Will the Trump administration get its act together anytime soon? On both the domestic and foreign policy fronts, the president has indeed had a rocky road.
Explaining the current mess in U.S. politics is no easy matter, but some key points can be made. First and foremost is that President Donald Trump, his family and his closest advisors had no practical political experience. They are business people from New York City, unprepared for the political and bureaucratic den of sharks in Washington.
Wall Street vs. main street
Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are split into two broad factions: pro-Wall Street and anti-Wall Street. Trump and Bernie Sanders contested the U.S. presidential election with anti-Wall Street positions, while the multitude of other Republicans and Hillary Clinton stood for office on pro-Wall Street tickets.
When Trump won the election, his supporters expected he would staff his administration with like-minded officials. But this was not to happen. Instead, the mainstream Republican pro-Wall Street faction zoomed in on the newly-elected candidate and his entourage with the key purpose of controlling the presidential selection of personnel both during the transition phase and in the new administration.
Thus, the powerful and savvy mainstream faction succeeded in levering its adherents into key administration positions. "Personnel is politics," experienced Washington players and observers say.
Trump reportedly ran his business empire with a quite idiosyncratic style, pitting various players against each other, which produced a sometimes chaotic management situation. This style seems to have carried over into the White House, where it underlies to a large extent the present disarray. For example, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus hails from the Republican Party's mainstream faction, while Steve Bannon belongs to its populist nationalist contingent. Trump brought in his son in law, Jared Kushner, a mainstream New York Democrat, who in turn brought in various Wall Street movers and shakers, some of whom are also Democrats. Internally, therefore, the White House now has not only sharp Republican factional rivalries, but also inter-party competition and rivalry, observers say.
Trump vs. Obama
The disorder in White House policy and communications processes has a major impact on its management of legislative affairs.
The outcome of the administration's attempt at healthcare reform directly resulted from mismanagement of Congressional relations. Amazingly, Trump as well as his staff tried to railroad his most ardent supporters in the House of Representatives. This hardline populist group, called the Freedom Caucus, was hammered with high-handed tactics and even insults by some White House staff. Normally, there is some give and take in Washington. So, many people wondered just where was the famous negotiating prowess of a president who claims to be a master of the "art of the deal."
The disarray in the White House evident in the decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change was pronounced. Added to this was the failure to fully explain to the American people, let alone the international community, the reasons for the withdrawal.
Whether the administration continues with such disorder in policy, communication and legislative processes remains to be seen. Aside from major domestic and environmental issues, what about foreign policy? During the campaign, candidate Trump promised a clean break from the mainstream foreign policy promoted by Wall Street. He said that if elected he would reject U.S. interventionism and the hegemonic global policeman role. He criticized NATO as obsolete, and he called for improved relations with Russia.
But today, those who formerly endorsed Trump based on such foreign policy positions are having second thoughts. The reason underlying his changed position on NATO relates directly to his faulty grasp of the significance of personnel choices in Washington. He permitted the Republican mainstream faction to box him in on key issues like NATO and Russia.
His choice of hawkish generals James Mattis, as secretary of defense, and H. R. McMaster, as national security advisor, is the primary reason he is constrained. They belong to the mainstream foreign policy establishment, which candidate Trump said he would reject if elected.
It is no surprise then that relations with Russia have further chilled; that a strident anti-Iran posture is in place; that NATO is in the good graces of the White House; that mission creep in Afghanistan is back; and that relations with Cuba have been set back.
The simple explanation is that while candidate Trump slammed neoconservative and mainstream foreign policy, he now seems well on the road to conversion under the tutelage of Mattis and McMaster. When he toes the establishment line, the mainstream media effusively reinforces the conversion.
While it is true that new administrations usually take several months to settle into the business of governance, this is clearly not the case in the U.S. today. The White House appears all but settled.
Added to the notable disarray and confusion at the White House is the unprecedented degree of political polarization in the U.S. The level of vituperation, ill will and rather shocking rhetoric and behavior of Trump opponents carries the danger of political destabilization of the overall system. There is growing concern about the rise of political violence.
It is often said that politics is the art of compromise. The White House and Congress must reject further polarization and seek reasonable and prudent domestic and foreign policies. A downward spiral on either or both fronts is dangerous.
The author is former senior staff member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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