If the recalcitrant Cold Warriors in America’s “power ministries” remain untouched, they will be in a position to create provocations at any time of their choosing to override Trump’s planned détente policies.
Donald Trump’s State of the Presidency Address, 28 February 2017
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Donald Trump’s speech to the joint session of Congress was a well-crafted and well-delivered exercise in communicating his case to the nation. He opened with a description of the flurry of Executive Orders in his first 30 days in office, enacting key promises made during the electoral campaign. He then went on to describe the contours of legislation his administration will be bringing to Congress, starting with the budget and its featured scrapping of sequester for the military, which is to enjoy a 10% rise in appropriations while other government agencies are slashed. Then there was an extensive discussion of plans to repeal and replace Obamacare, as well as an extensive discussion of what will be done by tax policy and deregulation to assist American businesses and increase the availability of well-paying jobs for the general population.
Trump skillfully drew attention to the presence in the hall of the widow of one of the special services officers engaged in an anti-terror raid, of close relatives of persons who were murdered by illegal migrants, of a survivor of a rare disease. All of these vignettes demonstrated his compassion and generosity of spirit, a side of his personality that has been totally denied by his political detractors. He called upon Democrats and Republicans to put aside their differences and show similar generosity of spirit by passing his legislative program for the welfare of the nation.
Donald Trump’s 60-minute-long address was interrupted 93 times for applause, often standing applause and sometimes applause which crossed the aisle to include Democrats. Televised images of this President basking in enthusiastic support was surely a mighty antidote to the picture so determinedly projected by his political foes and by the mainstream media this past month showing an administration in disarray and a Chief Executive seemingly caught out in a Watergate-like scandal over illicit, possibly treasonous contacts with the Russians before he took office.
The line separating the two versions of his presidency was Trump’s retreat from his commitment to a new foreign policy, and in particular to new and constructive relations with Russia, that was marked by the forced resignation of General Michael Flynn, his National Security Advisor, on 13 February.
Flynn was at the center of the controversy over the new administration’s plans for détente with Russia. In the days since his departure, we witnessed the demarches of Nikki Haley, the new American ambassador to the United Nations, first insisting that the United States does not recognize Russia’s takeover of Crimea and then, this week, standing as one of three sponsors of a resolution in the Security Council condemning the Assad regime for use of chemical weapons. Both positions were a direct continuation of what her predecessor in the Obama administration, Samantha Power, had been doing.
In the same period, we saw Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis make statements in Munich, Bonn and Brussels reaffirming US commitment to defense of its NATO allies and holding Russia to account for fulfillment of the Minsk Accords on the crisis in Donbass, Ukraine. Here again, the statements made were fully in line with U.S. foreign and defense policies of the past 25 years, whereas Trump, the candidate, had called for upending these policies based on the ideology of Neoconservatism in favor of pursuit of national interests (Realism).
Only the last 5 minutes in Trump’s address to Congress dealt with foreign relations. And there, his own words were consonant with what he had his cabinet officers say the preceding week. NATO’s obsolescence was no longer a topic for discussion. Russia was not mentioned by name once in the speech. America’s allies in NATO and in the Pacific were reassured that “America is ready to lead.” That one statement was a rare instance when the entire audience rose to its feet in applause.
Those who feared that Trump’s populism and “America First” spelled isolationism were put on notice that “Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world.”
In fact, in the entire speech there were only several lines in the last minutes that might give heart to those of us who had voted for Trump in the expectation of a New Foreign Policy: “America is willing to find new friends and to forge new partnerships where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. America is friends today with former enemies. We want peace, wherever peace can be found. America is friends today with former enemies. Some of our closest allies decades ago fought on the opposite side of these terrible, terrible wars.”
Depending on one’s powers of self-delusion, these last words may be construed as a hint: just wait, allow me to get my footing and establish my popularity in Congress and in the broad public through my legislative successes, and I will come back and deliver on my détente aspirations.
However, there are real and substantial problems with giving Donald Trump room for an open-ended tactical retreat. And these must be called out if his presidency is to achieve anything at all.
It is an inescapable reality that the firing of Flynn and Trump’s retreat from his foreign policy intentions were precipitated by an unholy collusion between the intelligence services, particularly the CIA, and the liberal press with intent to either neuter Trump by forcing a policy reversal or remove Trump through the impeachment procedure. The phoniness of the McCarthyite charges of Russian connections used to smear Trump and his entourage has been well presented in recent articles by Professor Stephen Cohen in The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/why-we-must-oppose-the-kremlin-baiting-against-trump/ ) and by Gareth Porter in Consortium (https://consortiumnews.com/2017/02/25/how-new-cold-warriors-cornered-trump/ ).
Those with a conspiratorial turn of mind have long spoken of The Deep State, which ensures continuity of policy whatever the results of our elections. Let us be specific: the problem, such as it is, resides in the intelligence services, namely the CIA and FBI, in the Pentagon and in the State Department. The first two functional bureaucracies are very aptly called the “power ministries” in Russia.
State is said to have been purged at its policy-making “seventh floor” during the week of Secretary Tillerson’s European travels. However, the text that was placed before the totally inexperienced Ambassador Haley for delivery in the Security Council shows that not all the “bad hombres” have been sent packing. The purge of the CIA and Pentagon has not even begun.
The ability and willingness of the CIA and Pentagon to sabotage presidential policy was clearly proven last September when a promising collaboration between Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov over a cease-fire in Syria was torn to shreds by an “accidental” attack by US and Allied fighter jets on a government outpost at Deir ez-Zor that killed nearly 100 Syrian soldiers, very likely including embedded Russian military advisors.
If these recalcitrant Cold Warriors in America’s “power ministries” remain untouched, they will be in a position to create provocations at any time of their choosing to override Trump’s planned détente policies. And that would be child’s play, given the close proximity of US and Russian forces in Ukraine, in Syria, in the Baltic States, on the Baltic Sea and on the Black Sea. Given the poor state of relations and the minimal trust between Russia and the US-led West, any accident in these areas could quickly escalate. And then we might see the side of Donald Trump’s personality that his Democratic opponents warned us about, his short temper and alpha male nature bring us into an armed clash the outcome of which is unforeseeable, but not likely to be good.
:There is another issue which cannot be postponed, but must be faced squarely very early on: Trump’s public remarks these past two days on his budget and how he envisions re-equipping the U.S. military. He spoke about financing a $54 billion increase on men and materiel by cuts in other departments. There has not been a word to suggest he is considering restructuring the $600 billion of military appropriations, for example by cutting the military bases abroad. These bases are configured to support precisely the global hegemony and American imperialism that he has denounced. What is at issue is not only realizing the tens of billions of dollars in savings that would come from repatriation, but also removing an American presence from countries where it only serves to foster anti-Americanism and to embroil us either in defending hated regimes or intervening in regional conflicts where we have no vital interests.
In a word, without restructuring our military spend we are condemned to a never-ending succession of wars abroad and Trump's entire plan of investment in America is doomed to failure.
These are issues which will not allow of tactical retreats. Who will bring them to the attention of this headstrong President?
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
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G. Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.