Why Trump’s Abandonment of Syrian Kurds Is An Ominous Sign for U.S. Allies

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi argues with President Donald Trump in a photo Trump released on Twitter. Photo: Twitter

The scene inside the White House Cabinet Room, by the looks of the photo released by President Trump via Twitter, was fraught with tension. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was on her feet and pointing at an incredulously looking Trump, mouth agape, chair pushed back from the table. His advisers, mostly heads down looking at their hands, could feel the storm. Pelosi reportedly said, “all roads seem to lead to Putin.” Sometime thereafter the Democratic Representatives stormed out of the room.

Trump’s sudden, impulsive decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, where they had been fighting side-by-side with Kurds for years to defeat the terrorist group the Islamic State (ISIS), sparked this epic face-off. An estimated eleven thousand Kurds died for that cause. And here was Trump leaving them to be slaughtered by incoming Turkish forces and their allied militias.

In a press conference that followed, Pelosi questioned Trump’s mental fitness describing his demeanor as a meltdown. Trump fired back with the sophistication of a kindergartner that no it was Pelosi who had the meltdown. So much for executive messaging coming out of the White House these days.

This abandonment of the Kurds and Trump’s apoplectic retorts, are an ominous sign that highly volatile US foreign policy could easily spill over to other parts of the world including Asia. 

In defense of his pullback Trump tweeted that Turkey and Syria should handle the conflict themselves because the US is “7,000 miles away.” US allies Japan and South Korea must be taking note. They are, after all, about 7,000 miles away from Washington D.C. too.

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Trump’s erratic decision making comes at a uniquely precarious moment as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un threatens action of some sort. Most likely he’ll restart nuclear tests if he does not get the Washington attention he craves by the end of the year. 

So far Trump has accommodated Pyongyang, including two long-distance flights to meet Kim in Singapore and Vietnam and cancelling joint US-South Korea military drills. His unpredictable dealmaking instincts were restrained by his then hardline National Security Adviser John Bolton. He no longer serves at the pleasure of the President. New National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien will likely play a much less dominant role than his predecessor.

How much longer will Trump stay the course on the US goal of denuclearization despite the threat these weapons pose for Tokyo and Seoul? At this point nothing can be taken for granted in an administration priding itself on the “unconventional” and the leadership style of a self-proclaimed man of “great and unmatched wisdom” who claims he is smarter than all of his generals.

The range of possibilities that might upend decades of US policy in Asia staggers the mind. Trump could unilaterally declare an end to hostilities with North Korea without getting anything in return. He could decide to pull a large contingent of US troops out of South Korea, declaring he’s bringing them home from a forever “war” on the peninsula so far from US shores. No President has done that since the Korean War.

Trump could suddenly decide to reduce the Seventh Fleet’s freedom of navigation operations through the South China Sea as some sort of quid pro quo to get China’s dirt on former Vice President Biden and his son Hunter. In the alternate universe of Trumplandia anything is possible.

The consequences of his unpredictable thinking are already on full display. Japan’s military budget has hit historic highs and is expected to rise nearly five times to US $240 billion in 2023 from US $47 billion in 2018. The increase, fueled mostly by security concerns over China and North Korea, speak to a new abnormal, that the US may not be counted on if Trump remains in office for a second term.

China, of course, would like nothing better than a US pull back, if not an altogether removal from the region, but Beijing can’t celebrate too quickly. Mutual defense treaties that govern US troop and military support for South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines limit any drastic reversals in policy.

Congress erupted with condemnation from both Republicans and Democrats in a powerful vote criticizing the President over his troop pullback form Syria. That forced Trump to backpedal with a warning that he could ”destroy” Turkey’s economy if their military incursion, which he let happen, goes too far.

Any dramatic upheaval in Asia policy would certainly provoke similar ire among legislators on Capitol Hill. He desperately needs the support of Republican Senators to fight a Democrat-led impeachment process.

That doesn’t mean Trump won’t try something just short of politically catastrophic. As he careens from one ill-informed pronouncement to the next it becomes ever more clear that he has no grand strategy. The White House is in the throes of an extremely chaotic and unprincipled phase of this presidency. 

US allies in Asia will need to be prepared for more of the unhinged, unhealthy, or worse. Their relationship with the US Congress is now more important than ever.

