Unpredictability, Confusion and Rule by Tweets


February 5, 2017

President Trump’s election campaign remarks on American foreign and security policy led to serious concern even among Washington’s closest allies. Nonetheless, they refrained from reacting in ways which could be perceived as meddling in the elections and preferred to wait and see. They were surprised by the election result. Again, they waited for Mr. Trump’s inauguration and his foreign and security policy team to assume office. Secretaries of Defense and State have now been sworn in but anxiety regarding the future does not seem to dissipate. Because, President Trump, without waiting for his team to take charge of their responsibilities and before giving them an opportunity to offer advice, has continued to challenge America’s long-standing positions in substance and in form.

Relations with Mexico are strained over the public controversy regarding the building and financing if the border wall. NAFTA’s future is uncertain. TPP is history. General Mattis, on his first day in office emphasized “United States’ unshakable commitment to NATO”. Yet, questions regarding what will follow under “America first” policy remain. The refugee ban has led to confusion and resentment in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump’s telephone conversation with Australia’s Malcom Turnbull reportedly ended “abruptly”. In a tweet the President said: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”. Instead, he could have asked the Australian Prime Minister to review his country’s much criticized attitude towards the refugees.

In response to Iran’s ballistic missile test he tweeted the following: “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!” This is a deal worked out by the P5+1 and approved by the UN Security Council.

Last Thursday, the New York Times referring to differences between statecraft and campaigning reported that the Trump administration, in stark reversals, is embracing some key pillars of the former administration’s strategy, including a warning Israel to curb settlement construction, demanding that Russia withdraw from Crimea and threatening Iran with sanctions for ballistic missile tests. It also mentioned Mr. Trump “briefly” meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan on the sidelines of the National Prayer Breakfast, an encounter that put the King ahead of Mr. Netanyahu in seeing the new president.

Actually, the statement released by the White House Press Secretary on Israeli settlements was less than a warning. Firstly, it did not mention the two-state-vision. And secondly, it said that the Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity. In the meantime, however, Jerusalem City Council approved 556 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the government announced another 5,500 housing units in West Bank settlements.

As for the readout of the President’s meeting with King Abdullah, the word “briefly” cannot escape attention.

Nobody can blame President Trump for putting America first. Every leader puts his/her country first. However, if a US president were to start his address at a NATO summit saying “America first”, this would not be well-received. Because, the Alliance brings together a group of 28 nations every one of which puts its interests first but reconciles them with the interests of others. And again, US administrations are perfectly entitled to take every lawful security measure to keep terrorists out of the country but this does not have to be accompanied by unnecessary rhetoric.

Secretary Rex Tillerson’s welcome remarks to the employees of the State Department reflected a different tune. The Secretary started by apologizing for being late. His remarks were full of praise for the Department. He stated that in the days and weeks ahead he and his colleagues at the State Department are going to have plenty of opportunity to discuss in more detail the goals, the priorities, and the strategic direction for the Department. He said:

 “I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome. Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team. Let us be understanding with each other about the times we live in as we focus our energies on our departmental goals.”

Mr. Tillerson also asked every individual who works at the State Department to observe three core principles. First, he mentioned accountability. Secondly, he said that honesty will undergird America’s foreign policy and the functioning of the State Department. And lastly, he stressed the importance of treating one another with respect. “No one will tolerate disrespect of anyone. Before we are employees of the State Department, we are human beings first. Let us extend respect to each other, especially when we may disagree” he said.

Members of the State Department should have been delighted.

A number of foreign leaders, among them President of the European Council Donald Tusk, French President Hollande, Iranian President Rouhani and German Chancellor Merkel have reacted, in varying degrees, to Mr. Trump’s statements. Middle East leaders have chosen to remain silent hoping to make a good beginning. The world appears to be waiting for statecraft to prevail over campaign rhetoric which hopefully would be the case. But in so far as diplomatic style is concerned, foreign leaders should have no illusions about Mr. Trump gradually adopting Mr. Obama’s line. They will be well-advised therefore to urge their staff, more than ever before, to engage in meticulous diplomatic groundwork before every bilateral or multilateral summit meeting which they may have with their American counterpart.

Last Friday a federal judge in Washington state temporarily blocked the enforcement of President Trump’s controversial travel ban. And yesterday, a Federal District Appeals Court rejected a request by the Justice Department to immediately restore the ban until the full case has been heard. These are inspiring developments for countries struggling for respect for the separation of powers, the judiciary and due process.

However, Mr. Trump could not help tweeting the following message: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”

He could not set a worse example.




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