A president guided by television news and emotional whims

Published by The ipaper (10th April, 2017)

Even in the whirlwind world of Donald Trump, last week’s events were mind-blowing. It began with the 45th president of the United States welcoming a brutal dictator to the White House and praising his guest for doing ‘a fantastic job in a very difficult situation’. Never mind the uncomfortable reality that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi grabbed power in a coup and oversees a regime that has killed hundreds of Egyptians, jailed thousands more and routinely uses torture.

No wonder Sisi, rightly barred from such meetings by Barack Obama, expressed admiration for Trump’s ‘unique personality’. The visit highlighted how the new US president seems unconcerned by human rights, happy to hobnob with autocrats who share his determination to crack down on radical Islamic extremism. The short-sighted move oozed obvious symbolism, coming so soon after ousted ex-president Hosni Mubarak was freed from prison.

How far away those hopes of freedom expressed by the Arab Spring six years ago now seem, when an Egyptian leader with more blood on his hands than Mubarak is greeted with gusto by the supposed leader of the free world. Trump also dropped human rights conditions on sale of fighter jets to Bahrain, infuriating pro-democracy campaigners. And formally abandoned calls for Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad to step down. ‘With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept,’ said press secretary Sean Spicer on 31 March.

Clearly this was Trump’s attempt to send a signal to the Syrian regime and its Russian allies that US policy was shifting. Forget atrocities and human rights: Trump would happily deal with the region’s hardmen. The Syrian stance was underscored by his secretary of state Rex Tillerson and his ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. It followed the ‘America First’ nationalism and isolationist rhetoric heard on his campaign trail.

Days later, the emboldened Syrian dictator sanctioned use of chemical weapons and we saw a poison gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun. We can presume the move was cleared with Russia since it brokered the 2013 deal with Assad to remove such weaponry. Vladimir Putin now looks either a fool or a knave, so the Kremlin’s lie machine was cranked up to spit out claims that the ghastly images of dead children were fake news.

When Trump saw these pictures and carnage on cable news, he told his advisers of ‘awful’ footage from Syria and ordered a military strike in retaliation. It is alarming that this infantile president reportedly relies on Fox News and wants more pictures in his intelligence briefings. It is even more scary that this implies he was previously unaware of Assad’s savagery, despite the barrel bombs, the chilling images of deadly torture, the many testimonies of victims and the responsibility for many more deaths than the rebels.

But perhaps most terrifying of all is the ease with which Trump switched policy in emotional response to these images. There will be endless talk of him exceeding his powers and whether this was a Machiavellian ploy to divert attention from his administration’s links to Moscow. And this is not to argue his reaction was necessarily wrong, especially since use of chemical weapons is so unacceptable – merely to wonder at the installation of such a naive US president who will make an instant U-turn on key policy after seeing disturbing pictures on television.

Trump fiercely opposed intervention in Syria during the election campaign as well as endlessly firing off angry tweets on the issue. ‘To our very foolish leader, do not attack Syria – if you do many bad things will happen & from that fight the US gets nothing,’ he told Obama four years ago amid the last debate over Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Yet what makes this flip-flopping more frightening then simple hypocrisy is that Trump might actually believe what he says at the time. ‘He sees, he feels, he acts,’ as former Bush speechwriter David Frum put it so succinctly.

Now Tillerson suggests Assad must be removed from power. He is right – but this is no way to run foreign policy, based on what the boss happens to catch on cable news rather than slow grind of diplomacy and difficult decisions. We must wait to see if the legacy of those 59 cruise missiles is a renewed push for peace – or at least slowing the bloodshed – in this cruellest of conflicts. More likely US policy will stay largely the same, assisting the Kurds while Assad and his Russian allies slowly throttle the government’s other foes.

Looming ahead is the challenge of another maverick leader, Kim Jong-Un, whose fascist regime in North Korea is developing nuclear arms that will threaten the US and just used a banned nerve agent to eliminate one of his enemies. Yet what else will Trump see on television? Will he discover Russia is fighting in Ukraine, see the horror stories of South Sudan or find out that Islamist militants are in Mali? Perhaps he might even learn that Syrian refugees flee because they are trapped between the bloodstained dictator he just bombed and religious bigots he despises.

The positive spin from last week is that Trump is learning to look beyond American self-interest and his simplistic approach to the world before taking office. This would be in keeping with moderating of his approaches to Nato, the Iran nuclear accord and Israeli settlement-building. Sadly the negative spin is all too believable: that with Trump in the White House, the world sits on a rollercoaster with US foreign policy able to flip on the emotional whims and television watching of the planet’s most powerful person.

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