August 23, 2017 8:50 pm JST
Keith B. Richburg

White House dysfunction ensnares the world

Trump's generals can redirect US policy but no one can fill the vacancy at the top

U.S. President Donald Trump at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona on Aug. 22 © Reuters

North Korea should be worried. China might be feeling relieved. America's traditional Asian allies, including Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia, can rest momentarily reassured. Human rights activists and dissidents must be disenchanted.

This is the main takeaway in Asia from the latest tumult engulfing the Donald Trump administration. The turmoil began with a shocking rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, by hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis and the murder of a young anti-fascist counter-protester, which Trump initially failed to condemn convincingly. A bad week for the president culminated on Aug. 18 with the departure of White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon.

In Arizona on Tuesday, Trump gave an angry, rambling campaign-style speech lashing out at real and perceived enemies, particularly the "crooked" media, "obstructionist" Democrats, entrenched Washington elite and even members of his own Republican Party.

It was a performance that left many analysts stunned. "I found this downright scary and disturbing," James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, said on CNN.  Some observers noted there was a measure of comfort in new signs that some level-headed generals surrounding Trump now seemed more in command.

Trump remains mercurial, and is the ultimate source of most of the chaos and disarray in the administration. But, for now at least, it appears that established foreign policy professionals are in the ascendancy -- led by the generals, John Kelly as chief of staff, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser and James Mattis as defense secretary. That means a Bannon-instigated trade war with China is less likely, a military option for dealing with North Korea's nuclear program is back on the table, and Asian concerns about U.S. commitment to the region can for now be assuaged.

The first concrete sign of the rise of the generals came on Tuesday with Trump's televised announcement of a "new" Afghanistan strategy that will essentially continue America's military operations indefinitely, with a modest increase in U.S. ground forces. This was the path largely recommended by the generals, and vociferously opposed by Bannon, who argued inside the White House that continued U.S. engagement in Afghanistan was folly. Bannon proposed instead turning over American military operations to a private security company.

Bannon also took his fight public, through the Breitbart News outlet he headed before joining Trump's campaign a year ago, to which he returned after leaving his White House job. In the midst of the debate over Afghan troop levels, and whether the U.S. should stay engaged or go home, Breitbart began blasting McMaster as a "globalist" who was not committed to Trump's "America First" isolationist agenda.

Trump's natural inclination was to side with Bannon and the other noninterventionists on his team. During the 2016 campaign, and long before, Trump had repeatedly called the Afghanistan war a waste of American lives and resources. "Let's get out!" Trump tweeted in 2013. With Bannon marginalized and eventually dismissed, the generals who advocated staying the course held sway.

But it is not just Afghan policy where the rise of the generals is likely to have immediate impact. The Communist leadership in Beijing will have been resting slightly easier.

Bannon was the leading proponent of an open trade conflict with China. "The economic war with China is everything," Bannon said in a candid interview with The American Prospect 48 hours before his departure was announced. "And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we're five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we'll never be able to recover."

Trump did launch an investigation into allegations that China has stolen U.S. intellectual property. Bannon saw that as an opening salvo in a multi-pronged series of trade cases that would also encompass steel and aluminum dumping, saying, "We're going to run the tables on these guys."

China hawks

Some China hawks remain in the administration, such as trade adviser Peter Navarro, but the upper hand appears to be with those advocating a more nuanced approach, including trying to enlist China's help on broader international problems like North Korea. Besides the generals, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump's adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his daughter Ivanka Trump have cultivated good relations with Chinese officials.

The official attitude of relief seemed summed up in an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist party-owned tabloid. "It can only be sincerely hoped for that Bannon's exit will inspire White House decision-makers to reduce the radical aspects of its global policies," the newspaper said. But it added a cautionary note, saying, "Even though Bannon is out, his influence will loom over the White House to some extent."

In Pyongyang, North Korea's leadership might be feeling more unnerved. Bannon had dismissed the idea of Beijing cooperating with the U.S. to rein in North Korea, saying, "They're just tapping us along. It's a sideshow." And he mocked the idea of a military option to resolve the problem of the Pyongyang regime's development and testing of nuclear-capable long-range missiles. "There's no military solution here, they got us."

Days later, Mattis and Tillerson directly countered Bannon, without naming him. "There are strong military consequences if DPRK initiates hostilities," Mattis said, using an alternative name for North Korea. Tillerson added, for good measure, that diplomacy "has to be backed by a strong military consequence if North Korea chooses wrongly."

America's Asian allies, who have been concerned since Trump's election and his "America First" exhortations about Washington's commitment to the region, will be somewhat reassured. Trump remains the most unpredictable president in modern history, given to fits of pique and outlandish statements on Twitter. But policy now seems firmly in the hands of Mattis, McMaster and Kelly -- and, to a lesser extent, Tillerson, who presides over a downgraded, demoralized State Department.

Asia's tireless human rights campaigners, activists and dissidents -- many of whom are standing up against authoritarian regimes -- may also be feeling demoralized. Trump's abdication of moral leadership after the Charlottesville rally was disheartening to Americans. To Asians and others who looked up to America as a moral compass and a source of principled leadership, Trump's pursuit of a values-free, transactional foreign policy leaves them largely isolated and alone.

Trump has gone out of his way to court Asia's authoritarian leaders. He praised President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has presided over a violent crackdown on drugs, and Thailand's military ruler Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general and coup-leader, who is expected to visit the White House in October, according to the Thai foreign ministry. The U.S. administration has been rallying Southeast Asian countries to cut off the funding stream to North Korean front companies.

In downgrading human rights concerns, Trump is abandoning a bipartisan consensus in U.S. foreign policy for the last 40 years. When the president praised Chinese President Xi Jinping as "a terrific guy" in July -- hours after the death of imprisoned Nobel Prize laureate and pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo -- human rights activists were aghast at his tone.

But Trump's maladroit comments after the racial violence in Charlottesville -- suggesting moral equivalence between American Nazis and anti-fascist campaigners -- show that the problem is not just about his tone. There is a moral vacuum in the White House. And all the president's generals cannot fill the vacancy at the top.

Keith B. Richburg, a former foreign editor of The Washington Post, is director of Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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