Fire, Hire, Policy Paralysis
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