The Trump conundrum

Abdel-Moneim Said
Wednesday 29 Aug 2018

The policies of US President Donald Trump are not as confused or inconsistent as they are sometimes made out to be, but have an internal logic of their own

Not a day goes by without an incident sparking new questions about US President Donald Trump, many of them urgent ones involving critical and far-reaching issues concerning not just the US but the entire world.

Is Trump going to wage war against Iran? There are videos on YouTube predicting how such a war could unfold, the weapons that could be deployed, the sites that could be targeted and the potential Iranian reactions.

Will Trump be forced out of office as a result of developments in cases against his lawyer Michael Cohen and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort?

Will the indictments and the legal rulings boost the investigations regarding Russian meddling in the US presidential elections in 2016?

Or will Trump remain untouched because these cases have their own procedural frameworks and the political, legal and constitutional conditions are not ripe for impeachment?

The Republican Party has no intention of losing control of the White House, regardless of what many Republicans may feel about the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Constitutionally, it requires two-thirds of both houses of Congress in the US to impeach a president, and such a vote can only be taken after a lengthy process of investigations and hearings.

A large number of both Republicans and Democrats need to be prepared to pursue Trump through a legal maze in order to expel him from office.

While most analysts agree about the nature of Trump’s personality, he remains a difficult person to predict. His path to the White House was extraordinary, and his relations with all portions of the US establishment, from Congress to government departments and the US intelligence community, remain shaky.

Nevertheless, there are certain points about Trump we can be sure about.

First, the loyalty of his grassroots base remains unwaveringly loyal. Nothing seems able to dent its faith in Trump, whether the allegations made against him regarding cohabitation with porn stars or his crooked path to the White House, as long as “America first” tops the agenda, the economy stays strong and the US stays out of foreign wars.

Second, Trump has acted on his promises, the general thrust of which has been to undermine and diminish American liberalism at home and abroad.

Third, contrary to the general impression, there is a method behind his actions, whether this is informed by his career as a businessman or by an isolationist, ultra-nationalist or “white nationalist” ideology that wants to keep the US above the rest of the world.

These three factors have combined to shape a kind of strategic thinking that may perplex US and other Western observers, but that has a certain logical coherence of its own when approached from a perspective unblinkered by the widespread liberal biases of the Western elites who have ensured their dominance over past two decades.

These were present during the presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s as much as they were during those of George W Bush and Barack Obama, regardless of whether the dominant ideology in Washington was liberal or neo-conservative.

Looking at Trump in terms of the three points above, his domestic and foreign policies become more comprehensible and pack no surprises.

With every passing day and every new tweet, he takes another swipe at the liberal eastern establishment in the US and unfetters the American economy by slashing taxes, regulations and red tape.

His foreign policy has been epitomised by the North Korean experience, which began with threats of volcanic wrath and cataclysmic destruction against Pyongyang and ended with a summit in Singapore and a deal in which North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and the US agreed to reduce its military presence in South Korea.

Between those two points, various third parties came into play, including South Korea, which is keen to sign a peace treaty with its northern neighbour, and China, which wants neither a nuclear North Korea nor a heavy American presence in its vicinity.

Syria offers another example of Trump’s foreign policy. His actions here began with escalations and increases in the US military presence in the country until the Islamic State (IS) group was defeated.

Then Washington began to reduce its troops and withdraw, leaving it to Russia to navigate the turbulent waters between Turkey, Iran, Israel and the Al-Assad regime, while remaining mindful of certain red lines: no chemical weapons, no jeopardising of Israeli security and no jeopardising of the Kurdish forces in Syria which would nevertheless have to give up their ambitions for an independent state.

Trump’s policy towards Iran appears more complicated because it is still in its initial phases. It is at this point that Trump is most given to brinksmanship.

He might threaten to use massive force or to encourage every form of opposition in order to bring down the Iranian regime.

However, he does not want to become embroiled in a war. Instead, he wants to strike a deal that will ensure the destruction of the Iranian nuclear capacities, even if these were already prohibited under the previous agreement from evolving into military capacities, the consequence of which would be well-known: their destruction through direct US and Israeli military intervention.

However, Trump also wants Iran to stay away from Israel more generally and to withdraw from Syria by reducing its armed forces there.

He also wants it to limit its use of the Lebanese group Hizbullah in both Syria and Lebanon, to curb its regional expansion from Iraq to Yemen, and to stop supporting terrorism across the region.

In return, the Iranian regime will be suffered to survive, much like the communist regime in North Korea. As for the third parties in this process, Europe in particular, they are to play the role of intermediaries and problem-solvers who can eliminate obstacles to the deal.

US relations with Moscow are more complex, and regardless of the poor state of the economy Russia is still the US’s main nuclear and military rival and perhaps also serves as a kind of geo-strategic brake on China, the US’s number one economic rival at present.

Regardless of whether Trump owes the Russians a favour for their meddling in the 2016 US elections, he does not want US relations with Moscow to be governed by the biases the CIA has had since the Cold War. He made this clear in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Instead, he wants to strike a historic strategic agreement with Russia. In order to do so, Trump is prepared to give Moscow a greater lead in reaching a solution to the Syrian crisis within the framework of the above-mentioned conditions.

Moreover, he has no objection to a deal over the Russian presence in Georgia and Crimea.

However, the agreement would not end there. In exchange, Moscow would need to lend its support to US efforts to promote a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict and keep oil prices low so as not to jeopardise the shale oil industry in the US, though not so low as to harm the interests of US allies in the Middle East.

Russia may also be expected to use its influence to convince Iran and Turkey that there are limits to their use of force and that expansionist Iranian or Turkish designs in the region do not serve Russia’s interests.

However delicate things might appear for Trump at present, he will remain in power at least until the end of his first term.

Meanwhile, his policies are not as confused or as inconsistent as they are sometimes made out to be. They are just not accepted by his political adversaries, who lost the 2016 elections and want a world different to the one that Trump wants.

* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Trump conundrum

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