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Sunday, February 19, 2017

The rogue superpower has the whole world reeling

by digby

The white house staff on November 9, 2016

On the morning of November 9th I wrote this for Salon:
We wake up today to a fundamentally different world than the one in which we woke up yesterday. The nation our allies looked to as the guarantor of global security will now be led by a pathologically dishonest, unqualified, inexperienced, temperamental, ignorant flimflam man. Things will never be the same. And we have no idea at the moment exactly what form this change is going to take, which makes this all very, very frightening.

The scariest thing you'll read this week-end is by foreign affairs expert Robin Wright in the New Yorker:
When I was five, I almost drowned after stepping into the deep end of a lake. I can still recall the terror, my small arms flailing toward the sunlight above the water, my legs kicking in all directions to find ground. A month into the Trump Presidency, that image haunts me as an apt metaphor for both the Trump Administration’s foreign policy and the gasping-for-breath fear among many old hands watching it play out.

“Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” General Tony Thomas, who heads the United States Special Operations Command, remarked at a military conference in Maryland this week. “I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war.”

The President is increasingly bewildering or worrying friends and foes alike. Longstanding allies now publicly chide America. On Thursday, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called the Trump Administration’s policy on the volatile Middle East “very confusing and worrying.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel—who has become the de-facto spokesperson for the West’s liberal democracies since Trump took office—rebuked his “America First” policy this week. “No country can solve the problems alone; joint action is more important,” she said.

Even the Russians began complaining as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held their first talks in Europe this week. On Friday, the prominent Russian senator Alexey Pushkov tweeted about the contradictory messages coming from the White House. “Trump hopes to make a deal with Russia. Mattis thinks (in vain) that he can put pressure ‘from a position of strength’. Tillerson is playing a 2nd Kerry,” he wrote, referring to John Kerry, the Secretary of State under President Obama. “Three lines from 1 administration.”

Trump’s baffling foreign policy is a central focus of the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend. Top officials from almost fifty countries—including Mattis and Vice-President Mike Pence—are attending the three-day event, which is the premier global forum on security policy. The preparatory report—written by an international team as the official “conversation starter”—uses stark language about the new American President. “The worries are that Trump will embark on a foreign policy based on superficial quick wins, zero-sum games, and mostly bilateral transactions—and that he may ignore the value of international order building, steady alliances, and strategic thinking,” it says. “Or, maybe worse, that he sees foreign and security policy as a game to be used whenever he needs distractions for domestic political purposes.” The report, “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” adds candidly, “What is uncertain is how Trump’s core beliefs will translate into policy (and whether policies will be coherent).”

In an ominous introductory note, the conference’s chairman, Wolfgang Ischinger, a widely respected former German Ambassador to Washington, warns of the dangers to global order if the United States reneges on international commitments and pursues a more unilateralist and nationalistic agenda. He writes, “We may, then, be on the brink of a post-Western age, one in which non-Western actors are shaping international affairs, often in parallel or even to the detriment of precisely those multilateral frameworks that have formed the bedrock of the liberal international order since 1945. Are we entering a post-order world?”

The Trump Administration’s policies vary, literally, by the day, often on the biggest issues. On Wednesday, the President backed away from longstanding support by both Republicans and Democrats for secure but separate Israeli and Palestinian states. “I am looking at two-state, and one-state—and I like the one that both parties like,” he said at a press conference with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. A day later, Nikki Haley, his Ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York, “We absolutely support a two-state solution.”

In December, President-elect Trump affronted China by talking directly to Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, in the first such high-level contact since Washington severed ties with Taiwan, in 1979. China views Taiwan as a renegade breakaway province, and its leaders could not have been pleased when Trump’s aides reported that Trump and Taiwan’s President spoke about “close economic, political, and security ties” between the two countries. Trump’s unorthodox conversation was followed by his surprise declaration, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last month, that “everything is under negotiation, including ‘One China,’ “ another break from policy, in this case dating to Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing, forty-four years ago. Trump has long been tough on China, charging it with everything from currency manipulation to fostering the idea of climate change as a hoax to benefit its industries. But then, last week, Trump abruptly reversed course during a call with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, when he pledged to honor the “One China” policy.

On Russia, Trump is really floundering. During the campaign and into his Presidency, he has been consistent on one thing: improving relations with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. “If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” he reiterated at his press conference on Thursday, despite a series of Russian provocations presumably meant to test the new Administration—a spy ship travelling up and down the East Coast, Russian fighter jets buzzing a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea, and a ballistic-missile test interpreted by experts as a violation of arms accords.

