Weak and getting weaker
President Trump said Saturday en route to Asia that
the reason our stock market is so successful is because of me. I’ve always been great with money, I’ve always been great with jobs, that’s what I do.
None of the these claims are true. Job and economic growth under Trump has been a bit slower than they were s under Obama, not faster. The previous presidency is a major factor in any first 6-10 months of any subsequent presidency, so you can blame that on Obama if you like, but there is no credit due to Trump on both grounds. The stock market is up sharply since Trump’s election, but I’ll only give him credit for that if he takes responsibility for when it falls. The factors determining stock prices are obviously unknown. Trump’s aggressive efforts to eliminate Obamacare and environmental regulations may be part of the story, but the inevitable fall may well erase current gains. Then Trump will no doubt stay silent, or blame Congress and the Democrats.
A president who thinks he determines stock prices is a president unaware of the limits on his power. But we knew that. His tweets this week suggested that the sentence handed down to a soldier who pleaded guilty to desertion was inadequate and that the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in New York City should get the death penalty. The judge in the soldier’s case made clear that it was a previous over-reaching presidential tweet that got the soldier off without prison time. No doubt the courts handling the terrorism case will eliminate consideration of the death penalty for the same reason.
Trump has likewise managed to be counterproductive in other areas as well. The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is his biggest legislative debacle. The failure to pass his proposed tax cut for business and the rich will be the next. It is likely he will head into the second year of his presidency with no serious legislative accomplishments. His executive actions eliminating environmental and other regulations will be his main achievements, dubious as they may be. They certainly will not bring back coal, as he has repeatedly promised both as candidate and president, but they will still dirty the air Americans breath and the water in the nation’s streams and rivers, not to mention hasten the impact of global warming.
The story is similar in foreign policy, where a president in theory wields more unconstrained power, but Trump has managed to cripple himself by eviscerating the State Department and trying to do everything himself:
Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has undermined the American position in Asia, where the president will visit for the next 10 days. He is demanding that Russia and China help in stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, something he has given neither one much reason to do. His bravado talk of how strong America is in front of our troops in Japan contrasts sharply with his inability to counter North Korea in any meaningful way, including militarily. No doubt he will pronounce his meetings with Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin great successes, but the fact remains that neither is willing to do much to restrain Pyongyang.
The President has talked a strong line against Iran but done little or nothing to limit its rise. His decertification of the Iran nuclear deal has so far had no consequences, because everyone understands that we are far better off with the deal than without it. The only serious concerns about it are its “sunset” (expiration) and access to Iranian military sites. To get fixed, both these issues will require major concessions from the US that Trump will be unwilling to make. Trump has done nothing against Iran’s surrogate, Hizbollah, in Syria. Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation strengthens Hizbollah’s position there. Not to mention that the war against the Houthis in Yemen is not going well. Iran is far stronger regionally than it was when Trump took office.
The one country in which Trump seems to have a serious impact is Saudi Arabia. His appeal to the Saudis to stop terrorist financing led to Riyadh’s blockade of Qatar, driving it closer to Iran and splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. That is not the Washington’s advantage. Now he seems to have greenlighted the Kingdom’s crackdown on corruption, leading to the arrest of princes uncomfortable with the meteoric rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Kingdom knows how to turn every phone call from the President into an instrument of royal advantage.
The net effect is clear: the US is weak and getting weaker. This will no doubt continue so long as the president fails to understand the limits on his power.
Both Pakistan and the US have options
In August, US President Trump announced a new plan concerning Afghanistan that included a harsh stance on Pakistan, accusing the country of protecting terrorists and threatening to limit financial support. On October 11, the Middle East Institute hosted a panel titled “Where Are U.S.-Pakistan Relations Headed?” to explore Pakistan’s reaction to the plan, the interests of the US and Pakistan in Afghanistan, US policy options, and predictions for the future of US-Pakistan relations. The event featured Daniel Markey and Joshua White of Johns Hopkins University, Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council, and Moeed Yusuf of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute moderated.
Pakistan has reacted mainly by working to create ties with other states in case its relations with the US worsen, while also making efforts to maintain its relations with the US. Nawaz pointed to recent visits of members of the Pakistani government to Washington as maintenance efforts. Efforts to diversify include Pakistan’s strengthening of relations with Russia and Saudi Arabia, and finding alternatives to the benefits it currently receives from the US, such as military support, by looking to countries such as China and Russia to provide equipment.
