Dangerous games?

Tewfick Aclimandos
Thursday 19 Apr 2018

What best explains US President Donald Trump’s contradictory messages on the Syrian crisis, culminating in his decision to bomb Syrian targets this week

For many observers, the scenario is quite a simple one. US President Donald Trump is a dangerous fellow addicted to making harsh and bombastic statements on Twitter that will eventually bring disaster. Fortunately, some wiser guys, many of them from the military, surround him.

However, he is incorrigible, and the situation has been growing more and more dangerous, especially as former US ambassador John Bolton, the most hawkish of diplomats, has now joined Trump’s team.

This narrative might be true. However, we should consider other explanations. Trump may more or less know what he is doing. Stating this does not mean that what he is doing is right. “Stupidity or madness” may be the explanation behind Trump’s actions – but then again it may not. I am not a specialist in US affairs, and I am no expert on business circles.

However, from discussions with French friends and with an Egyptian journalist who knows these circles, I am tempted by the conclusion that Trump is behaving as many top tycoons often do. He is addicted to power, brutality and surprises.

Raw power is real power, but commercial wars are among the fiercest wars, and in such wars there is no transparency. It is better to keep your opponents confused.

I am not saying that the political scene is softer or sweeter than the economic one. It is true that in the Western democracies a political career is not as dangerous as one elsewhere. Nevertheless, the competition is fierce, the dirty tricks frequent, and politicians will try to kill their competitors’ careers.

However, they also try to hide this brutality. They are accountable to public opinion, which imposes some limits. Business tycoons may be accountable to their shareholders, but they feel they owe nothing to the workers and staff they hire who are simply expendable.

Moreover, on the international scene the rule of law is an absolute necessity. Of course, all the players will try to cheat if there is no cost to be paid. However, war, especially today, must be prevented as far as possible.

At the very least, it should be kept under control. The economic jungle is not lawless – far from it. However, globalisation provides today’s top tycoons with resources and opportunities not to abide by laws they do not like.

Some tycoons may be successful populists. This may sound paradoxical, but I wonder whether Trump’s appeal to his voters may not lie in the subliminal message that he is inflicting on the establishment and international partners a dose of their own medicine. “They say you are the losers.I am telling them that they are the losers,” Trump might be imagined as saying. “They treated you harshly, and I am exacting revenge.”

The pundits say that US Defence Secretary James Mattis is very competent and a master of damage control. However, Mattis was appointed by Trump. Perhaps Trump is engaging in the “good cop/bad cop” formula, something that has many virtues as it keeps everyone guessing who is in charge and what will happen next.

Trump can say what pleases to the voters, while letting Mattis avoid any serious consequences. Therefore, all the bravado costs nothing. Or does it? Of course not – being unpredictable might be an asset against your foes, but it also alienates your allies. Some damage – on environmental issues, for instance – may be beyond repair.

Sometimes I wonder whether we could compare Trump’s expected “deal of the century” to a hostile takeover in business? It looks like something conceived to corner everybody.

There will be no negotiations, or only very quick ones. I may be overplaying my hand, but I find the usual explanation for Trump’s behaviour unsatisfactory. Therefore, I am looking for another one.

Pundits explain the events in Syria using the usual scheme. Trump, moved by populist considerations, said he would withdraw US troops from Syria.

This infuriated the Pentagon and emboldened Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to use chemical weapons in Douma outside Damascus. The idea was to expel opponents to the regime from near the capital by terrorising them.

Trump then overreacted. Fortunately, Mattis was there to keep the president in line, and his views prevailed. This might be an accurate version of what happened.

However, some cannot but ask themselves whether Trump’s tweet on a retreat from Syria was intended to blackmail Saudi Arabia. Perhaps it was meant to placate the Turks. To say it was a mistake is one thing. To say it was nonsensical is quite another.

It is not necessary to be familiar with the details to find some clues.

First, we should be aware that Western establishments are angry at Russia’s behaviour on the international scene, especially its meddling in Western elections.

They have a tendency to consider Russia as a thuggish country that is boxing above its weight. They are also upset by Russia’s disregard for international norms, which encourages its clients and allies to do the same.

The use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, they say, as it sets a very dangerous precedent.

The bombing of Syria by the Western powers is thus meant to send the message that we cannot tolerate that, even from a country protected by a nuclear power. It is also meant to say do not write us off, as we are still major players.

The message targets Al-Assad, of course, but it is also sent to Tehran and Moscow. It is intended to calm the fears of Washington’s allies.

Nevertheless, it is also mixed: the bombing was meant to minimise the risks of escalation, and I have read comments on the Websites of various think tanks regretting the time when Western establishments were more aware of the nuclear threat, this reining in their actions.

This time has gone, though it could quickly come back with a vengeance. This analysis is both right and wrong: Russia could opt for a nuclear escalation, but a safer option would be the launching of an asymmetrical war.

The new US defence strategy considers competition with both Russia and China to be the major threat to US national security, not terrorism. Recent events tend to prove that Washington sees all international issues through these lenses.

Finally, some words on ethics. In the Syrian crisis, there are no good ethical options. All choices are bad ones, but some are worse than others. This is a very sad story. With every new day, with every turn of events, I consider the Egyptian position to be the lesser evil.

This holds that it is urgent to stop the bloodshed and that this should be the first priority.

This means dealing with a distasteful and criminal regime. However, to raise the stakes and then do nothing, which was what former US president Barack Obama did, is, ethically speaking, worse.

The funny thing is that Obama did what he did in a bid to guarantee US moral authority.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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