Monday, 10 April 2017
Making America Great Again?
So what are we now to make of the events of the last week? There are some ludicrous conspiracy theories going about of course that Trump and Putin have put all of this together and it is meant to distract us all from what really went on in the US election and hitherto.
Well it is possible to imagine that this thought might well have gone through the heads of Trump's team as they decided whether or not to launch the attack on Syria on Friday morning. But it is much more likely that Trump was simply persuaded that he had to take action because to do otherwise would make him look weak and indecisive and give other dictators carte blanche to do as they please. Given that Trump is also intent on reining in North Korea that was untenable. Were the pictures of children dying a factor? Undoubtedly. But there are plenty of people around Trump with experience in these matters to suggest that he was advised he had to act. He was given options and took the most proportionate one.
And since then the response, except from some churlish quarters, has been one of praise garnished with surprise. Trump can be presidential. He can be dignified. He can make the difficult choices.
But what now? Well that depends. Rex Tillerson is heading to Russia shortly, but the Trump administration, rather than backing down is doing what it always does and is doubling down. Once again it is right to do so. Enough is enough, they have said. This carnage - proper carnage, not the sort Trump referred to in his inauguration speech - cannot continue. Russia has to get out.
This is a dangerous moment though. Putin has become accustomed in recent years to getting his own way both at home and internationally. Now at last someone may be about to stand up to him. His dreams of Russia revanchism may well be coming up against the immovable object of the USA. That, as he well knows, is fight he cannot win.
Putin has got away with his approach thus far because Western democracies are inherently fearful of overreach and of getting embroiled in fights they cannot win or that are messy. As a dictator in all but name Putin has no such worries. Yet his strong man image would take a serious hit were he to back down on his backing for Assad. Russian prestige and wealth is invested in him clinging on. Russia had a chance of becoming a power in the middle east. Putin wants his country to be respected again, to be a superpower again. With Obama in the White House he had free rein for a time. Maybe, just maybe that is about to come to an end.
There are dangers of course. Will Putin back down or will he keep upping the stakes in the hope that Trump backs down? He knows that the inexorable democratic cycle may well make Trump more cautious, especially as the midterms near next year, although that is a very long way off at the moment. Anyway if Trump has a standoff with him it will do him and his party no harm at all with the American electorate, or at least that part of it that would be prepared to vote for him again.
There are and will remain question marks over Trump's relationship with Russia, his financial ties and his peculiar tendency to excuse Putin's excesses. These are questions he could easily have answered by simply being more open and transparent, of releasing his tax return, of divesting himself of his business assets, of answering questions more honestly. He still could. If indeed he is in the process of divesting himself of Steve Bannon then that it is all to the good. He listened to advice last week. It was advice from entrenched Washington types who know what they are talking about through experience. There is a lesson to be learnt there.
I have been as much of a sceptic as anyone about Donald J Trump from well before he was even the nominee. His first couple of months have been an unmitigated disaster with only Neil Gorsuch representing a triumph. But that should be a clue. Gorsuch, for all that he is a very conservative judge, will be a credit to the Supreme Court. He is a good and wise choice. Again, when Trump listens and takes advice he becomes a unifying figure for his party at least and even made the Democrats look petty with their ill advised game playing.
Going forward now there is an opportunity for a reset. But his administration needs to be less chaotic, better organised, better disciplined. Trump needs to listen to advice and also to lead. It's not clear that he can do this, that he has the intellectual heft and message discipline. It's not clear that his temperament is right. Can he take this moment and forge something meaningful from it? Is a Trumpian foreign policy about to emerge, or was it just an accident born of the situation and desperation? Can he, in short, capitalise on a situation, face down a bully and a murderer and make America a leader on the world stage again?
The problem for this interpretation is of course that Trump said the exact opposite on the campaign trail and as recently as last week.
This blog is a conservative blog. It could and should be able to find much to agree with Trump about. Finally in the last few days it has done so. By moving to the centre a little, dispensing with the nasty rhetoric and the stupid tweeting, listening to his better angels and dismissing his bad ones, Trump has looked presidential at long last. Look what being more restrained, less vain, less self obsessed and more open has accomplished in just a few short days. It hasn't stopped Alec Baldwin from taking the piss, but it has made Trump look like a president at last. If he follows through and makes Putin back down he might still eventually become a great president. The worry is that this most undisciplined of men will pivot again in the coming days. The impression is that his position changes according to who was the last person he talked to. The hope is that the praise and applause he has won will have their galvanising effect. Maybe he really was just nice about Putin because Putin was nice about him. Is that really all you have to do to get Trump onside? We may be about to find out. The worry is that nobody really knows, least of all POTUS himself.
I suspect that in a couple of days all will be back to normal again and the questions over Trump will reassert themselves with added cynicism born of extinguished hope. I suspect this but genuinely hope that I am wrong.