Yusuf categorized general Pakistani reactions and viewpoints into three camps: one perspective questions the utility of engaging with the US, since the US seems to be intentionally siding with India to “undercut” Pakistan. Another advocates for engagement with the US because of the extent to which Pakistan is dependent on it. A third camp views the US as completely in control of relations between the two countries, suggesting that there are limited options available to Pakistan.
Markey viewed Pakistan’s approach as a sort of negotiation, in which Pakistan is actively pursuing further details on the plan and its possible impacts, and exploring ways in which it can meet US demands in a way that would allow Pakistan to continue pursuing its own agenda.
The clear tension and divisions between the US and Pakistan prompted Weinbaum to ask the panelists whether the two countries have similar interests in Afghanistan and what their respective desired outcomes are. While it may appear that the US and Pakistan have converging interests, such as restoration of stability, the panelists agreed that such a convergence is superficial or limited at best.
White explained that Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan, and particularly in terms of positive outcomes, are unclear, a point that Pakistan’s lack of strong players in Afghanistan supports. Yusuf mentioned two points of divergence: Pakistan and the US define stability in Afghanistan differently, with Pakistan insisting that India’s absence would be necessary, and the US advocating for an Indian role. The second point of divergence is Pakistan’s view that Afghanistan is becoming the site of a cold war dynamic with Pakistan and China on one side, and the US and India on another, leading to the assumption that the US is using this dynamic “to undermine Chinese influence.”
Most significantly, Markey pointed to a divergence in how the two countries see Pakistan’s overall role in the US Afghanistan strategy. Pakistan has wanted the US to eventually “outsource” its Afghanistan strategy to Islamabad, while US intentions have been quite the opposite: containing Pakistan’s power and limiting its control, ultimately facilitating the achievement of US goals.
The panelists turned to assessing current US policies and future options with regards to Pakistan. One of the administration’s current tactics is to make clear to Pakistan that it would be more beneficial to the US to cease the relationship than to maintain it, according to White. The US is also working to include other parties, such as its NATO allies, in its Afghanistan strategy. A limitation on US actions is its inability to compel Pakistan militarily, as its current policies prevent it from targeting Taliban militants. Markey noted that the US seems “predisposed” to pursuing compulsion as a strategy and that it has been doing that through actions such as threatening to revoke Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.
Markey made three main policy recommendations: that the US clarify its goals, that it anticipate Pakistani reactions and plan accordingly, and that it include other countries in the region when studying how policies will affect Afghanistan, suggesting that actions that the US takes in Afghanistan necessarily affect Pakistan and its other neighbors.
Adding a Pakistani perspective, Nawaz stated that Pakistan does not have the same power as the US, particularly in terms of its troops, but it does have its own options should the US exert pressure. One such option is Pakistan’s ability to close its airspace, which is strategic to the US and would force it to resort to other, less convenient routes. Taking this into account, Nawaz reiterated that the US should also be considering other regional actors in its Afghanistan policies, should be aware that Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan each have elections upcoming, and that it should broaden its options, suggesting that it should consider Iran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Yusuf criticized the US approach to Pakistan as a whole. Compulsion, threats, and other such tactics have all been unsuccessfully employed in the past. There is no reason, therefore, to believe that conditions have changed enough to make this approach successful today. Yusuf reemphasized the importance of having clear messages, plans, and strategies and urged the US to ensure that its demands of Pakistan are realistic and doable in order to engage Pakistan in the restabilization of Afghanistan.
Hypotheticals emerged multiple times throughout the event, with panelists’ analyses dependent on whether or not certain conditions prove to be true in the coming months and years. Thus, the difficulty of predicting the future of US-Pakistan relations and how this relationship will affect Afghanistan was clear. Both countries need to prepare for a variety of scenarios that include other allies and partnerships. Any outcome will have a profound effect not only on Pakistan and the US role in Afghanistan but on many other countries in the region and beyond.
Big nuclear danger ahead
Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA safeguards inspector, writes:
The nuclear threat is at a historical high. The North Korean crisis and US President Trump’s intention to decertify the Iran Nuclear deal are the tip of the iceberg.