This op-ed originally appeared here on the SCMP website 10/24/19

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Trump’s Diplomatic Reality Show Hits Summer Re-Run Season

Photo: AFP

This op-ed appears originally appeared on the SCMP website 7/5/19.

Last Sunday, US President Donald Trump crossed the guarded border in Panmunjom, a village in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. He smiled and shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as photographers rushed to capture the history-making moment. This was, after all, the first time a sitting US president had set foot in reclusive North Korea.

What could have been a breakthrough meeting between the last cold war rivals instead devolved into yet another photo op for the White House family album.

Meanwhile, Trump gains little from giving away personal meetings like candy from a cheap dispenser.

A one-hour-plus Trump-Kim meeting followed without any discernible outcome, other than that the negotiators will get back to negotiating. So we end up where we started, sold on an empty victory as the Donald Trump diplomatic reality show goes into its summer rerun phase.

Under an administration that is obsessed with camera-ready events rather than serious strategy, the country’s credibility around the world continues to decline.

Imagine if this effort had gone into concluding a comprehensive treaty with the North, eliminating the missile and nuclear threat and establishing a durable peace on the Korean peninsula. Then this meeting might have been worth something.

Instead, Trump love-bombed Kim. This flattery may be Trump’s attempt to get the reclusive leader out into the world and impress him with the riches that could be his if he would give up his nukes – except that Kim is not that naive. To believe that Kim would succumb to Trump’s charms and miraculously give up weapons he thinks ensures his country’s survival shows a remarkable lack of sophistication on Trump’s part.

While the White House preoccupies itself with staging publicity stunts, North Korea keeps winning, the longer Kim holds out for a deal. Stringing Washington along is cost-free and gives the young leader larger international exposure and some semblance of overseas influence. Also, perhaps more importantly, it buys him time to continue developing his nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, Trump gains little from giving away personal meetings like candy from a cheap dispenser.

The administration’s preference for optics over policy is not limited to North Korea. Meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Trump eased national-security restrictions on Chinese tech giant Huawei in exchange for a promise of increased Chinese imports of US goods. China was already buying large quantities of US agricultural products before he imposed tariffs – so yet again, we have an apparent development that just pushed the trade talks back to where they started.

However, Trump’s sudden back-pedalling on Huawei – like his flip-flop on ZTE, another Chinese smartphone maker that had been banned from buying US components after breaking US sanctions against Iran – only adds to other countries’ concern. With Trump, everything is a commodity to be traded.

On Iran, the White House has shown a propensity for haphazard thinking. After repeatedly warning Tehran that shooting down a US drone and attacking ships in the Strait of Hormuz would result in decisive action, Trump suddenly reversed course. He said he was concerned about the loss of life. But it wasn’t a convincing excuse because military commanders could have easily offered other targets or options for retaliation if that was the major issue.

Impulsive and consensus-bending actions are now being emulated among US allies. Japan and South Korea have, in the past, worked in concert on economic and security issues. At the G20 summit in Osaka, both countries adopted a declaration to “realise a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, to keep our markets open”.

Yet, within days, Japan imposed restrictions on hi-tech exports to South Korea. The sudden action appeared to be in retaliation for a top Korean court ruling on Japanese compensation for wartime forced labour, an issue which Japan says it settled under a 1965 treaty.

The world will be worse off if this rot continues. Back in the US, domestic politics is also replacing substance with style and made-for-television flash. According to a Pew survey in June, an overwhelming majority of Americans – 85 per cent – believe that political discourse in the US has become worse, and 55 per cent blame Trump. Huge numbers believe that political debate has become less respectful, fact-based, and substantive.

Leadership has always had an element of stagecraft – grand settings for formal talks, the glare of press corps lights, red carpets. “Politics is show business for ugly people,” as the saying goes. But leaders have to be judged by what they actually accomplish.

So far, global leaders have willingly participated in Washington’s publicity stunts, but as the ties that bind nation to nation slowly unravel, international cooperation will become more difficult. Not only is the world less safe as a result, the preference for symbolic gestures over concrete action also encourages a rise in personality politics.

Even Trump admits in his book Trump: The Art of the Deal: “You can’t con people, at least not for long … if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” The only question remaining is how much longer this con that has lasted 2½ years can keep going.

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