Fire, Hire, Pol­icy Paral­y­sis

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Seema Sirohi

It’s time to check in with the US pres­i­dent. Such is the noise com­ing out of the White House, you won­der if the com­man­der-in-chief is in con­trol of his troops. Or is he him­self in­sti­gat­ing the bare-knuckle fights among his com­man­dos?

The toll is se­ri­ous at the six-month mark of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency. Even the strong of stom­ach and the loyal are wor­ried at the sheer drama quo­tient, the fac­tion­al­ism and the daily shock treat­ment.

Re­cent ca­su­al­ties: Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Di­rec­tor An­thony Scara­mucci, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Spokesman Sean Spicer, and As­sis­tant press sec­re­tary Michael Short, all of whom re­signed, or were forced to, within a span of 12 days. On life-sup­port: Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor H R McMaster, whose plan to send more troops to Afghanistan was re­jected by Trump and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, who has suf­fered re­peated pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion by his boss.

Col­lat­eral dam­age: Cred­i­bil­ity, grav­i­tas and other qual­i­ties nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with the White House.

Out­come: Pol­icy paral­y­sis on al­most all fronts, from health­care to Afghanistan. Trump sight­ings on the golf course: 42, as of last week. Even though tu­mult in the Trump White House has come to be ac­cepted as ‘nor­mal’ in this ad­min­is­tra­tion, the last few days were ex­cep­tional for the ver­bal sav­agery. Scara­mucci, who came and went in10 days, had an­nounced his ar­rival with a vi­cious, pro­fan­ity-laden de­nun­ci­a­tion of Priebus and Steve Ban­non, Trump’s po­lit­i­cal strate­gist and the keeper of the ide­o­log­i­cal flame. On sec­ond thoughts, the rant was ap­par­ently too much for his boss.

In short, chaos dom­i­nates and im­po­si­tion of or­der re­mains a thing of the fu­ture. John Kelly, the new chief of staff and a for­mer gen­eral, has been moved from home­land se­cu­rity to the White House to put a lid on the daily frat­ri­cide. We shall see.

For­eign pol­icy is­sues — even the cou­ple that Trump is in­vested in, such as North Korea and China — are only Twit­ter-wor­thy. For­get the Rus­sia re­set, now that Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has or­dered the ex­pul­sion of 755 US diplo­mats and staff in re­sponse to new sanc­tions.

As for South Asia, the Afghanistan pol­icy re­view is mired in se­vere dis­agree­ments with McMaster’s plan for more troops stymied by both the pres­i­dent and the Pen­tagon. Trump presided over a rare meet­ing on Afghanistan on July 19, which in the tra­di­tion of this White House was de­scribed as a ‘shit show’ by in­sid­ers.

Trump has sent his gen­er­als back to the draw­ing board, dis­miss­ing months of ef­fort by McMaster and his deputy Lisa Cur­tis to change the con­tours of US pol­icy by beef­ing up the US pres­ence and dress­ing down Pak­istan.

McMaster’s ef­forts to pur­sue the war dif­fer­ently, be­cause of mem­o­ries of the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­tense mi­cro­man­age­ment, are stalled. He is fight­ing a lonely bat­tle, re­peat­edly un­der­cut by two cab­i­net col­leagues — Sec­re­tary of De­fence James Mat­tis and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son — who, hav­ing read the tea leaves, have cho­sen safe pas­sage. They be­lieve Trump is re­luc­tant to send more troops, es­pe­cially if there are no clear mark­ers for suc­cess.

The po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers are adamant that resur­gence at home is more cru­cial be­cause that’s what won them the elec­tion. And Trump agrees. He told re­porters last week, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.”

He is clearly be­ing pulled in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions by com­pet­ing fac­tions. If McMaster ad­vises more com­mit­ment on Afghanistan, Ban­non would rather ‘out­source’ the war to pri­vate con­trac­tors. Dan­ger­ously ab­surd, but two pri­vate busi­ness­men have been push­ing the con­cept around town.

So, the six-month back-room bat­tle on Afghanistan pol­icy and the US’ long­est war con­tin­ues. The ar­gu­ments are the same — they haven’t changed for 16 years. US State Depart­ment of­fi­cials be­lieve that Pak­istan is un­likely to mould its be­hav­iour, and that in­creased pres­sure could lead to fur­ther in­sta­bil­ity in the re­gion.

The Pen­tagon is tak­ing a some­what tougher line on Pak­istan, but just about. It re­fused to cer­tify $350 mil­lion in mil­i­tary aid to Pak­istan. But that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily trans­late to a big­ger com­mit­ment to Afghanistan. Key politi­cians like Se­na­tor John McCain have said there can be “no peace with­out Pak­istan’s co­op­er­a­tion”.

Mean­while, Pak­istan sym­pa­this­ers are out in force. For­mer US of­fi­cials can be heard around town ra­tio­nal­is­ing the Is­lamic State’s pa­tron­age of ter­ror­ist groups as ‘hedg­ing’, and crit­i­cis­ing In­dia on Kash­mir. They are bet­ting on US pol­icy re­main­ing largely the same: hov­er­ing over the mid­dle ground, buy­ing time, and pre­vent­ing the col­lapse or de­feat of the Afghan gov­ern­ment.

In­dia will have to re­cal­cu­late given the cur­rent pol­icy sta­sis.

Re­flect­ing chaos: Scara­mucci

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