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.
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.
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.
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:
- New mechanisms for “dialogue”
- A “100-day” trade plan that looks like something from his predecessor
- 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.
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.