Neither the Treaty on Non Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), nor the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards inspectorate nor numerous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions could stop the world’s nuclear race in recent decades. The number of countries possessing nuclear weapons (NW) increased from five, which are the recognized nuclear weapon states and permanent members of the UNSC, to allegedly nine.
While the rationale for developing and deploying of NW has always been national security through deterrence, hence war prevention, the prospects for maintaining global peace are thinner than ever before.
Just to mention some of the risk factors related to the major nuclear threat:
- There are currently about 15,000 nuclear warheads in the arsenals of 9 countries (about 14,000 of them possessed by Russia and the US), capable of devastating our globe many times. Additionally, the nuclear material stored under various security conditions in civil and military facilities around the world is estimated to be sufficient to produce 240,000 nuclear devices. As of end 2016, about 204,000 of these are under IAEA safeguards.
- The NPT is not applied universally. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are not parties to the treaty, thus not legally obliged to its restrictions.
- The majority of states in the international community are disappointed in NW states for not fulfilling their NPT commitments on nuclear disarmament (NPT Art. VI)
- The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the continuing North Korean crisis, and the up to 15 years limited Iran deal have revealed glaring non-proliferation shortcomings.
- The failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference in New York indicated clearly the international community’s distrust in a fair (without double standards) enforcement of international nuclear law.
- In July 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted by a vast majority a NW Ban Treaty. It is a legally binding instrument towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons that will enter into force after 50 signatures and ratifications.
- The 2017 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to ICAN, a worldwide coalition of NGOs campaigning against NW. Notably, the same award was given in 2005 to the IAEA’s staff and Director General, basically for the Agency’s unbiased and courageous statements failed to deter the invasion of Iraq.
In such an adverse nuclear climate there are two leaders with a finger on the button, Kim Yong-un and Donald Trump, who according to prevailing assessments have dubious nuclear decision capability. This is the fact that creates the highest current risk of major nuclear threat.
Regarding the tough responsibilities of a US president to decide on pushing the nuclear button in a matter of minutes, with no checks and balances by Congress or anyone else, Bob Woodward recalls (The Washington Post, 12 Nov 2016): «In 2008, after then-President-elect Obama was given one sensitive intelligence briefing at a secure facility in Chicago he joked, “It’s good that there are bars on the windows here because if there weren’t, I might be jumping out.”
A historic period not only for US contemporary politics but for the direction of global developments might prove to be the period 15 October to 15 December 2017. President Trump will apparently submit in the next few days to Congress for approval his decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Congress will either approve it or send it back with no action, for the president to implement, or not.
A unilateral decision to scrap the deal would mean that the US would not keep its commitments under an agreement reached not only with Iran but with China, Russia, UK, France and Germany and finally adopted by the EU and endorsed by the UNSC Resolution 2231 on 20 July 2015. Moreover, decertifying the Iran deal will mean that the US disrespects and disagrees with the assessments of the responsible UN organization, the IAEA, that Iran is in compliance with the agreement since implementation day 16 January 2016.
Such a decision will open Pandora’s box. Some negative consequences are obvious. It will cloud Iran’s nuclear and political future, worsen the North Korea crisis, degrade political and economic relations of the US with the other five agreement parties and the EU, and increase the international community’s distrust of the UN system, international law, and justice. It will also severely damage the authority of the world’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.
Mitigation and finally elimination of the highest risk factor related to the current major nuclear threat is the topmost task in any comprehensive nuclear security plan. It is therefore now a chief challenge to get the US to preserve global peace, in accordance with its leadership responsibilities.
What to do about aid to Syria
My colleague and friend Geoff Aronson argues that
- Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies are not only winning the war in Syria but will gain from participating in the country’s reconstruction;
- The U.S. and Europe should not refuse reconstruction assistance in an effort to encourage regime change but should instead pitch in.
This perspective is mistaken on factual, political, and moral grounds.
Both Russia and Iran, while welcome in Syria, lack the at least $200 billion Syria requires for reconstruction and have told Damascus so. They will no doubt ante up something in an effort to ensure Assad stays in power and is beholden to them, but their contributions will fall far short of even the minimum needs.
Assad has made it clear that only friendly states will be welcome. For the moment, that seems to mean China as well as Russia and Iran. But is China willing to pay the bills Russia and Iran cannot? The gains to Beijing from doing so are not at all clear, since Syria has limited oil and gas resources, much of which remain for now outside the government’s control.
