The Big Uneasy
Terry H. Schwadron
On too many days now, we are scanning the headlines and feeling unease — or worse. Much of it has moved from bad domestic outcomes to troublesome foreign issues.
What these all have in common is that they raise more new questions without any sense of resolution. America is suddenly feeing threatened, and the talk has become more bellicose. All the choices are bad, all the situations are complex, all the slogans are simple.
Here are some of our foreign policy quandaries of the last several days:
· Syria. The Syrian government apparently dropped chemical weapons on its own people this week, with hundreds either dead or injured, and the response has been both bristling and unclear. The White House blamed the Syrian government for the attack, calling it a “reprehensible” act “that cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” Then, showing a tin ear, Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, added that “these heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the last administration’s weakness and irresolution” for not having eliminated Assad a few years ago. But Obama did not drop the weapons, and you’re the President? Well, what are you going to do about it? By yesterday, the answer moved to an acknowledgement acknowledgment by Mr. Trump that he has a decision in front of him. Still, he continued to blame Obama for not having addressed Syria earlier. As Peter Baker, White House correspondent for The New York Times noted, Mr. Trump has dispensed with what he considers pointless moralizing and preachy naïveté. . . His “America First” approach focuses not on how other nations treat their people but on what they can do for the United States.” I’m not confused, just left angry that even this is not a question that can be freed from daily partisan politics.
· Egypt. Embracing the authoritarian Egyptian leader, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, was a change of attitude from President Obama, who declined to welcome al-Sisi at the White House. Under the apparent belief in “transactional” practicality, Mr. Trump sees close alliance with al-Sisi because of his anti-ISIS views as far outweighing humanitarian concerns in a country still jailing hordes of opponents. Wait, Mr. Trump wouldn’t shake hands with Angela Merkel but found reason to shake hands twice with al-Sisi? Is there any actual tangible Egyptian military support against ISIS? Is Egypt trying to resolve Middle East strife? Can we square cutting foreign aid, but increasing aid to Egypt? I’ll admit, I was left feeling logic-whipped.
· North Korea. The heat from the North Koreans is building faster than its nuclear program, with yet new missile launches that eventually will prove successful. They use words AND missiles; so far, we use words. Mr. Trump vows that he will stop the North Koreans even if there is no cooperation from the Chinese. Now we hear that there is actual options planning for military moves and economic sanctions that reportedly include a first-strike possibility of military action against North Korea. That is a new United States foreign policy that I don’t recognize. Don’t we deserve a little explanation?
· ISIS. We clearly are increasing the number of U.S. military personnel available to combat or near-combat roles. But we have gotten no briefing as a people about what we are doing, why, about how many Marines and soldiers are involved, and about what the goals are. We have no idea as to whether there is a plan for the days ahead, after the expected defeat of ISIS. Why not? Why is Congress silent? Why isn’t the President asking for the kind of Congressional vote of backing that Obama had sought (and not gotten). How deep is our commitment to war here? This is to say nothing about the fact that the war on ISIS is less about territory than about winning hearts and minds.
· Israel. Where last we left this story, our President lectured a bit at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about suspending new settlements. Netanyahu appeared for a bit to comply, but has gone ahead and said without approving a new settlement, he wants to further populate and grow the current settlements. Palestinians naturally noted that this was incursion with a new name. Are we working to solve this problem or not?
· China. As the odd visit to Mar-a-Lago approaches this weekend, our man in designing a China response, Jared Kushner, thinks the meeting is so big, that he is in Iraq to get some on-the-ground training about what Iraq is really about. It is clear that the U.S. will be seeking help from China about limiting North Korea, but still Mr. Trump continues to talk up China’s aggressive economic policies and cites “cheating” on currencies even though China now is investing in maintaining their own currency. It once again is pretty confusing.
· Russia. The Russians are making it known that they’d like to sit down with Donald Trump soon. All the more reason that you would think that the White House would want to resolve as much as possible about the investigations into Russian influence-building and interference in the elections. Also, it had been the Russians who had guaranteed that the Syrians gave up their chemical weapons. What are we to think now?
· Bannon. Lastly, the White House tacitly acknowledged a mistake and removed Steve Bannon from the “principals group” that discusses top national security options. That sounded great until I heard that replacing him will be Rick Perry, the man who couldn’t remember that he wanted to eliminate the Energy Department that he now heads.
The bottom line is that I have almost no idea what we are doing or why. What I see is all about emotion, not strategy, about personal likes, not national goals. We have a Secretary of State who doesn’t believe in talking to reporters, and we have a White House that believes only in the most personally boastful, most general principles without providing details. We believe in “America First,” as if that explains everything. We need a bigger military, with no clarity about whether we intend to deploy it. We seek to defend ourselves or to strike first. We want to use our economic power, and yet don’t want to recognize a place on the international stage. As columnist Tom Friedman noted this week, Mr. Trump seems surprised to learn that foreign issues are as complicated as health care.
We can’t even discuss it all because it somehow might come across as critical, and therefore be rejected as disloyal and “fake.” None of the problems described here are fake.
I’m not surprised that Mr. Trump is surprised. I just feel uneasy.