with a network of client regimes (e.g., little Jordans) that do its bidding and are willing to open their economies up to exploitation by Israeli and Western corporations.  It is not often realized that the US’s goal is not just to ensure that Israel is ringed by weak, pliable states, unable to project any power.  The goals go beyond this.  The ultimate prize is to have access to cheap pools of labor in neighboring Arab states, and to integrate their economies into Israel’s.  This was the main reason why the Syrian-Israeli peace talks in the 1990s always failed:  Israel would constantly insist on linking military “peace” with the economic “opening” of Syrian society.

President Trump’s actions have now made it clear that he is just as committed to regime change as his predecessors have been.  It would have been unrealistic and naive to expect anything different, of course. The Arabs have been betrayed so many times by broken US presidential promises (going back to Jimmy Carter) that the whole thing has become almost a grotesque joke.   The immediate pretext this time was the alleged use of “chemical weapons” by the Syrian Army.  If it had not been this, there would have been some other pretext, of course.  Trump has now stated–contrary to all his earlier statements–that he now is in favor of regime change.  There are now three possible outcomes:

1.  Trump is angling for an advantageous position at the negotiating table with Russia and Iran.  Under this theory, Trump at least recognizes that his country is unwilling to accept a greater military role in the region, and that he has to make some kind of face-saving deal.  Missile strikes and other token military actions are part of this attempt to exert pressure at the conference table, much like the US used against North Vietnam in 1972-1973 at the Paris Peace Talks.  What would the outlines of such a deal look like?  There might be the possibility of a transitional government that allows Bashar Al-Assad to remain in place until elections could be held at some point in the future.  Foreign military forces would have to leave the country, and a possible semi-independent Kurdish zone set up in the north.

The problem with this outcome is that most of the players do not want it.  Saudi Arabi and Turkey have expended a huge amount of money and prestige to dethrone Bashar Al-Assad and will not accept a situation that allows him to remain there.  The same could be said for Russia:  Vladimir Putin is not a fool and has little trust in Washington’s promises at this point.  Iran needs Syria as a conduit to support its allies in Lebanon, and knows the real stakes.  If Iran allows Syria to fall into the Western orbit, they know that they are next on the chopping block.

2.  The second option is that the US continues to do what it has been doing for five years:  proceed with covert (and not so covert) attempts at regime change.  This means more supplying the rebels with money and arms; more surveillance flights; more drone strikes; more media propaganda (e.g., White Helmets, Bana Alabed, etc.); and more death.  The goal will be to try to wear down Damascus by attrition and hope for some future collapse.

3.  The third option is that the US pushes overtly for a military solution to the conflict by intervening more directly.  This could take the form of an invasion by US forces in Jordan, the dropping of large airborne forces in the regions outside Damascus, or perhaps encouraging the Turkish Army to invade from the north.  If this happens, the situation would settle into precisely what Iraq was in the early 2000s, or Lebanon was in the 1980s:  guerrilla warfare.  It is doubtful that the US public would support such a policy; but one cannot underestimate the recklessness and callousness of the current American leadership elements.

Business as usual

Whichever of these three options is pursued, there can be no denying the fact that Trump is just as committed to regime change as his predecessors have been, all the way back to the 1980s when the West supported Islamist militants in an effort to overthrow Hafez Al-Assad.  The policy has not changed at all in thirty years, nor will it change as long as a government in Damascus exists that refuses to be subservient to Washington and its allies.

China

President Trump’s recent trip to China did not get as much attention as it deserved, but here again the same pattern is apparent.  Tough talk is followed up by toothless action, or simply by the same old policies of the past.  We need to see exactly what happened at Trump’s recent summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping.  Readers will recall that Trump has been bombastically stating that he will “get tough” with China, that he will make them change their behavior, and similar such statements.  He has also stated that he is at the end of his patience with regard to North Korea and its own behavior.  So it will be edifying to see what he did when he met the Chinese leader.

During and after the meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Trump never touched the subjects of Chinese currency manipulation, unfair trade practices, product dumping, and intellectual property theft.  He confined himself to boilerplate blandishments:  “We’ve made tremendous progress in our relationship with China.” Trump failed to perceive that China, for all its economic power, is sensitive to public criticism.  It cares very much how it is perceived; lacking military power to project abroad, it must rely on its “soft power” to get what it wants.  Trump essentially missed a golden opportunity to apply some meaningful pressure to China.  This could have been done in a polite but firm way; diplomacy is the art of inserting the blade while maintaining the smiles and pleasantries.

Rather than talk tough on Twitter or lob missiles at desert bases in Syria, Trump had a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to the Chinese Dragon that he was not a paper tiger.  Instead, the perception from the summit was that he is precisely that.  What did Trump get for his silence?  Some cosmetic concessions that look very much like something Obama would have gotten:

  1.  New mechanisms for “dialogue”
  2.  A “100-day” trade plan that looks like something from his predecessor
  3.  Some other cosmetic trade deals

The bottom line is that there is nothing here that comes even close to what is needed to fix the US-Chinese trade problems.  What we have is more of the same.  Even worse, Beijing now is aware that they are dealing with a blusterer, a man of straw, a man who talks big but who lacks any real sense of consistent principle.  This perception began when Trump publicly–and foolishly–objected to the “One China” policy by getting between Taiwan and Beijing.  This is sore point for China and sent Beijing into a rage.  Trump then backed away from his statements, demonstrating a level of amateurism and volatility troubling in a head of state.