Let’s assume that the U.S. had a few billion for Syria, beyond the $6.5 billion or so it has already spent on humanitarian relief there. How precisely would we force Assad to take the money, when he has made it clear we are not welcome?
Bottom line: Assad is going to fall far short of what he needs without U.S. and European contributions, which he does not want.
The politics in Europe and the United States:
What would the U.S. and Europeans gain from providing the massive assistance Syria needs, either bilaterally or more likely through the World Bank and IMF? Assad has made it clear not only that we are not welcome in Syria but that he will not be interested in realigning Syria with the West. He intends to remain tightly tied to Iran, which is the big regional winner from the Syrian war.
The politics in the U.S. are inhospitable to foreign aid in general and even more negative with respect to Assad, whose accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity is apparent. It can of course be argued that Assad is a reality we need to accept, but that is quite different from putting cash in his pocket, especially as ever dime would be a dime less Assad needs to get from Iran, Russia, or China.
In Europe, things are a bit different, because some Europeans will want to be able to send refugees back to Syria. Assad will tell them he can only accept them back if Europe pays to reconstruct their houses. But we know that reconstruction in Syria so far has been done on a strictly political basis: the only things that get rebuilt are things that enhance Assad’s political control. Even humanitarian assistance has been channeled to Assad supporters, not to civilians in opposition-controlled areas. Let the donors beware.
Bottom line: It isn’t going to be possible to follow Geoff’s advice, and if we did we would be enhancing Assad’s hold on power.
The politics in Syria
Geoff is confident that withholding aid will not bring down Assad. My experience in post-war situations is that it is difficult to predict what might happen. Ask Winston Churchill whether the fruits of victory include staying in power.
Of course Assad will not make the mistake of holding free and fair elections. But he shows every sign of making the mistake of trying to restore the dictatorship to the status quo ante, after having killed several hundred thousand of the country’s citizens. Will Syrians related to those killed, deprived of the resources needed for reconstruction, and used to governing themselves for the last few years tolerate the restoration of the dictatorship? I don’t know, but I don’t know how Geoff knows either.
Bottom line: Assad is far from secure and no one should assume he will remain in power.
What should we do?
We should not be ungenerous. We should continue humanitarian aid to the refugees in neighboring countries but end it for those who live in Syria in areas controlled by Assad. Humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to areas that remain outside Assad’s control and are governed in inclusive ways is the right course of action. If Syrians start seeing some successful governance outside the control of the dictatorship, there is no telling how clever they might be in getting some for themselves. Even if they don’t, the money won’t be wasted supporting a brutal, anti-American dictatorship.
Peace picks October 2 – 6
- All Jihad is Local: Lessons from ISIS in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula | Monday, October 2 | 12:15 – 1:45 pm | New America | Register Here | In “All Jihad is Local: Inside ISIS Recruitment in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula”, a forthcoming paper from New America, Nate Rosenblatt and David Sterman examine thousands of ISIS’ own entry records, finding that ISIS benefitted from different factors that enabled its mobilization of fighters in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to providing the first subnational examination of ISIS recruitment in these regions based on ISIS’ own records, the paper argues that addressing terrorist recruitment will require moving from asking “what theory explains why people become terrorists” to asking “where does a theory explain why people become terrorists.” To discuss these issues and present initial findings from the forthcoming report, New America welcomes the authors of the report: Nate Rosenblatt, a fellow with New America’s International Security program, Oxford doctoral student, an independent Middle East/North Africa consultant, who has lived, worked, and conducted field research in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates and David Sterman, a policy analyst with New America’s International Security program. New America also welcomes Douglas Ollivant, ASU Future of War Senior Fellow at New America. He is a managing partner of the strategic consulting firm Mantid International, a retired Army officer, and was Director for Iraq at the National Security Council during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
- Defense Cooperation in the West Pacific: Countering Chinese and North Korean Threats | Monday, October 6 | 12:00 – 2:00 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The western Pacific faces growing threats from a rising China and an increasingly bellicose North Korea. American policy is in the midst of change and Japan, too, is responding to the rise in regional tensions. Exactly what is the threat? What are the options for addressing it? What possibilities exist for greater cooperation? On October 2, Hudson Institute will host a distinguished panel of experts to examine these and related questions in light of growing challenges to regional and national security. Seth Cropsey, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower, will moderate a discussion with Richard D. Fisher, Jr. of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, Paul Giarra of Global Strategies & Transformation, Jun Isomura of Hudson Institute, and Kanji Ishimaru of ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd.
