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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

What the Tillerson-Trump tensions mean for the Middle East

There are plenty of takeaways from recent frictions in DC, not the least of them for the Gulf, writes Hussein Ibish

Many commentators speculate that secretary of state Rex Tillerson won't be packing his bags any time soon. AP
Many commentators speculate that secretary of state Rex Tillerson won't be packing his bags any time soon. AP

Rumours of tensions between Donald Trump and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson were confirmed, rather than dispelled, by the latter's extraordinary press conference last week in which he denied that he’s considering resigning.

Mr Trump, in turn, expressed "total confidence" in his top diplomat. Mr Tillerson didn’t deny calling Mr Trump a "moron”, though his spokesperson insists he “does not use that type of language”. That leaves only the precise wording still unknown.

Many commentators have concluded Mr Tillerson won't stay much longer. If personal and political differences were the decisive factors, as in any normal government, that would be correct, but Mr Trump's administration doesn't obey the laws of either classical or quantum political mechanics.

If it did, Jeff Sessions wouldn't still be the attorney general. Instead, it's all driven by the whims of a leader who can most charitably be described as impulsive and mercurial, and hence fundamentally unreadable.

So, while it's very hard to know where Mr Trump's caprices and "instincts" will take him and us all next, there’s no particular reason to think Mr Tillerson is, in fact, going anywhere.

To the contrary, the two seem, at least for now, stuck together. Mr Tillerson can't go back to Exxon Mobil, and it's not clear what he'd do after leaving office other than retire. Mr Trump can't keep hemorrhaging senior officials. And what other plausible figure would accept the position, especially after what Mr Tillerson and the others have been through?

No matter how bad the personal and policy differences between the two might seem, the current arrangement actually suits both.

So, while nothing is ever predictable, let alone logical, in the Trump era, Mr Tillerson probably isn't packing his bags.

Some in the Gulf have developed a pronounced aversion to Mr Tillerson, but even if he's forced out or storms off, that won't necessarily promote better policies. And it would certainly intensify the atmosphere of instability and chaos at the White House.

Dissatisfaction with Mr Tillerson is understandable for many reasons, but the appropriate response isn't to imprudently ignore him or the state department, or pointlessly hope for his removal. Instead, US allies would be well advised to focus on a broad and institutional approach to gaining influence in Washington.

Even within the executive branch in any administration, it's not just a matter of dealing with the right people in the White House, including the president. Even there, one deals with endless feuding factions.

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But many powerful departments and agencies, beginning with the mighty Pentagon and including numerous others, have their own institutional cultures, imperatives and interests. And, of course, their own infighting cabals. Sometimes a really effective president can successfully overrule his own subordinates, but that's surprisingly rare.

And then there's Congress. In theory, the legislature has a limited role in foreign policy. But, in fact, US allies need congressional support to get what they want most of the time.A good example was the recent cut in aid to Egypt. Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Egypt's president, has a strong personal relationship with Mr Trump, who has lavishly praised him. Cairo and its friends were, therefore, stunned when, in August, the administration cited human rights in cutting US$100 million (Dh368 million) in US support for Egypt and withholding another $195 million pending improvements.

Mr Trump's personal goodwill towards Mr El Sisi appears sincere, but wasn't decisive. Elements in his own administration were determined to punish Egypt, particularly regarding a restrictive new NGO law that Washington warned Cairo against. Moreover, the administration sought to forestall a looming and far larger congressional aid cut.

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Beyond the executive and legislative branches of government, which includes most of the policy-making apparatus, lies a large and diverse, but highly influential, and in many subtle ways also powerful, policy-framing community.

This includes a wide spectrum of media, think tanks, academic institutions, lobbies, single-issue pressure groups and civil society organisations.

The US government was designed to be lobbied. The first amendment to the constitution prohibits congress from abridging "the right of the people...to petition the government for a redress of grievances." In practice, that means lobbying and, in every other legal way, trying to influence law and policy.

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Kurds need to combine diplomacy, strategy and persistence to advance their cause

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Small but passionate and empowered minorities can even ensure the continuation of policies, like the Cuba embargo that pointlessly persisted for decades, or the ongoing lack of sensible firearm regulations, that majorities disagree with but don’t prioritise.

Whether Mr Tillerson stays or goes isn't likely to have much impact on Mr Trump's foreign policies. And Gulf countries should recognise that no matter how much some people may like Mr Trump or dislike Mr Tillerson, neither man nor any other individual or small group – not even a president – holds the keys to American foreign policy.

Instead, it's formed over time by a complex web of interconnected inputs, a wide range of institutions and groups that, together, constitute a system which is open, constantly in flux, and beyond anyone's ability to truly control.

The secret of American foreign policy is that there is no secret.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

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