RICHARD BUTLER. Australia and the US: Truth Time.  

Feb 3, 2017

There is an extraordinary amount of deception and lying around current US policy. The Republican establishment will need to work out where it stands on Trump’s agenda. This is precisely the time for truthful discourse in Australia about our relationship with the US.  


Media on Trump has become a bottomless well, and an echo chamber. It’s becoming obsessive, partisan, and poses distinct challenges of verity and relevance. From the current churning, three events stand out.

First, the reports of chaos in the White House, sourced to very senior people on the inside. In Australia we’d think of headless chooks. A source over there, himself under consideration for appointment to high office in the Administration, spoke of scenes from the “Keystone Cops”.

These reports are given credibility by the quality of the actions taken by the President, for example: his18 Executive Orders in the first 12 days, some of dubious legality, consulted with no one outside his circle, and without means or funds for their implementation. Or in his public appearances, such as in his ludicrous visit to CIA headquarters – I have always loved you guys; or statements, such as the one for International Holocaust Day which failed to mention the Jews. These are only a fraction of available examples.

Secondly, it has now become clear that Trump has given a pivotal role to Steve Bannon, the former head of an alt-right broadcast organization. Bannon has shaped policy and the early decision making, including on banning designated Muslims from entering the US. And, further, Trump has now assigned him a seat on the National Security Council and reduced the participation in the Council of the heads of the armed forces and the intelligence agencies.

The question of how US national security policy has been formulated is a very large, and separate one. For now it’s sufficient to reflect that it’s not been marked by wisdom or success, from the Vietnam period to the present. So, maybe change is overdue, but Bannon’s elevation to this position suggests something more ideological than technical.

Thirdly, the lying continues. There’s no nicer way to put this because it’s not simply spin or even so called “alternative facts”. It’s lying by the President and those instructed by him, willfully. The instances of this are being documented. The list is large and continually expanding. Last week, the New York Times carried a front page article under the heading, “The President Lies Again”.

A key instance was Trump’s assertion that there were millions of fraudulent votes during the election, naturally, cast for Hillary Clinton. Had this not been the case, clearly, according to him, he would have won the popular vote.

He has presented no evidence of this. It is simply a claim made by him. Others, Institutes, with objectivity and skill have investigated it, as have a number of States, including States which delivered their Electoral College votes to Trump. All have reported that this did not occur, yet Trump persists with it and analysis shows that the number of people who are now beginning to believe it, is growing.

It appears that Trump’s ego requires such assertions of a reality that isn’t real. Some psychologists are writing publicly of Trump that this behavior is consistent with the condition of extreme narcissism. This certainly seemed true of Trump’s continuing obsession with, and lying about, the size of the crowd at his inauguration. He actually telephoned the Head of the National Parks Service to demand statistics and photographs which would prove his claim of over 1 million in attendance. That musn’t have gone well, otherwise we would have all been tweeted, repeatedly, about it.

It is theoretically possible that Trump’s insistence on his own “facts” is a calculation, the utterly disreputable one, which is a fundamental technique of propaganda: say something often enough, true or not, and it will come to be believed.

Remember it was Trump who developed and pursued for some three years, against all evidence, that Barack Obama was not born in the US. This propaganda had its impact. Trump subsequently withdrew from the “birther” campaign, but not before lying about his involvement in it. But, the damage was done, not to Trump, but to the public.

A stark warning about Trump’s lying has come from an unexpected source: the actor, Sam Waterston ( Washington Post, January 30th: “The danger of Trump’s constant lying”). His warning is that the constancy and level of Trump’s lying is “a threat to the Republic”.

Trump’s 18th Executive Order, on Muslims and entry into the US, has been condemned around the world by: citizens, Heads of Governments and International Organizations. It has been welcomed by ultra-nationalist groups, in a variety of countries.

From amongst the very great amount of statement and writing that has already been issued on this Order, a compelling comment is David Gardner’s, “Donald Trump’s travel ban is a gift to the jihadis” ( Financial Times, 1st February).

The Secretary- General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, issued a statement, clearly in response to Trump’s Executive Order, without naming it, that while the management of borders was the right of States, to do so on the basis of “any form of discrimination related to religion, ethnicity or nationality,” would contradict the fundamental principles and values on which our societies are based and, “and may facilitate the propaganda of the very terrorist organisations we all want to fight against”. On this latter point, David Gardner’s warning is stark.

Given the role of the US in the UN and the structure of the Security Council, this was a courageous statement by the Secretary-General. It was a courage rarely displayed by the SG, since the days when U Thant opposed the US on Vietnam.

Our Prime Minister’s deflection of the question put to him on Executive Order number18: first, his calling on a notion of propriety ( I only say strong things to my friends, in private,) and, then on the emptiest of Prime Ministerial mantras ( my job is to pursue Australia’s interests) was disingenuous.

Given that the US’ policy is flawed morally and legally, which Turnbull surely knows, at the very least he should have expressed concern about it. Other national leaders around the world, including friends of the US, have done so unhesitatingly.

What is equally worrying however is his invoking generic national interest, seeming to imply that there is nothing he will not agree to if he can identify gain for us, and /or to avoid any difference with the US.

The truth of Turnbull’s ducking – it presumably is because of: his tissue thin majority in the House, the power of the right wing of his party to continually threaten him, and the fact that, our own conduct on migration and refugees, our indefinite detentions including of children, means that his is a house built on sand, a house, it must be said Labor helped build.

It now appears unlikely that the Trump Administration will fulfill the agreement that the US will take our detainees. This is to say nothing on what it says about us that the Turnbull government has touted that agreement as a major achievement. And, when did the government plan to tell us the cost of it all. What have we agreed to give the US, in return?

The Prime Minister needs to lead, above all on issues where the morality and law are so clear. Our integrity is worth more than the electoral calculations, the virtual faustian bargain he’s made with the right in the coalition. He could be surprised to discover that voters might reward him for showing some steel.

In my last posting on Pearls and Irritations, ‘Trump: a sideshow?’ I raised the question of whether the more informed view of President Trump wasn’t to see him as a sideshow to a larger outcome of the recent US national elections: the sweep of a major portion of all electoral offices by the Republicans.

The events of his first dozen days indicate that he is deeply interested in centre stage. The Republican leadership have been confronted with a stream of actions by Trump and his closest staff, which by-pass established political and bureaucratic institutions. It clearly does not know how far Trump will go or when, or if, they will be obliged to face down, his authoritarian and illegal conduct. Meanwhile, they cherry-pick the bits they like, such as Trump’s nomination of Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

The Republicans, have their economic, social and foreign policy agenda and it is by no means identical with Trump’s. It is indelibly conservative, which Trump’s is not.

Their problem is, at what point will they conclude that the narcissistic fantasies of Trump are causing serious damage to their interests, and what then will they do about it or him.

US Republicans leaders are not alone in having so much riding on Trump and his conduct of his office. So do we Australians, and this is precisely the moment when our leaders should start being truthful with us about our relationship with the United States.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations and later a Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University.

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