Crisis for Trump
Nikki Haley’s resignation as United Nations Ambassador highlights the unloading of the praetorian guard around President Donald Trump. First it was Rex Tillerson, then it was H.R. McMaster, now Haley, and maybe Defense Secretary James Mattis. All were militant neo-Conservatives who would have been very comfortable in George W. Bush’s administration and represented what the Council of Foreign Relations would call “wise men.”
But it also points out the careful and sometimes inconsistent manueverings of Trump to control his foreign policy. To replace his original triumvirate with the likes of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton is not really a change. These are hardliners, no less intense on agitating for wars against imaginary “Axis’ of evil,” then their predecessors. What is different, they are not so skilled at building an international consensus. One disguises with a velvet glove, a steely fist.
However, Trump has steadily stood up to his hawkish advisors. He pushed the North Korean initiative despite the fears of the Pentagon. Trump threatened more than he acted in the Middle East, and likewise made gurgling noises when it came to the Ukraine. The problem is that his top policy makers –Pompeo and Bolton — seek Mattis’ ends through Trumpian unilateralism. But given Trump’s record of correcting such appointments, even this duo might be given the hook in the future.
However, the problem for Trump lies not so much that he is different from previous administrations on foreign policy, but that he is similar. His preferences lean toward hard-liners that eschew Wilsonian platitudes but are caught in its rhetorical webs. For Pompeo and Bolton, how are they going to handle the Jamal Khashoggi affair?
This promises to split the GOP stalwarts like Lindsay Graham and Trump. But these “moderates” and human rights Conservatives are as malleable as it gets. When Theodore Roosevelt claimed that William McKinley had the “backbone of a chocolate eclair,” he could as easily be referring to those watchers of polls, the Senate Republicans. But if murder is established, as Republican Senator Bob Corker seems to believe it has been, this should cause trouble for realpolitikers. But don’t count on it when Corker talks, Jeff Flake mumbles and Susan Collins mimics the Arizonian.
For Trump, he cannot come on too strong or he will open up the floodgates on his foreign policy. If he does nothing, Iran is a big winner with the Saudi Crown Prince in the docket before the court of public opinion. Vladimir Putin has a get out of jail free card for his methods have been legitimized. But another problem arises if Trump embraces a neo-Conservative “American exceptionalist” response; he concedes that his approach to foreign policy, which is essentially a sphere of influence, is now obsolete.
The Khashoggi affair is Trump’s most difficult crisis yet. But it is interesting that a reporter gets more attention than the thousands of Yemenis who are killed by a ruthless Saudi air attack — or those Palestinians who are regularly gunned down by Israeli’s border guards. For Trump, it is trying to avoid “endless enemies.” Whichever path he chooses, he loses. If he decided to play it down the middle, he offends both.
But a less demonstrative response will preserve Trump’s options. He cannot afford to embrace the neo-con agenda of Haley, Mattis, McMaster or Bolton. Either Trump delivers an address that articulates his spheres of influence approach — that we have more interest in other priorities rather than asserting dominion over all — or he goes down the tired road of “exceptionalism.”