Asked about these events at his press conference Thursday, Trump described all three actions as “not good,” but neither condemned them nor said whether he planned to take action. I was in Moscow last week, and the analysts I met clearly thought Russia had gained an edge over the United States since Trump moved into the Oval Office.

Even more worrying, Trump still has no strategic depth in his foreign-policy team; most top offices are still empty. Following the resignation of Michael Flynn as the national-security adviser, after only twenty-four days in the job, Trump offered the pivotal position to Robert Harward. Harward is a retired vice-admiral, Navy SEAL, and counterterrorism expert who—unlike most of the Trump team—has experience in policymaking, too. He worked on George W. Bush’s National Security Council. But on Thursday Harward turned down the job. He cited “personal reasons” to the Associated Press, but CNN’s Jake Tapper quoted Harward telling a friend that the offer was a “shit sandwich”—a suicide mission, in the language of the Special Forces—given the White House turmoil.

At his stream-of-consciousness press conference, Trump said he was “so beautifully represented” in foreign policy by his “fantastic” Secretary of State. But Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of Exxon-Mobil, so far appears to be marginalized by Trump’s inner circle of ideologues and family members, notably chief strategist Steve Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. As Trump hosted the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, at the White House last week, Politico’s Daily Playbook reported that Tillerson was dining with his wife at Washington’s Al Dente restaurant.

Tillerson, a diplomatic neophyte who has no policymaking experience, has struggled just to win approval for his choices at the State Department, where not a single senior position has been filled—much less confirmed, which itself is a time-consuming process. Trump turned down Elliott Abrams, who was Tillerson’s pick as his deputy, reportedly because Abrams criticized Trump during the campaign. The State Department hasn’t held a press briefing in a month. A diplomat mused to me this week, “We’re in uncharted territory.”

Tillerson made his decidedly low-key début, on Thursday, at a meeting in Bonn with foreign ministers of the so-called Group of Twenty, or G-20. He was there for listening sessions, and most of those were short. Despite mounting international concern about North Korea’s ballistic-missile test this month, the South Korean Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-Se, was allocated only twenty-five minutes. Tillerson held no press conferences. His main meeting was with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, who got an hour, and afterward Tillerson’s only comment was to read a bland five-sentence statement.

In contrast, Condoleezza Rice’s maiden trip as Secretary of State, in 2005, was a weeklong sweep through Europe and the Middle East, hitting London, Berlin, Warsaw, Ankara, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Rome, Vatican City, Paris, Brussels, and Luxembourg City. She took a full press entourage and briefed reporters along the way.

Inside the diplomatic corps there is a low-level revolt, one that has been gaining momentum since some thousand State Department staffers signed a formal letter of dissent about the White House travel ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. Some have already laid the groundwork to react to a new executive order that the President said he would introduce next week, which will be tailored to address the objections of various courts that blocked the original order.

On Wednesday, five former Ambassadors to Israel, who have served both Republican and Democratic Presidents, sent a joint letter to every member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urging its members to reject Trump’s appointment of David Friedman as the top envoy to Israel. Friedman is “unqualified for the job” based on his “extreme, radical positions,” the letter says. The five Ambassadors are among a list of legendary career diplomats—Thomas Pickering, Daniel Kurtzer, Edward Walker, James Cunningham, and William Harrop—who have served in the State Department.

The world is taking note. As the Guardian reported this week, “It has been hard to disguise the gap between the department headquarters at Washington’s Foggy Bottom and the White House where far-reaching foreign policy decisions are being made.” The newspaper said that Tillerson was “out of the loop” and noted that State Department officials are so excluded from policy that they “have resorted to asking foreign diplomats, who now have better access to President Trump’s immediate circle of advisers, what new decisions are imminent.”

Trump seems to have an affinity for strongmen, and has spoken often of his respect for autocratic leaders such as Putin and the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. But one of the more unusual analyses I’ve heard about Trump came from a U.S.-educated Iranian analyst. He compared Trump to the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both graduated from prominent schools, “but they’re not well-read,” he told me. “They’re both hard-liners who came out of nowhere politically. They have narcissistic self-confidence but short attention spans. They rely on their inner instincts and tight inner circles. And they move quickly to show toughness, but act rather than think.”

This is the biggest problem we face with Trump, folks. He's a nightmare in every way, of course. But this could blow up the world. It's not a joke. And virtually everyone in government from leakers in the Intelligence community to the agencies to congress to the White House itself know it. The only people who are turning a blind eye are the sick and twisted Republican traitors who see an opportunity to fulfill their evil bucket list.