RICHARD BUTLER. Dangerous Dysfunction

Jul 3, 2017

US foreign policy is being conducted in an incoherent and dysfunctional manner and key military decisions have been delegated by the President to the Pentagon. Trump, however, is threatening further military action against Syria based on the charges that, in the last similar instance, were deemed to be false, including by his own intelligence agencies. The possibility of conflict with Russia over Syria is growing. What role does the Australian government see for us in such a circumstance?

The constant flow and range of reports indicates that there is a dangerous level of dysfunction in the US Administration and polity.

Domestically, the outstanding area is the farce over “repeal and replace” Obamacare, the latest iteration of which is Republicans in the Senate drafting, in secret, a new bill which would, inter alia, eliminate health insurance for some 22 million of the poorest and oldest of Americans and  reduce taxes for wealthiest.

Close behind is the spectacle of key policy areas: environment, education, energy, being led by Secretaries who have plainly nihilistic/destructive attitudes towards their own mandate.

These US domestic follies do, in fact, have an impact on Australia in at least two ways: the substance of US budgetary outlays impacts upon the global economy, and the political attitudes, indeed, ideology reflected in them is clearly being imbibed by our own politicians, especially in the conservative parties.

Of more direct concern to us, however, is the manifestly dysfunctional conduct of US foreign policy.

The instances of this form a long list, but key ones are:

The absence of a consistent foreign policy. The Secretary of State and the White House have repeatedly acted in contradictory directions, that is, when the Secretary has acted at all. (See, for example: NYT June 23rd, “Discord emerges on policy over Middle East”, by Sanger, Harris, Landler);

Trump’s decision, in April, to attack Syria on the ground that it had used chemical weapons, even when he had been told by his intelligence agencies that there was no clear evidence that it had done so (see the article by Seymour Hersh, via John Menadue, Pearls and Irritations 29th June). Hersh’s article, suppressed from publication in the US, bears reading;

Trump’s current assertion that Syria is planning to use CW “again”, and his warning it of some terrible consequences;

Trump’s building of an enhanced alliance with Saudi Arabia, ignoring its appalling actions in Yemen and acquiescing in their resultant pressure upon Qatar. In short, signalling that the US is firmly on the Sunni side of the embedded Sunni/Shia conflict in the Middle East; and

His delegation to the Pentagon of his own authority to decide upon when and how the US should take military action.

Trump’s incompetence in the field of foreign and security policy has been widely commented upon, and has caused alarm, including in major allied countries. It is reliably reported that he does not read briefings, preferring oral and pictorial presentations, but above all follows his own gut inclinations. Reportedly, in April, he took the advice of his daughter on the alleged Syrian CW use, after she had seen pictures of children, said to have been subjected to a CW attack. There were some such pictures but their provenance is now thought to have been in opposition groups; a “false flag.” On this basis the US attacked Syria, launching 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air force base.

When, in 2000,the barely competent GW Bush was granted the Presidency by the Supreme Court, the answer given to the widespread concerns then expressed, was that everything will be alright, because he will have good advisors. The main ones he had were Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who, with their Committee for the New American Century, gave us among many other disasters, the invasion of Iraq. To an extent, Bush came to see what they had led him and his Presidency into and, in his second term, did away with Rumsfeld (the author of the concept of “known unknowns”) and, in large measure, sidelined Cheney.

Apart from achieving what only a short while ago was considered to be beyond human reach – nostalgia for GW Bush – Trump has, in just 6 months, rendered utterly implausible the idea that he will take advice from experienced professionals. Instead, he has indicated that he relies on his own instincts and he is clearly motivated in his decisions by the need to affirm his own muscularity and, contrived, popularity.

Trivial though this might seem, it has been established this week that in at least five of the golf clubs bearing his name, in the US and overseas, there is hung a framed reprint of the cover of an issue of Time magazine, featuring a whole of cover portrait of him, with adulatory captions. The cover is dated March 1st, 2009. Research has shown that these pictures are, to use his cherished term, fake. There was no March 1st Time magazine and no cover of Trump in 2009.

While instances of Trump’s distance from the truth of so many matters are hardly needed, I mention this one because of its extreme fatuousness and to point to the deep problem posed by the challenge Trump’s ego needs poses to verity itself. This reality is seen as holding potentially great danger in the context of US foreign policy.

In earlier blogs in Pearls and Irritations, I have suggested that: the state of international relations has rarely been as complex and vexed as they now are: there is clearly a trend on the part of key states away from the world established through the Charter of the UN, one based on the unacceptability of the use of force other than as authorized by the Security Council or in self-defence against an immanent threat, and the obligation to seek the peaceful settlement of disputes; foreign policy is being increasingly militarized, including by Australia; and, the conduct of international relations is reverting to traditional, national power based, determinants, irrespective of the requirements of international law.

Trump’s declaration of “America First”, apart from being elementally empty in a deeply interdependent world, adds fuel to these tendencies and, specifically, has contributed markedly to the much discussed idea that the US and Russia are sliding towards a new Cold War.

Why are our leaders and media stunningly silent on these realities? The US and Russia are on a collision path over Syria and we, it appears, have every intention of continuing to follow the US into whatever battle they choose. And, remember, those choices have now been delegated by Trump to the Pentagon. Is this what the Alliance now means for us, that we will go wherever the US generals ask us to go?

Why will our media not run any questioning of the CW issue, which has all the appearance of a contrived reason for attacking Syria, again. Will we take part in that? Will the RAAF take part? What monstrosity of fake news will be contrived to justify slipping beyond a new Cold War into a hot war with Russia over who will in fact control Syria and Iraq after Mosul and Raqqa have fallen.

The heavy- duty protagonists in Syria and the wider Middle East are: Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US. Russia is aligned with Iran (Shia), the US in some measure with Turkey, although they disagree over the disposition of the some 20 million Kurds in the area, and the Saudis (Sunni).

Our politicians currently deploy the threat of terrorist attack on Australia in the now customary fashion, that is, to justify all manner of dubious policies at home and abroad. When will they go beyond the generic and deeply tendentious claim that the RAAF is active over Syria to save us, at home, from terrorism and, speak honestly to the people and Parliament about these serious issues ?

Their other tack is to claim that the Alliance has its obligations, which we must fulfil. That also needs to be further explained, or will we simply follow Trump in his infatuation with the House of Saud, and its new and apparently bellicose Crown Prince, and join the Sunni camp, limbering up for the coming stoush with Russia and Iran?

We need to be very thoughtful, about the true basis of US foreign policy decisions.

Richard Butler AC,  formerly Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Executive Chairman of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq.

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