Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

After two years of Trump, disorder and isolation

The first half of Donald Trump's presidency was tumultuous. There are signs the remainder will be more so

US President Donald Trump gestures as he walks to Marine One after speaking to media at the White House in Washington. AP Photo
US President Donald Trump gestures as he walks to Marine One after speaking to media at the White House in Washington. AP Photo

Foreign policy does not usually swing US politics. It attracts attention but what matters more are the economy, jobs and taxes. The price of petrol is more closely looked at by voters than the number of soldiers the country has stationed abroad. America, first.

On that note, Donald Trump has long chided against US military involvement in foreign wars. It is something his election campaign and administration has been consistent on. Having argued with his advisers about this for the past two years, his pulling of troops from Syria this week signalled there will no longer be a middle ground. So why the big fuss?

The resignations of Defence Secretary James Mattis and special envoy to Iraq and Syria Brett McGurk, go further than personal protests against the president. They show the mismatch between long-standing US policy and the current occupant of the White House is no longer tenable. The discord is becoming unmanageable.

Mr Trump's tweets are evidence of this but beyond the disagreements is a presidency surrounded by problems at home and abroad. The people who tried to implement foreign policy during the first half of Mr Trump's administration have bowed to the inevitable and given up.

The splits are numerous. The US alliance with Europe is under assault. Relationships between Mr Trump and the leaders of Germany, France, Britain and the EU are particularly fraught. The latter, as well as the likes of Mr Mattis, see Russia as the greatest threat to the western world. The US defence secretary was tired of telling allies one thing, only to see Mr Trump undermine him while softballing Vladimir Putin.

Similarly, Mr McGurk's unwillingness to sell US allies a policy that the president did not believe in finally pushed him over the edge. In quitting, Mr McGurk said his integrity could no longer survive the clash of choices he was faced with. Mr Trump was less than cordial when reacting to Mr McGurk's resignation, indicating he did not even know who he was. Dismissiveness is rarely rewarded by loyalty or respect, so expect more departures.

An abrasive style is one thing. The US role as the world's sole superpower means Mr Trump, for now at least, can get away with it. But beyond the day-to-day arguments are challenges that will dominate the second half of his first term: investigations into his election campaign and business affairs, and what looks like a coming US slowdown.

Mr Trump inherited a benign economic situation. Growth and job numbers have improved under his tenure. But the stock market gains of 2017 that he claimed sole credit for are now wiped out. The tax cut that Republicans passed under the president's administration added $779 billion to the federal deficit this year and is forecast to top $1 trillion by the next election. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by 0.25 per cent, an action Mr Trump did not want, also downgrading growth forecasts for next year. Mr Trump's anger led to him asking advisers if he could fire Fed chair Jerome Powell, who made last week's announcements.

A partial shutdown of the US government over Democrats' opposition to funding a border wall with Mexico is the biggest sign yet of the chaos in Washington under the Trump administration. It outweighs resignations, serving as a symbol of the partisanship of the most partisan US president in history.

Financial markets do not like uncertainty. Unlike foreign wars, the government inertia and stubbornness on Capitol Hill is something that Americans, including the country's most vocal Trump backers, will not ignore. The affected departments of State, Homeland Security, Transportation, Agriculture and Justice impact all Americans. Sooner or later, the anger will land at Mr Trump's door. His political gamble is that his supporters care more about the border wall than they do about government workers and services. The next week will see if he is right. He may well be. But in what is meant to be a season of goodwill Mr Trump has taken an isolated and selfish stand for his own ends.

Short-term politics often outweighs cohesion but there was nothing normal about this past week. The departure from Syria may not change the course of this presidency but the premature exits of Mr Mattis and Mr McGurk show that experienced and serious figures inside the Trump tent no longer have the stomach to swallow a policy they don't believe in.

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Read more:

Departing US envoy Brett McGurk’s legacy in Iraq and Syria

Donald Trump has destroyed America's credibility with one tweet

With James Mattis gone, the last of the grown-ups has left the Trump administration

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Updated: December 23, 2018 09:24 PM

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