With the U.S. Senate endorsing the nomination of Rex Tillerson as the new Secretary of State, President Donald J Trump’s national security team is now complete, ready for action.
The Trump team differs from those of previous presidents in a number of ways.
To start with, Trump has decided to seek a tighter grip for himself by granting Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, or even Svengali as critics claim, a seat at the National Security Council (NSC).
Next, he has decided that his National Security Advisor, Lt. General Michael Flynn, would fix the NSC’s agenda
in consultation with Bannon.
This would give the inner-circle of presidential advisers a tighter grip on the choice of issues that the administration wishes to focus on.
Another important decision is to deprive the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top echelon of the U.S. armed forces, of a permanent presence in the NSC. Under Trump, the chiefs would be invited only to sessions that discuss matters directly related to their area of competence and authority.
Lowering the profile of the Top Brass need not be regarded as a major event if only because the top echelon of the Trump administration includes two retired four-star generals, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Secretary John F. Kelly, plus Flynn who has three stars.
The new Trump configuration also diminishes the role of the State Department, the vehicle for American diplomacy. Trump believes that the department has morphed into an exclusive club for cosmopolitan liberals more concerned about the sensibilities of foreign foes than the interests of the U.S. and its allies. Thus, the department will lose the seat traditionally reserved for the Deputy Secretary of State, even though the post may now go to a loyal Trumpist.
Tillerson’s choice as Secretary of States indicates Trump’s determination to shake the State Department. A businessman, Tillerson would be able to cast a fresh glance at all aspects of U.S. foreign policy, disregarding the receive wisdom dished out by the State Department’s “tired” diplomats.
It would be interesting to see how long would Tillerson resist “going native” and adopting the discourse and style of the State Department professionals.
The “inner circle” also includes Kt McFarland, a veteran of all Republican administrations since President Richard Nixon, who has been named Deputy National Security Adviser. Legal “know-how” for the inner circle would be provided by Don McGahan, named as White House Counsel.
Also expected to be part of the inner circle is Nikki Haley, named as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations with a seat on the Cabinet.
Two more members of the administration are likely to acquire some influence, at least on aspects of Trumps policy related to international trade and the changing patterns of the global energy market.
They are Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
The Trump ream differs from previous administrations in a number of ways.
To start with it consists mostly of people who have been successful in their respective fields of activity and do not owe their place and prestige to political patronage. This means that we could expect real debate at least within the inner circle.
Under Obama, the standard response of senior administration members was “yes, sir”. Under Trump one may get a better deal, at least with “yes, but.”
The average American public servant is often excessively concerned about “what-is-in-it-for me”, with an eye on the next rung of the ladder he might climb. Trumps team may be different if only because of the age of its members, six years older than the average for members of the last three administrations and the fact that most members do not envisage further political careers. Another factor is the personal wealth of the members of the new team that includes several billionaires. (Obama’s administration had no billionaires; most of its members were only millionaires.)
But what will the new team do?
Though no definite answer could be suggested as yet, there are indicators pointing to the direction that U.S. foreign policy might take at least in certain domains.
Some analysts, especially in Europe, have seen the Trump slogan of “America First” as an indication that the new administration tilts towards isolationism.
The “America First” slogan of Trump isn’t new however; it was launched in the late 1930s by people like the politician Huey Pierce, Father Charles Coughlin and the aviator Charles Lindbergh with a view to keep the United States out of the looming Second World War. At that time, the slogan meant a policy of disengagement or even benign neglect wherever possible.
With Trump, however, it means active engagement with the aim of securing better “deals” for the United States.
In the 1930s the slogan was really meant to convey an “America Alone” sentiment. Trump reads it differently to imply that America must come first in relation to, and competition with, other nations.
That sentiment is shared by the vast majority of Trump’s new team, men and women who have extensive experience of the outside world plus command of foreign languages.
Trump’s “America First” slogan is laced with a feeling of resentment prompted by the belief that the U.S. has been “made a sucker of” by friend and foe alike.
The average American could be world champion of friendship and generosity even to the point of fighting and dying on distant battlefields to save friends and allies. But he simply goes mad if he gets the feeling that the friends and allies he has saved simply took advantage of him, and pour scorn on him in secret.
Trumps promise, not to say threat, to tear up trade agreements is largely motivated by that anger. However, once it becomes clear that even the worst trade agreements have served U.S. interests, the “America First slogan might be given a different tonality.
What remains to be seen is the ability of the new team to translate what is a simple, not to say simplistic, slogan into the backbone of a coherent world-view and practical foreign policy.
Unlike Obama who believed, or pretended to believe, that his own ersatz charm and persiflage could move the biggest hurdles, Trump feels that what matters when the chips are down is the relative power of any two sides involved in a relationship. That point is amply made clear in Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” in which he recommends bullying, bluster and bluffing as legitimate tools of negotiations.
In Trump’s vision of the world, no nation is assigned a permanent label, and even the United States’ oldest friends cannot expect automatic indulgence when they act in an unfriendly manner.
A nation could be an ally or even a friend but act as an adversary or even an enemy in particular instances and on specific issues. Trump has two cases most in mind. The first concerns the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which he has described as “obsolete.”
This does not mean he wants to abolish NATO; in fact last month he indicated he wants to strengthen it. But he certainly would insist on the allies meeting their commitments both in terms of financial contribution and allocation of resources.
