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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 August 2018

For all the critique, Trump's presidency has amplified debate about America's place in the world

With equal parts sabre-rattling and seduction, this combination has so far failed to curb bad behaviour, writes Nick March

US President Donald Trump greets the crowd during a campaign rally in Florida this week. Saul Loeb / AFP
US President Donald Trump greets the crowd during a campaign rally in Florida this week. Saul Loeb / AFP

For all the many doubters of the current US president, there has been at least one unexpected bounty of the Donald Trump years. Like the arrival of other disruptive politicians before him, from Indian chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, his election has prompted an amplification in debate about America’s place in the world.

We live in interesting times. This is a period when one minute Mr Trump is warning Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s second-term president, that if he threatened the safety of the US his country would “suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before”.

US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Florida. Saul Loeb / AFP
US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Florida. Saul Loeb / AFP

The next, Mr Trump is saying he would happily meet Mr Rouhani any time he wanted to in an attempt to forge a new political settlement. The US president said there would be “no preconditions” for such talks, saying: “If they want to meet, I’ll meet”.

This, of course, is only months after he ripped up the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, angering some of its signatories.

As fanciful as the offer of talks sounds, it is the same strategy Mr Trump used to cajole the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table in Singapore earlier this year. By turns, the US president belittled his adversary by labelling him "little rocket man" and then said he’d like to sit down with him and have a burger while the pair discussed the future.

The eventual meeting between the two produced a broad declaration of intent to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. The soothing mood music that surrounded the Singapore summit quickly gave way to scepticism and then, on Tuesday, to the news that North Korea appears to have put out the “business as usual” bunting and is reported to be developing new ballistic missiles once more – news that surprises no one, given the vagueness of the original deal.

Mr Trump’s persistent reasoning behind ripping up the Iran accord was that no deal was better than a bad deal, which was a line of thinking that was received favourably in this region, where there is deep understanding that Iran’s influence and strategic thinking is malign and destructive.

As The National reported this week, a UN report has found that Houthi factions in Yemen continue to use ballistic missiles that bear the hallmarks of Iranian weaponry and expertise. If Mr Trump’s formula is equal parts sabre-rattling and seduction, this chemistry has so far failed to curb bad behaviour.

The US president inverted his own logic with North Korea – where any deal constituted a good deal – only to reach the same destination as he is at with Iran: continued bad behaviour from those with whom he seeks to engage.

All of Mr Trump’s actions have consequences and have also produced another, perhaps, more expected by-product: a frenzied uptick in the publication of books that attempt to decode the interesting times we live in.

This week it was announced that Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear Trump in the White House, will be released on September 11. The author promises an inside-the-Oval-Office account of the tough lives of White House staff.

It will appear only months after Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, another warts-and-all telling of the Trump years, that was reported to have infuriated the US president and former FBI director James Comey’s damning memoir, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Loyalty.

It’s doubtful any of the above would make Mr Trump’s summer reading list, although another of those tell-all insider accounts, Sean Spicer’s The Briefing, was launched this week and might be more to the president’s liking.

The former White House press secretary reserves only praise for the “rock star” occupant of the Oval Office. Mr Spicer’s thunder may, however, soon be stolen by Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the former reality TV star and Trump aide, whose own book, Unhinged, is released later this month. It promises a less charitable assessment.

Unusually, a better place to unpick the Trump years since his 2016 election win might be the coda of an airport bookshop thriller. James Patterson’s newest release, The President is Missing, is co-written with Bill Clinton and delivers the sort of narrative that has allowed the former to sell more than 300 million books over the years. It’s hard to know how much of a co-production this was; the structure and pacing seem very Patterson, although what little political detail is spilt on the pages seems somehow invested with greater importance, given the provenance of his co-author.

Former president Bill Clinton promoting 'The President is Missing'. Bebeto Matthews / AP
Former president Bill Clinton promoting 'The President is Missing'. Bebeto Matthews / AP

Towards the end of what is rarely less than a ripping yarn of deceit, cyber warfare, deal-making and collusion – The National's reviewer Ben East recently described the book as a “guilty pleasure” and “surprisingly good” – Patterson’s fictional president offers up a prescription for the future of the US: “Our democracy cannot survive its current downward drift into tribalism, extremism and seething resentment … our willingness to believe the worst about everyone outside our own bubble is growing, and our ability to solve problems and seize opportunities is shrinking. We have to do better.”

It is an astute observation, one that presumably comes straight from Mr Clinton. It also gives a perspective on the Trump administration: the drumbeats of division beat ever louder, just as the US president appears predisposed to seize unexpected opportunities.

A vendor holds an American flag. Zack Wittman / Bloomberg
A vendor holds an American flag. Zack Wittman / Bloomberg

Finding lasting solutions, on the other hand, remains elusive. Without doubt, he has to do better – an addiction to quick-hit deal-making can only carry you so far – but so could we all in our assessment of the rollercoaster Trump years.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief of The National

US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Florida. Zack Wittman / Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Florida. Zack Wittman / Bloomberg

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