Friday, May 26, 2017

Trump abroad

"[Trump's] genius was to promote his clownishness, so that the headlines fed to the New York Post consisting of makebelieve quotes from his then mistress Marla Maples (‘Best Sex I’ve Ever Had’) became a PR platform for the licensing of his celebrated name to murky investors from Russia, China and Saudi Arabia who were looking for an American frontman." - Sidney Blumenthal, A Short History of the Trump Family London Review of Books 02/16/2017

The outline of a Trump foreign policy is coming into shape, for better or worse. He's talking up a friendlier policy with Russia. He got along well with his Saudi friends on this current trip, promising them massive arms sales to encourage them to escalate armed conflict in the Middle East, and signing up for their Sunni front against Iran and the Shi'a. He's been backing off his campaign threats against China.

He's not being so friendly to the formal allies of the United States in Europe. Maybe if Angela Merkel had kicked in another $100 million to Ivanka's foundation like their Saudi friends did, this week's meetings in Europe might have gone more smoothly.

It seems that Trump is pushing forward with the goal of weakening the EU and NATO, a goal he shares with the Russian government of Vladimir Putin. As Josh Marshall writes, "Trump’s comments clearly envision a transformed and debilitated NATO, one that is one half protection racket, one half high-dollar membership golf resort. You pay your dues or you’re out. It’s a service, not a commitment." (The Fix Is In; Nato Is Out TPM 05/25/2017)

And he recalls:

... the line the Trump braintrust was pushing last December and January, which was that they intended to pursue a plan of breaking up the EU, using a newly Brexited UK as their tool to tear it apart. This was clearly back in a period of maximal Trumpite triumphalism, when they fantasize about rolling the whole world before their ‘revolution.’

Times change; reality intrudes; compromised advisors are tossed aside.

But this cluster of signs and provocations suggests strongly that we are still in the same place, still in a position where the President of the United States is actively seeking to undermine NATO and – through different modalities and for slightly different reasons – the EU as well.

But that's not the same as saying he understands what he is doing, beyond the needs of the Trump Family Business. (And given his record in business, it's not obvious how well he understands the latter!) For instance, as Daniel Gross explains in Trump Reportedly Wants to Stop Germans From Selling So Many Cars Here, Where They’re Made Slate 05/25/2017:

Donald Trump had some tough words for the Germans at the NATO summit in Belgium on Thursday. “The Germans are bad, very bad,” he reportedly told Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Union. “Look at the millions of cars that they’re selling in the USA. Horrible. We’re gonna stop that.”

It is certainly true that Germany runs a big trade surplus with the world and with the United States. (Last year, the U.S. trade deficit with Germany was nearly $65 billion.) But Trump can’t stop the German cars from coming in to the U.S. because, to a large degree, they’re already here. See, it turns out that many “foreign” cars are actually made in the U.S. while many “American” cars are made in Canada and Mexico. That’s how globalization works today.

Some antiwar advocates are looking at the Trump Administration still for hopeful signs of less interventionist inclinations. And we may see some actions by Trump that actually are conducive to a more peaceful world. As Trump's current Secretary of Energy Rick Perry famously said of Trump, even a stopped clock is right once a day. (More literally: Rick Perry: ‘A Broken Clock Is Right Once A Day’ TPM 09/03/2015)

Nat Perry offers a version of this in Dems Still Blaming Others for Trump Consortium News 05/08/2017:

In discussing Trump’s approach to Syria, Clinton said she supported the recent U.S. missile strike targeting a Syrian airfield, but nevertheless complained that it was too limited in scope and perhaps may have even been coordinated with Russia in order to keep East-West tensions under control.

“I am not convinced that it really made much of a difference, and I don’t know what kind of potentially backroom deals were made with the Russians,” Clinton told Amanpour. “There’s a lot that we don’t really yet fully know about what was part of that strike. And if after all it was a one-off effort, it’s not going to have much of an effect.”

In other words, Trump erred not by firing 59 cruise missiles against Syria, which violated international law and resulted in numerous civilian casualties, but by limiting the scope of this attack. The clear implication is that if Clinton were president, it would not have been “a one-off effort,” and probably would not have been done in consultation with Russia.

Instead, Clinton would likely be making U.S. intervention in Syria a centerpiece of her foreign policy, and would show little concern over how this might spiral out of control in terms of ratcheting up tensions – or all-out military confrontation – with nuclear-armed Russia.
This is an important point. But it's also notable that he's criticizing Clinton for supporting something that Trump has done.

And however desirable big shifts in policy may be, like a less confrontational posture toward Russia, or some large change in NATO, are also difficult to pull off. And Donald Trump and his foreign policy team has yet to show they can do far less difficult things right.

As Paul Pillar writes of the Trump-Saudi anti-Iran stance, "Coming to believe one’s own rhetoric is a common fault. To the extent that the Trump administration starts making policy based on the belief that Iran really is the root of all security problems in the Middle East, the result will be policy that is misinformed and thus misdirected and ineffective." (Costs of the Clenched Fist The National Interest 05/24/2017) And the same is likely to be true in Trump's foreign policy across the board.

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