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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Trump won't advance a coherent foreign policy through constant disruption and personal volatility

This was the week that Donald Trump was meant to counter the impressions created by the release of Fire and Fury. It didn't quite work out that way, writes Hussein Ibish

Donald Trump pictured on Friday. Andrew Harnik / AP
Donald Trump pictured on Friday. Andrew Harnik / AP

From the outset of the Donald Trump presidency a year ago, I’ve argued that the biggest challenge it might pose to US foreign policy stems from unpredictability. Particularly in volatile regions such as the Middle East, beset by self-styled “revolutionary” forces such as Islamist terrorist groups or Iran and Hizbollah and their proxies, Washington’s role as a status quo power and guarantor of international stability is fundamentally inconsistent with uncertainty and impulsivity.

The publication last week of Michael Wolff’s sensationalist but informative White House exposé, Fire and Fury, kicked off another American argument about Mr Trump’s fitness for office and the functionality of his White House. The book painted a relentless but entirely convincing portrait of a president who neither knows nor cares about most policy issues, either doesn’t or can’t read beyond headlines involving himself, tends to agree with the last person he has spoken with, and searches only for the latest “win” in what amounts to a reality TV show in which every day is a new episode.

That’s hardly an image to inspire confidence or instil fear either at home or abroad.

So, this week began with a public relations exercise designed to dispel that image. It was, at best, a wash.

Mr Trump hosted an hour-long “negotiation” about immigration policy with lawmakers from both parties. On the one hand, he seemed affable and collected. On the other, he seemed not to recall his own policies and had to be pulled back from the brink of endorsing a Democratic plan by panicked Republican representatives.

Shortly after the meeting, he reversed many of the positions he had apparently taken regarding his purported flexibility.

This week, Mr Trump also threatened to attack free speech rights; pushed his allies in Congress to interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the last election; denounced the US legal system as “broken” because of a ruling he didn’t like; and resumed his bitter criticism of his own FBI. On Thursday, he seemed profoundly confused about pending legislation, denouncing on Twitter a foreign surveillance authorisation his administration backs before reversing himself yet again and endorsing it.

On foreign policy, Mr Trump claimed to have “a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un,” the North Korean leader with whom he usually trades highly personalised insults. He used a joint press conference with the Norwegian prime minister to resume his attacks on Hillary Clinton and call for the jailing of his enemies. Then he reportedly employed exceptionally vulgar language to denounce US allies in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean while calling, in explicitly racist terms, for more European immigrants to the United States from, for example, Norway.

In other words, a week that was crafted to refute the worst impressions created by Fire and Fury only reinforced and amplified them.

Over the past year, Mr Trump has been restrained by many factors, including the ongoing power of American institutions and the fact that many of his cabinet officials don’t agree with him, from realising many of his most potentially damaging campaign vows. He abandoned the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but those hadn’t been implemented yet. The real disruption may yet be brewing.

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While the North American Free Trade Agreement is still being renegotiated, it is certainly staring up at the axe.

Mr Trump has again avoided wrecking the Iran nuclear deal by continuing sanctions relief for Tehran, but insists he will abandon it soon unless it's renegotiated. There’s still every danger that his coming moves on the issue could play directly into the hands of Iranian hardliners.

Yet despite his tough talk, Mr Trump is doing precious little to block the expansion of Iranian interests in the Middle East. Indeed, his administration has said nothing about a new joint Russian-Syrian offensive in so-called “de-confliction zones” in Syria, which can clearly only strengthen the regional hand of Iran. The reality is that Mr Trump’s administration is no more engaged helping shape the outcome of the most strategically consequential conflict in the Middle East than Barack Obama’s was.

Mr Trump may not agree with, or perhaps even understand, this but Washington’s global role is fundamentally that of a stabilising force safeguarding the status quo. Disruption, volatility, and lurching from thought to thought, apparently at random, cannot advance that goal except in the rarest of circumstances.

The administration’s recently released National Security Strategy vividly illustrated the tension between traditional American policy goals and methods, most of which remain indispensable for both Washington and its allies, and Mr. Trump’s own inchoate and ill-defined “America first” agenda.

Combined with his own evident volatility, deep-seeded prejudices, anger and resentment, and profound ignorance of, and disinterest in, almost all policy questions, a degree of confusion and uncertainty about US policy is virtually inevitable. What, for example, precisely is Washington’s policy towards Jerusalem, following Mr Trump’s recent statement on that issue? No one can be sure.

Mr Wolff’s book now seems, if anything, understated.

Mr Trump may enjoy chaos and keeping opponents off balance. But this approach cannot serve the US national interest or those of Washington’s closest allies.