Confusion and Chaos in Trump’s Administration
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(06 Oct. 2017) — Diplomats in Washington and political leaders around the world are confused about what to expect from the Donald Trump Administration. Most democracies and free market countries rely on America’s leadership on important geopolitical, international security, and other global issues. Now, trust in America’s instincts, judgment, and leadership is being questioned in capitals around the world. The confusion and chaos which have become characteristic of the Trump administration, reeling from issue to issue, has the international community in fear of increased instability, exacerbation of old conflicts, and possible new and even more deadly conflicts emerging in the not too distant future.
There was a time when the international community looked to the U.S. Secretary of State as the purveyor of U.S. foreign policy. The Secretary’s words had credibility on which world leaders charted their country’s future course. Those dynamics and expectations are no longer valid. The Secretary’s words are only as credible as Trump’s next tweet. And, the President’s tweets, as incoherent as they may be, do not evince confidence in political leaders anywhere; and each tweet could quickly be reversed by a subsequent even more confusing one.
The diplomatic effectiveness of the Department of State (DoS) has been severely undercut by the President’s marginalization of the Secretary. This is exacerbated by the shortage of professional staffing at the DoS, due in large part to resignations and even more so by the tardiness in making new appointments by the Secretary and the White House. Several critical positions are left with low-level careerists lacking the experience necessary to shape foreign policy and provide advice to the Secretary.
In is now common practice for President Trump to contradict Secretary Rex Tillerson on major issues which could have grave implications for the U.S. and for the international community. While the bellicose rhetoric on North Korea may have abated, the threat of military confrontation has not. The President’s recent tweet stating Tillerson is wasting his time pursuing a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear threat is disturbing. Given the context – the recent sanctions imposed by the United Nations and by his Treasury Department on North Korea, one would have expected that a diplomatic option would be pursued. By rebuking Tillerson’s pursuit of diplomacy, Trump’s message to the world strongly suggests that the only option remaining is military. Such a prospect creates great trepidation among North Korea’s neighbors and throughout the international community more so than it bothers North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump doesn’t seem to understand that, or he doesn’t care.
President Trump’s yet unannounced decision not to certify Iran’s compliance pursuant to the commitments under the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran nuclear deal) is quite troubling. The JCPOA is not just an agreement with the United States. UN Security Council (UNSC) in its resolution 2231 (2015) approved the JCPOA agreed by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, and Iran, all parties to the agreement. Resolution 2231 requested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to verify and monitor Iran’s commitment under the JCPOA. The IAEA has been doing its job inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities without any hindrance from the Iranian government and has reported that Iran is compliant with the JCPOA. The UNSC and the other parties to the JCPOA are not expected to support U.S. abrogation of the agreement.
The international community has confidence in the IAEA’s expertise on nuclear matters and trusts the IAEA’s reports on Iran’s compliance. Secretary of State Tillerson also accepts the IAEA’s findings and has pushed for certification of Iran’s compliance by the U.S. Government (USG). Contrary to Tillerson’s advice, Trump has indicated he will withhold certification which is due by October 15th. It will be up to the U.S. Congress to determine the future of the JCPOA as it applies to future U.S. participation.
A vast majority of Congressional Republicans has been highly critical of the JCPOA from the outset and may go along with Trump’s campaign promise to abrogate the agreement. Congressional leaders had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was vehemently opposed to the JCPOA to address the Congress. They insulted President Barack Obama by not informing him in advance which would have been in keeping with protocol.
However, when faced with a choice of adhering to the agreement or going to war with Iran Congressional leaders may muster the courage to stop Trump. They may find a way to save face by imposing new sanctions on Iran related to its support of international terrorism and human rights abuses. U.S. sanctions on Iran already in place in these two areas are unrelated to the nuclear proliferation issue and could be expanded as an alternative to withdrawal from the JCPOA. While that distinct possibility exists, neither Trump nor much of the Congressional Republican leadership seemed bothered by U.S. isolation on this issue. For sure, Iran will be angered by new sanctions and there will be significant pressure from the country’s religious leadership to withdraw from the JCPOA and revert to development of its nuclear weapon and missile programs.
Instability in the Middle East and elsewhere will be increased significantly. Saudi Arabia may decide it needs to develop nuclear weapons to protect itself from Iran, its long-time enemy. Israel may decide to react militarily to any new nuclear or missile programs by Iran. The entire region could be engulfed in war. It will all have started in Washington by Trump and the failure of a Republican Congress to check his urge to fulfil another campaign promise.
With the international community unable to trust Tillerson’s words on US foreign policy, there is anticipation of Tillerson’s resignation. Regardless of who replaces Tillerson as Secretary of State when the time comes, the international community and each country on a bilateral basis will not be able to take the Secretary’s words as binding commitments on the part of the USG. Moreover, the question will remain: Who speaks for the United States on foreign policy? Whether, as rumored, Tillerson is replaced by current CIA Director Mike Pompeo or US Ambassador at the UN Nikki Haley it won’t make any difference. Their words won’t be credible unless specifically endorsed by Trump in one of his tweets or otherwise. Even then, each successive tweet is likely to contradict the preceding one and only serve to create further confusion in the global community.
There are a number of other pressing geopolitical and security issues on which world leaders are looking for consistency and focus, in particular on terrorism, such as the war against ISIS in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere; the threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates; and from other terrorist groups around the world. There is still a war in Afghanistan; and, there is Climate Change! At home, issues such as dealing with the devastation caused by hurricane Irma and Maria in the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; the wanton killings in Las Vegas which could be repeated elsewhere; and the lack of political will and leadership to curb easy access to deadly weapons in America; the rescinding of DACA; and many other issues fill the domestic agenda.
The confusion and chaos in Washington does not provide any comfort to the people of the United States or to the international community accustomed to American leadership on difficult geopolitical issues. So, where do we go from here?
© 2017 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post