A Con­stantly Re­volv­ing Door

India Today - - UPFRONT - SU­MIT GAN­GULY Su­mit Gan­guly is a Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence and holds the Tagore Chair in In­dian Cul­tures and Civ­i­liza­tions at In­di­ana Univer­sity, Bloom­ing­ton

The spate and pace of res­ig­na­tions and fir­ings from the Don­ald Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has no par­al­lels in the his­tory of any 20th cen­tury Amer­i­can pres­i­dency. The five most re­cent and prom­i­nent de­par­tures, of course, have been Nikki Ha­ley, the United Na­tions am­bas­sador in Oc­to­ber; Jeff Ses­sions, the at­tor­ney-gen­eral in Novem­ber; Ryan Zinke, the sec­re­tary of the in­te­rior around mid­De­cem­ber; fol­lowed by James Mat­tis, the sec­re­tary of de­fense in late De­cem­ber; and, most re­cently, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff on Jan­uary 2.

What ex­plains this wave of de­par­tures from an ad­min­is­tra­tion that is barely in its sec­ond year? At least four rea­sons, some over­lap­ping, can be sug­gested. A num­ber of key of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing those in the cab­i­net, felt com­pelled to leave be­cause they faced charges of eth­i­cal lapses. Their ex­o­dus may have been has­tened after the Democrats won the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Novem­ber 2018. A num­ber of in­com­ing chairs of var­i­ous per­ti­nent com­mit­tees in the House had made it clear that they had def­i­nite plans to in­ves­ti­gate the work­ings of a se­ries of de­part­ments. Faced with the prospect of Con­gres­sional grilling, a rush to­ward the door, no doubt, ap­peared rather at­trac­tive. The exit of Zinke was a prime ex­am­ple: he was un­der a cloud be­cause of his in­volve­ment in a ques­tion­able land deal in his home state of Mon­tana.

Apart from the prob­lems of pro­bity, while in of­fice, the pres­i­dent sim­ply forced out oth­ers on the ba­sis of per­sonal con­sid­er­a­tions. For ex­am­ple, Ses­sions was re­moved from of­fice be­cause he failed to do Trump’s bid­ding. It is widely known that Trump was un­happy with his prin­ci­pal law en­force­ment of­fi­cer, as the lat­ter was un­will­ing to curb or ter­mi­nate the on­go­ing probe into pos­si­ble Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that a for­mer FBI di­rec­tor, Robert Mueller, is lead­ing.

A hand­ful of in­di­vid­u­als have also left the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­cause they have their own am­bi­tions. The res­ig­na­tion of Ha­ley is per­haps the most prom­i­nent ex­am­ple thereof. De­spite pub­lic de­nials on her part, it is widely be­lieved in Wash­ing­ton, DC, that she har­bours pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions. Con­se­quently, it made much sense for her to leave her of­fi­cial perch with am­ple time on hand.

Fi­nally, some key of­fi­cials rang­ing from Gen­eral H.R. McMaster, the sec­ond na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, to Rex Tiller­son, the sec­re­tary of state; Gary Cohn, the chair of the Coun­cil of Eco­nomic Ad­vis­ers; Gen­eral James Mat­tis, the sec­re­tary of de­fense; and Gen­eral John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, were ei­ther nudged or shoved out of of­fice be­cause of pol­icy dif­fer­ences with Trump. These in­di­vid­u­als had run afoul of the pres­i­dent be­cause they had dared to chal­lenge him on key pol­icy is­sues—rang­ing from na­tional se­cu­rity to trade. As a con­se­quence of these de­par­tures, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is in the pe­cu­liar po­si­tion of hav­ing six crit­i­cal of­fices—from the sec­re­tary of de­fense to the di­rec­tor of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency—with act­ing heads. Worse, ac­cord­ing to The Guardian, within a span of two years, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has wit­nessed a 65 per cent turnover in se­nior po­si­tions.

What are the pol­icy im­pli­ca­tions for the US, and pos­si­bly for In­dia, that flow from these fre­quent changes in a range of cab­i­net and other de­part­ments? For the US, the ef­fects are clear: it has led to a se­ries of pol­icy un­cer­tain­ties as key in­di­vid­u­als have been ei­ther forced out or felt com­pelled to de­part. For ex­am­ple, with Mat­tis no longer at its helm, it is un­clear whether the depart­ment of de­fense will sus­tain a num­ber of key poli­cies. In this par­tic­u­lar con­text, In­dia may well face the con­se­quences of pol­icy shifts. Patrick Shana­han, the new act­ing sec­re­tary of de­fense, has no re­gional ex­per­tise and is acutely be­holden to Trump for his po­si­tion. He may feel com­pelled to fol­low through on Trump’s ex­pressed sen­ti­ments about a sig­nif­i­cant troop with­drawal from Afghanistan with im­por­tant strate­gic reper­cus­sions for In­dia. Un­der the present cir­cum­stances, In­dia’s po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship should re­main alert to the pos­si­bil­ity of an abrupt pol­icy shift on a crit­i­cal is­sue of re­gional se­cu­rity.

In­dia’s lead­er­ship should re­main alert to the pos­si­bil­ity of an abrupt pol­icy shift by the US on re­gional se­cu­rity

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