More of the same routine

If Trump’s “secret intention” in attacking Syria was to send a message to China that he is about to “get tough” on North Korea, then he is seriously deluded.  The US has in fact very few options with regard to North Korea.  China has spent a great deal of money and men over the decades in propping up the depraved dictatorship in Pyongyang.  It sees this rogue state as a useful pit-bull with which to antagonize the US.  It is not going to “rein in” its ally.  It will never allow a reunified Korea that puts US military bases on its norther border.  For the foreseeable future, stalemate is the only rational option in Northeast Asia, and everyone knows it (or should know it).  North Korea is not Syria, and will lash out militarily if attacked.  So Trump’s bluster in this regard is pointless.  It is never a good idea to threaten something that you cannot follow through on.

The US’s enemies are now aware that they are dealing with an emotional, volatile, and ill-informed president who neither reads nor has traveled, someone who can be worn down with the patient application of pressure.  Eastern peoples (Arabs, Persians, and Chinese) are masters at this kind of game. Westerners are usually not, especially not a man with Trump’s character.

7 thoughts on “Business As Usual, And Missed Opportunities: The Trump Record So Far

  1. I believe you’re right Quintus; it goes without saying: the historical maturity of these Eastern civilisations as to how they position themselves with (or against) other powers ought to be studied.

    In their eyes, the United States is just another temporary empire on the stage of world history.

    I’m worried, but I’m not going to loose sleep over the world’s current situation. My optimism is just too great to fail.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think when Trump started out, and even when he won, he believed in what he said. Then he became a part of the US government. That bureaucracy is far too large for one man to change. There are far too many war-mongers, war-profiteers, and other assorted ilk in there. Far too many people, special interests, and political machinations. Instead of draining the swamp and having a positive affect, it seems that the US government instead reversed that and had a negative effect on Trump. Hence the current state.

    It seems we have now moved past the stage where one man can change something for the better. Let us hope that people like Bannon, Mattis, and maybe Tillerson, can keep things from spilling out into all out war.

    On that subject, I can understand what the first three allies can get out of a destabilized Syria, but what would Jordan gain? As far as I know, Jordan is also a secular type rule with a lot more tolerance for other religions than the normal Arab approach. Syria going to religious type rule will only hinder them, and put their heads on the chopping block for radical Islamist regime change. Or did the US tell them to tow the party line and that is what’s happening?

    And when it comes to war with Syria, hasn’t anyone learned from Iraq, Libya, or Afghanistan? Yeah, they get puppet states that do their bidding, but is the complete chaos that descends upon the region and subsequently Europe worth it? Are these people morons who like to play games with other countries as a form of political one-upmanship? None of this stuff makes any sort of sense.

    Looks like it’s going to be Tulsi Gabbard or Rand Paul for 2020. Though I don’t hold hopes that they will get anything done either.

    Have a blessed Easter Quintus, and thank you for your continuing writings that bring thought and clarity to the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 1) I am not american. But in foreign policy he was contradictory from the beginning. I remember he said that he did not want to get into syria, he also said that he want to be best friend with Israel, and that the Obama administration had left Israel alone, and he want to repeal the Iran deal. Well I am sorry to tell you but Assad is friend of Iran who is an enemy of Israel. What he is doing now is not exac treason. If you dont see it or chose not to see, It`s your problem.
    2) In trade policy is complete treason. On the other hand, a trade war with china can have terrible consequences. My prediction: He would bully small countries like Mexico, and will try to resuscitate the TPP to isolate china.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve followed some of your posts from ROK, and quite frankly I’m finally glad to find someone who isn’t a Trump fanboy.
    I agree with you on Syria. And quite frankly, Russia won’t let down for another reason: I suspect they still have designs on Old Constantinople. First the Ottoman Turks, then the French and Brits, now the Americans are encroaching on their sphere of influence. I doubt Putin the old KGB agent will back down.

    And there’s something worth mentioning. Hillary is still free after the email server scandal. And what’s more disturbing, the influence his son in law and daughter are having on him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Rocko. I’ve always believed that for a leader, character and public service experience are paramount. This was the entire reason behind the “cursus honorum” of the Romans. This was why a man had to prove himself in a series of offices: military service, quaestor, aedile, praetor, etc. The idea was that only men of proven worth could become consul. Charlatans, frauds, and demagogues would be sifted out and exposed.
      Unfortunately, this ethic has been abandoned today. And now we see the results.
      A people get the leaders they deserve. And the sad truth is that in America of 2017, showmanship and con artistry are valued more than true leadership.
      The price of all this is going to be paid in due course.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s