Trump undermining his own government on foreign policy
Although there normally are disagreements between presidents and the people they appoint to the government bureaucracy, US President Donald Trump has taken such disagreements to a level not seen before.
Trump operates as the CEO of the Trump Company, barking out statements and orders oblivious to the consequences. This is due to his narcissistic personality as well as to his lack of understanding about how government works.
When pressed recently by an interviewer about the large number of unfilled high-ranking US State Department positions, Trump said: “The one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”
Although the final word on foreign policy does indeed rest with the president according to the US Constitution, Trump’s patent disregard for the views and advice of foreign policy professionals in the government is astounding.
Trump exhibits an inflated sense of his own judgment. During his recent trip to Asia, he announced, after briefly talking with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that he believes Putin when he said Russia did not interfere with the 2016 US presidential elections. Prominent officials inside and outside of government were shocked that a president would take the word of a former KGB officer over the findings of the US intelligence community.
Although Trump backtracked to some extent from his initial statement about Putin, he could not resist denouncing former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as “political hacks.” Never before had a US president publicly insulted intelligence professionals who spent nearly all of their careers in government service.
Brennan told CNN that to paint a picture of a benign Russian policy is not only “astounding” but “poses a peril to this country.” Clapper said the episode showed that the “Chinese and Russians think they can play him (Trump).”
Trump’s behaviour led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to convene a hearing on whether there should be a check on the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons, something that has been within the purview of presidential powers since 1945. The fact that the chairman of the committee, Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, allowed such a hearing to take place is indicative of the nervousness in Congress over Trump’s ability to start a nuclear war with North Korea.
In the Middle East, both US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis have tried to rein in Trump’s belligerent instincts and repair the damage caused by his over-the-top comments. Earlier this year, Mattis had to say publicly in Baghdad that the Americans had no designs on Iraqi oil after Trump declared that the United States should have taken Iraq’s oil in 2003 and added, half-jokingly, that perhaps “next time we will.”
Tillerson has tried to stop Trump from approving uncritically everything the Saudis are doing at home and in the region. In the Saudi-Qatari dispute, Tillerson had to urge Trump to stop tweeting his support for the Saudi position and worked to convince him that Washington has strategic interests in both countries.
More recently, Tillerson has distanced himself from Trump’s tweet blaming Iran for the missile that Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched at Riyadh. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: “We don’t have a full assessment of who is responsible” for the missile attack.
Trump has tweeted approval of the recent political shake-up in the Saudi kingdom, saying the Saudi king and crown prince “know exactly what they are doing.” Some commentators have suggested that Trump’s endorsement of the crown prince’s actions may have given Riyadh a green light to be more aggressive towards Iran and Hezbollah. Not wanting to add fuel to the fire, Mattis declined to answer a reporter’s question about the recent Saudi political moves.
Tillerson again distanced himself from Trump when, in response to the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, he called on “all parties within Lebanon and outside” to back off attempts to threaten Lebanon’s stability. Tillerson’s use of the phrase “all parties” was a signal that he meant Saudi Arabia as well as Iran.
That Trump has elicited such responses from intelligence and foreign policy professionals as well as from his own cabinet officials suggests that he is doing real damage to US foreign policy.
Not only do many foreign leaders believe they can play him by flattering his ego but his public comments and tweets reveal his simplistic view of a very complicated world. Tillerson and Mattis frequently playing clean-up after Trump suggests a foreign policy in disarray because the man at the top is impetuous and erratic. No doubt, Middle Eastern leaders have taken notice.