Next, Trump has served notice on allies, including Japan South Korea, Taiwan and friendly Arab states, not to expect the U.S. to continue providing police service for their protection on a no-tomorrow basis. But here, too, the outcome may well be a strengthening of U.S. commitment to the defence of its allies.
The conventional wisdom is that Trump will be “soft” on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his projection of power in the area of influence of the deceased Soviet Empire. However, Putin’s strategy is primarily aimed at promoting his own image as a strong nationalist leader standing up against Western bullies.
Obama fell into Putin’s trap by talking tough and doing nothing to increase the cost of Russian expansionism. Trump is likely to do the opposite: turning the volume down on Putin but making sure he pays the maximum price for his cheat-and-retreat shenanigans. This is why Trump’s 30-minute long telephone conversation with Putin did not include any reference to the easing of sanctions on Russia.
Trump may adopt a similar tactic against the Islamic Republic in Tehran. There, too, the mullahs have made maximum propaganda mileage by claiming that are standing against “the only Superpower” and winning. They have set aside the fact that the same “only Superpower” went out of its way to smuggle cash to them to pay the salaries of Iranian security services.
In fact, Islamic Republic President Hassan Rouhani has publicly stated that without Obama’s help in the context of the “nuclear deal” Iran would be in the same state of economic meltdown as Venezuela is today.
There is much speculation regarding Trump’s intention to scrap the Iran “nuclear deal”, a point hinted at by Tillerson in his Senate confirmation hearings.
However, no such dramatic action may be necessary. Instead, the new administration may do two things. First, it could stop operating as a lobby for the mullahs, as Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry did. That would send a strong signal to the rest of the world that the mullah’s regime remains a pariah and has a long way before qualifying for “business as usual.”
Secondly, Trump may administer some of the mullahs’ own medicine in the form of low-intensity operations and proximity pressure. In fact, Gen. Flynn, followed by Trump himself, this week put Tehran on notice that the Islamic Republic is now under close observation and that its’ every move would receive the response it merits.
That is in contrast with Obama’s policy of boasting about “all options are on the table” while violating international law to help the mullahs under the table.
The Middle East, with special attention paid to Iraq, Syria and Yemen, in addition to Iran, is likely to feature prominently in Trump’s global strategy.
The Trump administration has better and more direct knowledge of the region than did that of Obama. General Mattis was in command in Iraq and has a vast network of contacts among politicians, the military, tribal chiefs and religious figure there. He also has a smattering of Arabic and those who know him closely claim he genuinely wants Iraq to succeed in building itself as an independent and democratic nation.
Both generals Kelly and Flynn to could be regarded as old Middle East hands having visited the region and served therein various capacities since the 1990s.
The fact that Trump has cited the “total destruction” of ISIS (Da’esh in Arabic) as a top priority adds to the importance of reviewing Washington’s policy on Iraq.
Eliminating ISIS also requires a Syrian policy different from Obama’s confused musings.
Here, too, the conventional wisdom claiming that Trump would allow Russia to take sole charge of the Syrian dossier may be misguided. In a Machiavellian sense that wouldn’t be a bad policy, keeping Russia bogged down in the Syrian quagmire and wasting rare resources on keeping Bashar al-Assad nominally in power in a tiny corner of Damascus.
However, the new administration’s aims, as put by Tillerson during the Senate hearings, include two objectives that do not tally with such a Machiavellian scheme. Tillerson fixed two goals: The departure from power of Assad and the destruction of ISIS.
More importantly, perhaps, Tillerson insisted that the two objectives should be attained together.
This means that Washington is unlikely to pursue Obama’s policy under which U.S. military capabilities would be used in Syria only to strengthen Assad by attacking his non-ISIS opponents.
Obama’s policy failed because the U.S. military chiefs, and Pentagon as a whole, opposed working with Russia to achieve their military objectives.
Trump may offer a new “deal” under which Washington and Moscow can pull resources to destroy ISIS with the assurance that Assad, too, is flushed out. Such a joint venture would also prevent Russia from inheriting a totally ruined Syria which it won’t be able to rebuild on its own.
According to Washington sources, the new administration is already preparing contingency plans to help “domestic democratic force” in Lebanon where the new President, Michel Aoun, though beholden to Tehran, is known for his ability to change course when and if necessary.
Only thanks to Gen. Flynn, a specialist in Turkish affairs, relations with Ankara are also in line for a major review. There, evolving a balance between Washington’s traditional support for Kurdish rights and its interest in consolidating Turkey’s position as key member of NATO may prove difficult to achieve but not impossible.
The fact that Iran is singled out as America’s chief adversary in the region also means a higher U.S. profile in Yemen where rebel forces backed by Iran appear to be in some disarray.
An infusion of massive Iranian support could still prevent the total defeat of the Houthis and their allies, at least for the time being. The Trump administration’s aim is to make Tehran understand the true cost of such an adventure in Yemen. That understanding may persuade Tehran strategists to review a policy that is visibly leading nowhere.
In his style as a deal-maker, Trump may also enlist Russia as second-fiddle in reining in China’s growing ambitions in the Far East and Siberia.
The new Trump team has the great advantage of being bound together with a set of clear ideas which, though debatable, could provide the U.S. with a clear direction, ending eight years of rudderless zigzag under Obama.
This new team believes that America’s enemies have little power but use all of it against the U.S. while the U.S. has a lot of power but has been afraid of using even a tiny it of it against its foes.
The new team claims its aim is to make sure that fear changes camp and that cowardice finds a home with America’s adversaries.
How well, or how badly, the new team may pursue that aim remains to be seen.
By Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.