- Russia: Time to Contain? | Tuesday, October 3 | 6:00 – 8:00 pm | McCain Institute for International Leadership | Register Here | Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has become an increasingly authoritarian regime that also flexes its muscles aggressively abroad, most notably in Ukraine and Syria. Indeed, Putin’s Russia has invaded neighboring states; imprisoned, poisoned or killed government opponents and critics; increasingly violated its own population’s human rights; and launched unprecedented interference into other countries’ elections and internal affairs. The challenges facing the Trump administration when it comes to dealing with Putin’s Russia are mounting. What should the U.S. strategy be toward Russia? Hear leading experts debate “Russia: Time for Containment?” – the latest in the Debate and Decision Series at the McCain Institute. Joining the panel are Evelyn N. Farkas of the Atlantic Council and NBC/MSNBC, Thomas Graham of Kissinger Associates, David J. Kramer of the McCain Institute and Florida International University, and Matthew Rojansky of the Woodrow Wilson Center. The event will be moderated by Elise Labott of CNN. The first 100 guests to register for this debate will receive a free copy of “Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime” by David Kramer.
- What Path Forward for Libya? | Thursday, October 5 | 1:30 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Libya occupies a sensitive position for the security of Arab and European neighbors, including many U.S. allies, and in managing the region’s destabilizing migration flows. The country’s fractious politics and armed insurgencies are depriving Libyans of security, basic services, and economic stability, and leave the country vulnerable to jihadi terrorism. The United Nations has proposed a roadmap for rethinking the embattled government of national accord and binding Libya’s rival parliaments and militia commander Khalifa Haftar into the negotiation of a consensus path forward. The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to present a two-panel symposium that will examine opportunities for the United States and the international community to advance Libya’s security and mobilize to meet the humanitarian challenges. The first panel, titled “How Can the International Community Promote Libya’s Stability and Security” features H.E. Wafa Bugaighis of the Embassy of Libya to the United States, Nigel Lea of GardaWorld Federal Services, Inc., Jason Pack of the US-Libya Business Association, Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and will be moderated by Jonathan Winer of the Middle East Institute. The second panel, titled “ Improving Humanitarian Relief and Advancing Development” will include Tamim Baiou, a development & international relations advisor, Maria do Valle Ribeiro, United Nations deputy special representative, humanitarian & development coordinator in Libya, Jean-Louis Romanet Perroux of the EU Delegation to Libya, Hasan Tuluy of the World Bank, and will be moderated by James Bays of Al Jazeera English.
- Sixteen Years and Counting in Afghanistan: What’s Next for America’s Longest War? | Thursday, October 5 | 10:30 am – 12:00 pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register Here | October marks 16 years since a U.S.-led troop mission entered Afghanistan to eliminate sanctuaries for al-Qaeda and to remove its Taliban hosts from power. Those initial goals were achieved fairly quickly, and yet more than a decade and a half later, American soldiers are still in Afghanistan fighting a seemingly unending war. This event will address how we got to where we are today; what the best and worst policies would be moving forward; whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy can turn the tide of such a long and complicated war, and what the regional ramifications of this strategy could be — particularly in terms of implications for India and Pakistan. Panelists include Hamdullah Mohib, Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States, Christopher Kolenda of the Center for a New American Security, Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation, and Shamila Chaudhary of Johns Hopkins SAIS. The event will be moderated by Abraham Denmark of the Wilson Center.
- Middle East Crises and Conflicts – The Way Ahead | Thursday, October 5 | 1:00 – 2:30 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | With ISIS potentially nearing battlefield defeat, and the six-year civil war in Syria at least temporarily easing, it may be tempting to assume concerns in the Middle East are waning. In reality, both Iraq and Syria still have serious challenges ahead—among them, managing the huge displacements of populations. Elsewhere, conflicts persist. Libya has struggled in the years after Gadhafi, and while internal conflict may have diminished somewhat there lately, competing leaders and groups still struggle over power. Saudi Arabia is enjoying generally good relations with the Trump administration, but remains bogged down in a bloody conflict in Yemen that has contributed to some of the planet’s worst food and health tragedies. On October 5, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings will host an event examining the crises across the Middle East and North Africa. Panelists include Brookings experts John Allen, Daniel Byman, Mara Karlin, and Federica Saini Fasanotti. Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings senior fellow, will moderate the discussion.
