Still, you can play with the monkey, but you must never pull its tail
Stirring trouble abroad to cover up domestic crises won't help Trump
In the American story of Rip Van Winkle, a kindly old man in New York State heads to the woods, drinks potent gin and falls asleep for 20 years. When he went to sleep in the late 1700s, America was a colony of Great Britain and the ruler was the loathed King George III.
When Van Winkle wakes up, he discovers that the world is turned upside down. The American colonies have revolted, King George lost the war, and the great Republic known as the United States of America is born.
Imagine a Rip Van Winkle now, waking to discover that a reality TV star is president of the United States, Britain is leaving the European Union, Qatar will stage the World Cup, and the president of France is someone he’d never heard of but who spent US$30,000 (Dh111,000) on TV make-up.
Looking at American history, you would have to say that three great movements have tried to destroy the US since Van Winkle’s day. One was the secessionist rebellion known as the Confederacy. A second was fascism – the Nazis and their allies. And a third was the Soviet Union, principally Russia. Rip Van Winkle today would be astounded to find that the current president of the United States, unlike any predecessor, appears to be soft on successors to all three of those great historic enemies of his country.
But Rip Van Winkle’s story is not really about the past. It is about our inability to predict the future, based on what we know from the past. In what follows then – predictions about today’s US – you are welcome to disregard me as being as out of touch as Rip Van Winkle. But the big story of the next year will be how far Republican candidates in the November 2018 congressional elections run away from president Trump. Many are publicly disappointed (or appalled) by Mr Trump’s high-profile remarks about Russia, Confederate statues and neo-Nazis.
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All of the US House of Representatives and a third of the US Senate are up for election next year and Republican candidates are already asking one simple question: is Donald Trump good for me in my state with my voters? If the answer is no, Republicans will run away from the Trump presidency like scalded dogs.
A second prediction involves Trump administration staff. Serving the president used to be the most coveted job in America. But after high-profile firings – Priebus, Spicer, Scaramucci, Bannon – and many unfilled posts, why would any ambitious American quit his or her job to join a ship which, if not actually sinking, gives the appearance of being damaged and drifting?
Would you join a captain who has already made some top crew walk the plank and who steers the ship by means of Twitter and Fox News?
Even some relatively obscure helpers are leaving. Andy Hemming, unknown to most Americans, resigned last week. His task apparently was to find “positive” stories about the Trump presidency and circulate them to opinion-formers – a job some on Twitter felt comparable to finding penguins in the Sahara desert.
But here are two more positive predictions. The former military men – chief of staff John Kelly, national security adviser H R McMaster, defence secretary James Mattis and secretary of state Rex Tillerson – are key to the future. They represent honour, stability, selflessness in serving their country if, at times, they seem somewhat alarmed by their own president. And, another Trump bonus, Republicans in Congress and president Trump can agree on one big thing – the idea of a tax cut, and limited government. Handled well, this could be enough to unite the party next year, although how any Trump budget can be crafted to include money to build a wall with Mexico will tax the wisest minds on Capitol Hill.
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And two wild card 21st-century Rip Van Winkle predictions cannot entirely be discounted. The most troubling is a war. In 1989, president George H W Bush, a cautious, thoughtful man, invaded Panama when the abysmal behaviour of Panama’s leader, Gen Manuel Noriega, finally became unacceptable. A Panamanian opponent of Noriega said to me of the Americans: “You can play with the monkey, but you must never pull its tail.”
Noriega pulled America’s tail and unwise foreign leaders, perhaps North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, may do the same. The US military and its allies in the White House remain cautious, but American presidents have historically sought victories abroad when faced with difficulties at home. Anything is possible, even if a war on the Korean peninsula would be disastrous for all of us.
Finally, there remains one unlikely, yet plausible prediction. Donald Trump sees investigators closing in on those closest to him. He might hand out pardons like jelly beans, but he is already sliding towards being the least popular leader in North America since King George III. Pride hurt, might Trump quit? No chance. Well, as my old friend Rip Van Winkle might put it, I’m heading to the woods. Wake me up when it's over.
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