Trump Alienates Enemies And Allies With Equal Ease, Making World More Dangerous

Yesterday, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said the Trump administration is putting Iran “on notice” due to Iran’s test of a ballistic missile and an apparent attack on a Saudi vessel by a group supported by Iran. He said such actions by Iran “undermine security, prosperity and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East that puts American lives at risk”. The Pentagon reported that the missile test failed but was considered a provocation to test the Trump administration. Iranian leaders have already made public statements that Trump is out of his depth and Iranian President Rouhani said, “He has been in a different world. It’s a totally new environment to him. It will take him a long time and will cost the United States a lot, until he learns what is happening in the world”. He added that Trump’s Muslim ban shows “what they [Americans] have in their heart”. As expected, the administration over-reacted with this harsh response and no one seems to know, least of all the Trump administration, what “on notice” means. Trump followed up Flynn’s nonsensical statement with an aggressive tweet of his own, saying, “Iran is rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq even after the U.S. has squandered three trillion dollars there. Obvious long ago!”. I’m sure the hardliners in Tehran are drooling at the prospect of Trump overreacting and giving them a chance to scrap the nuclear agreement and restart that program. It appears Trump will easily fall into the trap.

Meanwhile, in an underreported story and one that the Trump administration has not seen worthy to comment on, Russia has begun intensifying its attacks on Ukraine including a massive cyber attack. As the Washington Post article says, “Could it have been just a coincidence that Russian-backed forces in Ukraine launched their biggest offensive in months the day after Vladi­mir Putin spoke by phone with President Trump? Somehow, we doubt it.” So do I. The article posits that Putin is miffed that Trump seems to have backed away from the rumored lifting of the sanctions, reportedly at the urging of Theresa May, and is now stepping up the pressure on Trump with this Ukrainian aggression. Trump, the master of deflection, may be able to dodge this issue for a little while but it will be impossible to ignore if Putin continues these attacks. At that point, Trump will face a difficult decision on whether to give Putin what he wants or, less likely, see the Russia hawks in the GOP Congress finally find a spine.

Of course, one of the reasons that the Trump administration may be unwilling to speak out about Putin’s aggression is Flynn himself. Democrats have sent a letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis to investigate whether Flynn has violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by accepting payments for foreign governments as a retired Army officer. Apparently, retired military officers are covered by that constitutional clause. As the letter states, “Since his retirement in 2014, General Flynn has made appearances on Russia Today (RT), that country’s state-sponsored propaganda outlet. He has admitted to being paid on at least one of these occasions — at an RT gala in Moscow where he dined with Russian President Vladimir Putin”. As every worker in America knows, you don’t get too far by criticizing the guy who writes your check. But at least Flynn has powerful company in violating the Emoluments Clause.

In addition, new details are coming out about Trump’s “calls” with world leaders since his inauguration. While the White House has produced fairly anodyne summaries of the call, insiders are reporting that Trump has been his usual egotistical and belligerent self with some foreign leaders. On his call with Mexican President Pena Nieto, unbelievably Trump said this, “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it”. Is it any wonder that Pena Nieto refused to meet with Trump after a threat like that. And it is no wonder that elements within the Mexican government feel that they should let Trump rip up NAFTA and let the US deal with the drug and Central American refugee problem, while Mexico will just live under existing WTO rules. Even under those rules, Mexico would be an attractive investment option especially with the drop in the peso following Trump’s election.

You may think that this is just Trump posturing and bullying to gain a negotiating advantage with the Mexicans. If you do, then you should read about his call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, one of our staunchest allies. After starting the call by listening to Trump crow about his electoral victory, Turnbull tried to confirm whether a prior agreement that would allow for 1,250 refugees from an Australian refugee center to come to the US would still be honored even after Trump’s Muslim ban. Trump went off the handle, saying he was “going to get killed” politically and accused Turnbull and Australia of trying to send the US “the next Boston bombers”, adding “this was the worst deal ever”. Trump then told Turnbull that he had had four calls with world leaders that day and that “This was the worst call by far”. With that, he terminated the call that was scheduled for an hour after just 25 minutes. Later, the US embassy in Australia confirmed that the US would honor the deal but that was followed by another Trump tweet saying he “will study this dumb deal!”. Nothing like giving conflicting signals.

Now, as per Josh Marshall, an alternate explanation for Trump’s erratic behavior with Turnbull is that Turnbull has a very slim majority and relies on the support of some of the more extreme members of his Liberal party which is very much in line with the Trump/Bannon anti-immigrant point of view. It was no coincidence that Bannon was one of the few people in the room when Trump had that call. But even if this was an attempt to bolster the anti-immigrant faction in the Liberal party and subvert Turnbull, it is hard to see how Australians would react positively to that kind of interference in their domestic politics.

Around the world, leaders are recognizing that Trump is weak, ineffective, erratic, and unfocused. Turkey and Greece have upped the ante in a dispute over some disputed, uninhabited islands, as Turkey wants to have airmen involved in the coup against Erdogan who are currently in Greece extradited back to Turkey. This will spill over into the talks to reunify Cyprus. The botched raid in Yemen that ended with one US serviceman killed, others wounded, and multiple civilian casualties was approve by Trump “without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations”, according to Reuters. Trump’s push to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and the Netanyahu government’s decision to approve thousands more housing units and even create new settlements in the West Bank will only end in more violence. Putin is pushing farther into Ukraine. China is expanding in the South China Sea while Trump berates our most important ally in that region and leaves them hanging by pulling out of TPP. And, of course, the Muslim ban is the best recruiting tool ISIS and al-Qaeda could have asked for. These are not just the everyday incidents that happen around the world. Any one of them could escalate into a major incident at any time. It seems that Trump and his advisers see his erratic behavior as a deterrent that will keep the lid on things. The rest of the world sees it as unfocused weakness.

At some point Trump will need international allies. But if this is the way he treats them, he may find that they will not be there when he needs them. In fact, Trump seems to be pissing off virtually every world leader he has interacted with, even Putin, with the possible exception of Theresa May. And he’s been in office less than two weeks.

[I’ve also written about this and other issues on my personal blog at tidalsoundings.blogspot.com]

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