MACK WILLIAMS. Trump: Beginning of end or end of beginning?

Dec 31, 2018

Following the major Republican defeat in the US mid-term elections, President Trump has accelerated preparations for his 2020 re-election replacing “Make America Great Again” with  “Keep America Great” as the theme. This will put more pressure on achieving his initial campaign rhetoric to clear the decks. But the series of problems he encountered in the past few weeks are complicating his plans. This is the scene in which the shock announcements on Syria and Afghanistan need to be viewed. 

If there is one lesson that can be drawn from President Trump’s first two years in office it is that everything he does is dictated by the domestic political  scene guided by his mojo “Make America Great Again”. Though his overall ratings have dipped as a consequence of his mismanagement and the all too often dysfunctional White House, support from his political “base” has held up pretty well. But the dramatic loss to the Democrats in the House of Representatives clearly shocked him and led to a reappraisal of his political strategy. Not only was he now to face an opposition-led Lower House in January, a detailed Pew poll after the mid-terms revealed that public opinion in the US preferred (often by a significant margin) ten out of twelve Democrat policies on key national issues to two for Trump (trade policy and jobs and economic growth). His immediate response was to kick start his re-election program for 2020, which had been formally lodged earlier in the year (and the earliest by any previous President seeking re-election). Staffing was beefed up and campaign offices opened with the new mojo being “ Keep America Great”. An air of urgency was then introduced into efforts to sell the “success” of his initial campaign pledges.

Then came the horrible week prior to Xmas, which has been so widely canvassed in the media, as one seeming disaster after another: more senior resignations (after Chief of Staff Kelly a few weeks earlier), more White House-sourced leaks of sackings (from Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Treasury Secretary et al), the stock market plunge, the criminal charges against the Trump Foundation, more reported allegations from old “trusties” like Attorney Cohen and former National Security Advisor Flynn, and the widely rumoured completion of the Mueller investigation on Russian meddling to mention some!

It was in this context that Trump shocked his own government team and allies with the announcement of a complete withdrawal of US forces from Syria – variously numbered at between 2,000 and 4,000. Though he had long wanted to extricate the US from Syria (part of his campaign pledge) he had been restrained consistently from so doing by his defence and security team, as the quick resignation by Defence Secretary Mattis so amply illustrated. Subsequent leaks have revealed just how impetuous this decision was: in the middle of a long phone conversation (of which not much other detail). Clearly he had been briefed extensively on the extraordinary list of potential risks of this withdrawal – which he had chosen to ignore. I will leave others to outline all these strategic implications. Suffice to say here that Trump appeared to have been driven by crassly domestic considerations to reject the views of “the Swamp” (his label for seemingly much of Washington advice)  to make the hasty withdrawal – although some commentators are beginning  to realise that much of the blame should be owned by the Swamp which pushed a previous administration to enter the Syrian conflict on the ground.

What is most surprising is that Trump’s base and the wider Republican party have long been much more supportive of US action in Syria to combat ISIS – down from 70% in 2017 to 60% a few months ago but still a good 10 % higher than for Democrats. This explains the over-hyped claims of the defeat of ISIS spruiked by Trump. He must have concluded that the domestic political value of fulfilling one of his campaign promises and the diversionary impact it could provide from all his other woes far outweighed all the “bureaucratic” problems it entailed. Writing ISIS off as being defeated was an integral part of the tactic !!

His decision to withdraw a far more significant number of forces from Afghanistan probably went through similar thought processes though the complexity of the scene there – especially with the “secret” talks with the Taliban – will probably take more time to comprehend. Trump’s decision to make only his first visit to US forces in the field – and a fleeting one at that to Iraq – probably also needs to be seen as part of his preparations for 2020. His clumsy attempt to bill it as some sort of a “super secret” mission and his apparent snubbing by the Iraqi Prime Minister reduced its PR value  – all the more with yet another blatant mistruth of a 10% pay rise for the military. Trump, being who he is , will also have hoped that he could get his message through to the junior ranks and GI’s to counter the serious problems he must now expect from  the US military leadership.

Australia must draw some serious lessons from this latest Trump action :

  • Being in an alliance with Trump is a high risk business with his fetish for the unpredictable. So easy to get caught out without adequate prior warning.
  • Managing an Australian foreign and strategic policy through all of this and the likely continuing of at least a US/China simmering will require much more agility than so far we have been able to display.
  • Most of the countries in SE Asia will feel even more reluctant to join any coalition (of the “willing” or whatever) the US might try to organise against China in the South China Sea.
  • The tensions between Trump and the Swamp will continue to grow and even spread to State and the CIA. We must avoid getting caught up through our long association and embeddedness with the US military.

Stunts like the letter to Ambassador Hockey, which The Australian “exclusively” ran under the heading of a Congressional assurance to Australia, are precisely the sort of things we should avoid. Despite The Australian’s beat up suggesting some form of widespread US Congressional support it was neither a resolution nor a formal Congressional statement. And it loitered into the Trump versus the Swamp scene which will have done us no favours with the White House.

All a bit familiar with the US/Australia “mateship” legend created out of Washington earlier in the year based on our relations with the US military dating back to the Battle of Le Hamel in 1918. After a recent visit to the outstanding Sir John Monash Memorial in Le Hamel and some reading of the history, the Battle should properly be remembered for the fact that all but 400 of the promised 4,000 US reinforcements were pulled out by General Pershing barely a few hours before it commenced. Some mate !

It is still too early to predict whether all the above represents the end of Trump’s beginning or the beginning of his end but it might be worth having a few bob on either at the TAB !

 Mack Williams is a former Ambassador to the Philippines and the Republic of Korea.

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