The changed face of Washington
The Washington I found this month is a changed city and I am not referring to the incredible number of Starbucks coffee shops that have sprung up on every street corner of the capital city. I am talking about the politics in a city where political debate never stops.
Even for someone who lived through the polarising years of Ronald Reagan, today’s mood in Washington seems more acutely polemical than ever. Much of the debate too often takes an acrimonious turn as the focus inevitably turns to the personality and leadership of one person: US President Donald Trump. Somehow, you have the impression you are in the middle of an election campaign that refuses to go away.
US domestic and foreign policies are too often defined through the president’s persona and not through a discussion of the merits of such policies.
Some of the discussion of the administration’s policies is predictably influenced by the wide partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats. The divide seems to have grown during the last year or so.
This gap separates views on both domestic as well as foreign affairs. Americans’ attitudes on Islam, for instance, are split. A recent Pew survey indicated that 65% of Republicans asked said Islam is “more likely to encourage violence among its believers than other religions” while 69% of Democratic respondents rejected that view. On other issues, the public is divided between proponents of global involvement and those who favour domestic insularity.
In Washington this divide is reflected in the recurring comparisons of US foreign policy under Trump to that of the Obama administration.
Jim Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, complained to The Arab Weekly that “Trump basically turned Syria over to the Russians and the Iranians. There is no policy. There is no broader vision for the region.”
US disengagement preceded Trump’s election, however. Disengagement and wariness about involvement abroad have been common to all US administrations since the Vietnam War and were accelerated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Miscalculations led Barack Obama to give up on Syria, leaving a political-military void that Russia was eager to fill. Obama, with his much-flaunted “pivot” to Asia, focused almost exclusively on striking a deal with Iran, giving up quickly on Palestinian-Israeli peace-making or on listening to concerns of some of America’s traditional allies in the region.
The Trump administration introduced the restrictive notion of transactional benefits in foreign policy and the aversion to risk-taking when such benefits are not obvious. Derived from this are a short-term attention span and impatience with international complexities. This often leaves Washington watchers in the Middle East with no clue as to the United States’ long-term vision for the region.
For now, attention seems to be limited to the immediate task of fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) and making sure it does not reach American shores. The jury is still out on many of the other priorities.
The Trump administration has, for instance, shown only fluctuating interest in the security challenges facing its traditional European allies. Concerns over North Africa’s risks of instability just across the Mediterranean from Europe only exist in the realm of think-tank discussions. Adamant about showing he can do better than Obama, Trump has tried to improve ties with some regional allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two countries that had felt neglected by a Democratic administration that was too slow to draw the lessons of the ill-fated “Arab spring.”
Relying on Washington experts to explain the Middle East policies of the current administration is a fool’s errand. The majority do not seem to see through Trump’s leadership and the confused decision-making process surrounding him. Leadership divisions have come to the surface in recent weeks over the mixed signals sent by the administration over issues ranging from the Qatari crisis to North Korea. It is too early to tell if the new measures against Iran are a harbinger of a slightly different approach.
Internal disagreements are fought publicly. Trump’s open criticisms of his own secretary of state and important members of Congress are striking examples. These divisions might explain some of the hesitant and conflicting steps that have further muddled any messages the administration tried to convey to the outside world. Even those in the Arab world who share the administration’s rejection of militant Islamism and Iran’s adventurism have been confused by the seemingly improvised travel bans targeting Muslim majority countries.
The RAND Corporation’s Jeffrey Martini said he sees divisions as nothing unusual in Washington. “All US administrations have rival voices within the cabinet vying for the president’s ear,” he said.
Many others, however, see this state of affairs as deeply unsettling to the US administration in terms of policymaking as it tries, for instance, to deal with the complicated issues of the Middle East. They point to the unfilled senior foreign policy positions and the administration’s disproportionate reliance on politically inexperienced family members and military personnel to manage some of the key diplomatic and global security portfolios.
Joe Macaron, an analyst at the Arab Centre in Washington, said “Washington in the next few years might be distracted by its own political troubles at home.” As disappointing as this might be for Middle East leaders continuously seeking cues from the United States, Trump will soon be focusing on America’s next elections, if he hasn’t already.
Compared to the Reagan years, Washington has grown unprecedentedly bitter and fractious even if its taste for good coffee has tremendously improved.