By MR Josse
TAMPA, FL: As I open this maiden column for 2019, it may be apposite to indulge in some crystal-ball clairvoyance.
The dominant image that emerges is that great turbulence lies ahead for President Donald Trump’s administration.
Given the embittered relations between Republicans and Democrats, the ongoing game of legislative chicken seems destined to stretch well into 2019.
Considering the Democrats’ control of the House and Trump’s adamantine determination to bulldoze his way on executive steam, prospects of good governance for the next two years do not seem overly bright.
Though I do not imagine it very likely that Trump’s impeachment will actually come to pass, it is hard to miss that the ‘I word’ – impeachment – is being increasingly bandied about in political discourse, whether by talking heads on television panels or in political exegesis by assorted pundits in myriad prestigious journals.
It may be recalled here that the threat of impeachment has, post-Clinton, become absurdly commonplace: it was brandished in the past – not with any success, it may be mentioned – even against George W. Bush and Barrack Obama!
Turbulence of a different order will, in any case, be blowing in the political wind, even as a passel of Democratic presidential hopefuls already begin to get down to the costly and time-consuming business of contesting primaries to represent their party at the 2020 presidential election.
As news reports have it, they include senators Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts; Kamala Harris, of California; Cory Booker, of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrad, of New York. The names of former Vice-President Joe Biden, of Delaware; and senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont – not to mention former Texas senator Beto O’ Rouke – also so figure, though perhaps with less vigor.
Even more forceful gales likely to buffet the Trump administration could indeed emerge from outside the continental United States, as can be discerned from the ruckus over Trump’s abrupt recent decision to pullout American ground forces from Syria on the ground that the threat from ISIS is over.
Apart from the dramatic resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis over this issue (discussed last week), there is widespread apprehension that, as the Wall Street Journal argued in an editorial, “the biggest risk for Mr. Trump’s next two years is whether U.S. adversaries see his Syrian withdrawal as a sign of weakness and retreat. Iran and others are already beginning to see him as a one-termer. They may soon test him to make a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
Incidentally, the journal maintains that “some kind of Iran-Israel-Russia conflict is no small risk in 2019”, as it is convinced that “Iran will not stop arming its proxies and expanding its own presence in Syria.” Besides, it speculates whether Russian President Vladimir Putin “may also want to test Mr. Trump’s vow to defend Israel in a fight.”
Even republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a Trump supporter, told CNN that he feared Trump’s precipitate withdrawal of troops from Syria could pave the way for a “second 9/11”.
Trump’s Syria decision has drawn flack from many supplementary quarters, among other reasons, because it has punished the Kurds for whom American troops provided a reassuring degree of actual and political influence that vague assurances do not.
Critics point out, for instance, that in Syria it was the Kurds, backed by Americans, that did most of the heavy lifting in sanguinary battles against ISIS, not to mention that, even in the Iraq war, they were among America’s staunchest allies. They argue that the principal beneficiaries are Turkey and Bashir al-Asad’s Syrian regime.
It is therefore entirely likely that, behind closed doors, America’s friends and foes are drawing inexorable negative conclusions from Trump’s indifference to implicit promises and moral obligations to the Kurds.
It is perfectly understandable that, in such a context, Arab states are preparing for a shift in external powers’ influence, as exemplified by the discernible recent warming of Arab Gulf states to Damascus, as US allies begin to explore stronger ties with the Assad regime against which they battled, not so long ago.
Since the present plans are for Turkish troops to take the place of American forces, it is natural that the Kurds, who are traditionally uncomfortable with the Turks, should be coming around to working a deal with Damascus.
Let me now share a revealing quote from Bob Woodward’s just-published, “Fear: Trump in the White House”, which I’ve hurriedly leafed through. On a flight from Bedminster, New Jersey to Washington in July this year, Trump declared to his close confidantes that Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the three main war zones, were quagmires and he was tired to owning them. “The enormous resources that we continue to expend in those countries!” he reportedly bemoaned, declaring, “We should just declare victory, end the wars and bring our troops home.”
One may recall Kissinger’s memo to Nixon, in the context of the ‘Vietnamization’ solution to ending the Vietnam war, (Robert Dallek’s: Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power): “It will become like salted peanuts to the American public: the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.”
It thus remains to be seen if drawdown of American troops in Syria encourages more of such actions, egged on by the Democrats.
If Trump’s frustration at expending the astronomical amounts spent on defense, and the lack of any apparent or real progress in concluding the ‘Forever Wars’, is perfectly understandable, his critics, even within the Republican party, should have no dearth of political missiles to haul against his administration’s policies, especially as 2020 nears.
EAST ASIA/SOUTH ASIA
In East Asia, especially in Taiwan, anxious or troubled speculation on America’s foreign and security policies could rise following Trump’s callous abandonment of the Kurds in Syria.
It will be salutary for foreign/security policy wonks in Nepal to ponder the strategic ramifications of America’s preemptory desertion of the Kurds – and the durability of her geo-strategic location.
Syrian withdrawal fallout: mega turbulence ahoy!
By MR Josse