- Iraq After the Kurdistan Referendum: What Next? | Thursday, October 5 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The fight against ISIS helped to bring parts of Iraq’s deeply fractured society closer together, but that fragile unity is now under pressure. While the Kurds are expected to vote in a historic popular referendum on September 25 to pursue independence, the lack of political inclusion and security for Sunni Arabs—which facilitated ISIS’s rapid expansion—remains unsolved. Meanwhile, Iran’s growing influence in Baghdad and its support of militias throughout Iraq has added to the sectarian divide and the country’s political dysfunction. On October 5, Hudson Institute will host a panel discussion on the implications of the referendum and the way forward. Hudson Senior Fellows Eric Brown and Jonas Parello-Plesner, having recently returned from Kurdistan, will examine how the scheduled referendum is likely to impact stability and political reconstruction after ISIS, as well as discussions both between Erbil and Baghdad and among Kurdistan, Turkey, and Iran, which all have independent interests in the referendum’s outcome. Hudson Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent visited Mosul after it was liberated from ISIS and will assess Iran’s positions and influence throughout Iraq and what it means for unity and for U.S. national interests.
Bluster/distract/cave won’t work
Donald Trump’s much-vaunted negotiating skills have produced virtually nothing in the past eight months of his singularly unproductive presidency. What do we know about his approach to negotiating? How is it working?
Trump’s first stage is bluster: locked and loaded, fire and fury. He threatens the worst possible outcome for his opponent, ignoring the implications for himself and his country. He has done this not only with North Korea, but also with the repeal of Obamacare (watch out! it’s collapsing!) and the budget ceiling (I’ll close down the government unless I get my wall!). Not to mention the nuclear deal with Iran (the worst deal ever!). This bluster attracts a lot of media attention, but it ignores what is crucial in negotiation: your own alternative to a negotiated agreement.
Then Trump quickly tacks in a different direction, before it is apparent that bluster isn’t working. Anything else will do, so long as it distracts from the main item he has put on the agenda. A hurricane will serve the purpose, as will a campaign trip to North Dakota or some other domestic political distraction like the competence of Speaker Ryan or Senate majority leader McConnell. The more bizarre the distraction, the better, since its purpose is to make the original issue evaporate, a bit like the magician’s use of distraction to make a rabbit disappear.
Then Trump caves on the original issue. He did this yesterday at the UN Security Council, accepting a resolution that falls far short of his announced goal of ending trade with North Korea, but only after taking advantage of the distraction caused by Hurricane Irma.
He is getting ready to do something similar with the Iran nuclear deal: he may claim that Iran is not complying (bluster) and throw the issue to the Congress (distraction), but he won’t withdraw from the deal (that’s the caving) because he knows by now it is better than no deal (that’s what the Israelis and Saudis are telling him). Instead, he’ll do something I think is quite sensible: focus on Iranian (mis)behavior in the Middle East, which is a real and growing problem.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) got this treatment. Trump feinted about withdrawal, then allowed months of distractions and ended up with a renegotiation the Canadians and Mexicans were happy to engage in, because they’ve got complaints about the current decades-old agreement as well. He did not do this with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which he simply withdrew. But that story may not be over yet. I suspect the US will eventually find its way back in, if the countries of the region want to continue the process.
There are of course things Trump just doesn’t like, so the bluster is real. The climate change treaty is one of those, though the recent storms seem to be making some Republicans think maybe we need to do something to reduce their likelihood, even if they don’t agree on human causation. I won’t be surprised if Trump, who once supported action on climate change as a businessman, changes his mind as well.
How is bluster/distract/cave working? Well enough domestically for Trump to retain his core support. But internationally it is a disaster. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you, is the general rule in international affairs. Watch the Russians, who are reacting vigorously against a president they once thought they owned. The Chinese aren’t likely to be friendly about it either. Trump is going to find himself where he did in the real estate business: a creditor only third tier institutions and individuals will do business with. It is no accident that he gets praise from people whose governance is notoriously corrupt.
Bluster/distract/cave won’t work on serious people, who learn quickly that all they really need to do is wait Trump out, so long as they have a decent alternative to a negotiated agreement.