Michael Gerson: Chaos around Trump magnet for trouble

By Michael Gerson

The picture of chaos is complete - until the next crisis breaks. Photo / AP
The picture of chaos is complete - until the next crisis breaks. Photo / AP

It is difficult to overestimate the geopolitical risks of this moment - or the (both disturbed and eager) global scrutiny now being given to the American President.

Aggression is growing along the westward reach of Russian influence and the southern boundary of Chinese influence. Intercontinental nuclear capacity may soon be in the hands of a mental pubescent in North Korea.

In the Middle East, a hostile alliance of Russia and Shiite powers is ascendant; radical Sunnis have a territorial foothold and inspire strikes in Western cities; America's traditional Sunni friends and allies feel devalued or abandoned; perhaps 500,000 Syrians are dead and millions of refugees suffer in conditions that incubate anger.

Cyberterrorism and cyberespionage are exploiting and weaponising our own technological dependence. Add to this a massive famine in East Africa threatening 20 million lives, and the picture of chaos is complete - until the next crisis breaks.

It is in this context that the diplomatic bloopers reel of the past few days has been played - the casual association of British intelligence with alleged surveillance at Trump Tower; the presidential tweets undermining Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Asia trip; and the childish treatment of the German Chancellor.

Every new administration has a shakeout period. But this assumes an ability to learn from mistakes. And this would require admitting mistakes.

The spectacle of an American president blaming a Fox News commentator for a major diplomatic incident was another milestone in the miniaturisation of the presidency.

An interested foreigner (friend or foe) must be a student of Trump's temperament, which is just as bad as advertised. He is inexperienced, uninformed, easily provoked and supremely confident in his own judgment.

His advantage is the choice of some serious, experienced advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell. But success in their jobs depends on Trump's listening skills.

Mere incompetence would be bad enough. But foreigners trying to understand the United States must now study (of all things) the intellectual influences of White House chief strategist Stephen K.

Bannon. His vision of a Western alliance of ethno-nationalist, right-wing populists against globalists, multiculturalists, Islamists and (fill in the blank with your preferred minority) is the Administration's most vivid and rhetorically ascendant foreign policy viewpoint.

That is the background against which Trump's peevishness is being viewed.

Foreigners see a president who has blamed his predecessor of a serious crime, for which FBI Director James B. Comey testified Monday there is no evidence. They see an administration whose campaign activities are being actively investigated by the executive branch and Congress.

If close Trump associates are directly tied to Russian hacking, foreigners will see the President in an impeachment crisis - the only constitutional mechanism that would remove the taint of larceny from the 2016 election.

And foreigners are seeing politics, not national security, in the driver's seat of the Administration.

Tillerson was given the job of secretary of state, then denied his choice of deputy for political reasons, then ordered to make a 28 per cent cut in the budget for diplomacy and development. Never mind that Tillerson has been left a diminished figure.

Never mind that stability operations in Somalia and northern Nigeria - the recruiting grounds of Islamist terrorism - would likely be eliminated under the Trump budget. Never mind that programmes to prevent famines would be slashed.

When asked if he was worried about cutting these programmes during a famine, Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney responded: "The President said ... I'm going to spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home. And [that's] what we're doing."

The benighted cruelty of such a statement - assuming that the only way to help Americans is to let foreign children die - is remarkable, and typical.

The sum total? Foreigners see a Darwinian, nationalist framework for American foreign policy; a diminished commitment to global engagement; a brewing scandal that could distract and cripple the Administration; and a president who often conducts his affairs with peevish ignorance.

Some will look at this spectacle and live in fear; others may see a golden opportunity.

- Washington Post

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