When President Donald Trump announced his intention to back the United States out of participation in the Paris climate accord, what was most startling was not the potential negative ramifications this move might have for climate change on Earth—which are not to be merely undersold, mind you—but the tone this set in terms of America’s relationship to the rest of the globe. As was largely established in his espousal of an “America First” ideology during his Inauguration speech and throughout his campaign, Trump’s abdication of the U.S.’s environmental responsibilities was essentially a “f**k you” to anyone who was not the U-S-of-A. What made Trump’s announcement particularly galling was the idea the Paris agreement is a voluntary, non-binding treaty. That is, if any signatory nation violates the terms of the accord, it is not as if the rest of the nations in the form of some super big army would come in and, say, force the violator to use hybrid cars.
In fact, prior to Pres. Trump indicating he was opting to pull out—cue salacious wink—the U.S. has been by far the worst offender when it comes to carbon emissions, and has further hampered international efforts to effect a set of environmental standards with some teeth, thanks in large part to opposition on the part of Republican leaders and lawmakers who have refuted the science on climate change, or simply have favored weakening regulations as part of their vague conservative pro-business agenda. Climate change—pshaw! It’s ISIS we should be worried about! They want to take over the world and force us all to live under sharia law! I’m sure as shit not giving up pork! Hell, no, we won’t go!
The United States of America has long viewed itself a cut above the rest, something special. To a certain extent, those who feel this way are right—in terms of its history as a fabled melting pot and as a haven for democratic values, not to mention one of the world’s richest countries, the home of the red, white, and blue has a unique place in the international community. Then again, we are long since removed from the days of the American Revolution and Ellis Island serving as a major hub for entry in the United States. Besides, regardless of what era we’re living in, it’s seemingly a fine line between a proclamation of national pride and individuality, and patriotism to the point of stubbornness. Metric system? Forget that! Why would we want a system based on the number 10 which makes all kinds of sense? Better to have some mess of measurements based on the British imperial system that you either have to memorize or constantly look up! And while we’re at it, screw soccer! Football is way better—because you use your hands—which makes it strange that it’s called “football”—but screw it some more! Because America!
Attitudes like those set forth by Donald Trump which would place America first and all others second—presumably this includes Russia, but you are free to draw your own conclusions in this regard—by their nature appeal to the ultra-conservatives and nationalists among his base. Of course, this is Donald Trump we’re talking about here, so his positions on this dimension have been anything but consistent. For all his bluster about keeping out of other countries’ affairs, especially in the Middle East, it certainly knocked the alt-righters who bought a four-year pass on the Trump Train for a loop when he went and authorized the use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan. As enthusiasts of the military-industrial complex instead would be concerned, America under #45 has already seen its fair share of meddling and flex of military might.
Soon after his Trump’s tenure began, the administration proceeded with an operation in Yemen, the success of which is very much debatable. For all the supposedly “helpful intelligence” that was gathered and despite 14 al-Qaeda militants being killed, according to U.S. officials, the Yemen raid also resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, the destruction of a $90 million aircraft, and the deaths of 23 civilians. John McCain, a man who, ahem, knows something about serving his country, even went so far as to label the mission a “failure.” Once we dispense with the usual self-serving talk from Trump, Sean Spicer, and other flatterers within the administration, we are presented with a case where—surprise!—our President’s judgment and flippant approach to foreign policy can and should be scrutinized.
It’s not just in Yemen, however, that we as a country collectively have blood on our hands under Donald Trump, and as with the botched raid on high-ranking al-Qaeda members in Yemen, the collateral damage and overall questionable utility of certain operations merits more attention than it otherwise has received by the mainstream media. In April, multiple reports confirmed that the United States bombed a mosque in Syria, killing 40 civilians and wounding dozens more, a notion which flew directly in the face of U.S. officials’ accounts that it had targeted an al-Qaeda stronghold. This incident fits in with a disturbing pattern of the use of military force under #45: lower insistence on safeguarding civilians in Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere; spikes in the number of civilian casualties disproportionate to the actual number of airstrikes being carried out; and general lack of oversight by the Commander-in-Chief and leadership by the Armed Forces in general. And this is before we even get to the matter of spending and cost overruns, which have been an issue with the Department of Defense even prior to Trump’s tenure. Just recently, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published a report which found that the DoD blew upwards of $28 million on uniforms for the Afghan Army that not only were inappropriate fits for camouflage given the surroundings (roughly only about 2% of Afghanistan is forest), but were much more expensive than comparable options. Again, whether it’s human lives or millions or dollars, that these are not larger concerns or more publicized is disconcerting. Oh, well. Just put it on our tab. What’s that? A bunch of brown people died in the Middle East? No biggie. They were only Muslims—no big deal.
America First—but just for kicks, let’s bomb the shit out of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Sure, we have tons of things to fix right here at home, but let’s focus on who can and can’t come into the country. President Trump’s professed inclination toward isolationism alongside his apparent hard-on for upping our defense spending and bolstering our nuclear capabilities only hints at an administration of which its foreign policy direction in any given area or region is marked by maddening inconsistency and positions that are far from fully-formed. Trump entertains a call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen—and then goes ahead and agrees to uphold the “One China” policy that has existed in America for decades. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggests Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states overstepped in their blockade of Qatar—and then Trump commends the use of that same blockade. Trump derides NATO as “obsolete”—then backpedals on that assertion. It’s one thing to use the “keep them guessing” strategy so as to try to bolster your position in negotiations or to ward off your enemies. Heck, North Korea relies on this as its default way of interaction with the rest of the world. Do we have nuclear capabilities? Can we fire a missile and obliterate you as you’re sitting and sipping on your latte? Not sure? Guess you better watch out! It’s another, however, when you confuse your allies and members of your own Cabinet with your remarks. The administration is already hampered by inefficiency owing to the number of positions Mr. President has yet to fill or for which to even provide a nominee. Add the inability of Trump and Co. to effectively communicate within their own circle, and it’s no wonder this presidency has been characterized as, as the kids would say, a “hot mess.”
More recently, two overt policy shifts with respect to specific nations have drawn widespread attention, and though they are very different, one begins to wonder whether they are both motivated by a legitimate belief that they are the best option, or perhaps more likely, that they are concessions to his supporters and/or deliberate attempts to do the exact opposite of what Barack Obama did, especially toward the end of his second term. The first is Cuba. Marking a 180 from the previous administration’s renewal of bilateral relations, Pres. Donald Trump’s restrictions on travel and business with the island nation are intended expressly to cripple its Communist-led government—as well as to appeal to the portion of the Cuban-American delegation resentful of decades of rule under the Castros and a voting bloc that has generally and traditionally opted red (though there is evidence that tendency is eroding). Moreover, in the demand for the extradition of Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard—who escaped prison after being convicted for the murder of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster, fled to Cuba, and has remained there as a political asylee ever since—Trump is looking to solidify his support from the men and women who wear the badge.
You may agree with Trump that Cuba’s government is not an ideal arrangement. You may yourself favor Shakur/Chesimard being “brought to justice.” Even noting these may be principled stances, though, whether or not to engage in a reversal of America’s course to renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba deserves to be talked about. David E. Wade, former Chief of Staff of the State Department, penned an opinion piece critical of this change. Calling the move “the wrong policy in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Wade, noting the odd juxtaposition of lashing out at Cuba despite Trump’s apparent affection for the likes of Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, first questions the utility of taking a hardline stance with Raul Castro set to step down next year and the Cuban government becoming increasingly unpopular with its own people. But that’s our Donald—a man who seems pathologically incapable of thinking about the long term as opposed to what’s directly in front of his face or what he watches on FOX News.
Secondly, Wade argues, this hurts the Cuban people and does little to disadvantage the regime in power; the spike in tourism from the United States experienced since President Obama effected a thawing of diplomatic relations between the two nations has benefited everyday Cubans, since Americans stay predominantly using Airbnb, while other foreign visitors use government-controlled resorts. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, this move is bad for American economic and diplomatic interests. According to a study cited by Mr. Wade, over $6 billion and 10,000 jobs stand to be lost in Trump’s policy shift, and aside from this, there has been improvement in agreements between Cuba and the U.S. on how to handle drug trafficking, environmental disasters, human trafficking, and other issues of a human rights tint. Not to mention our loss may well be China’s or Russia’s gain. Unless that’s really the whole point—particularly on the side of the latter.
The other big bugaboo is Iran, which was already on the GOP hit list because of the nuclear deal orchestrated with its government, a perhaps imperfect but viable framework for bilateral relations between the two nations. Amidst fighting ISIS in Syria, U.S. forces, which have long advocated removing Bashar al-Assad from power, and Iranian forces, which have lent support to the Assad regime, have found themselves on opposing sides when not trying to root out extremism. Donald Trump, for his part, has thus far only insisted on spewing anti-Iran rhetoric and being buddy-buddy with Saudi Arabia, also notably, ahem, not a big fan of Iran (something we would believe is not-so-coincidental given his business interests there). And while he hasn’t dismantled said nuclear deal yet, Trump’s comments have made it evident where he thinks Iran stands, relatively speaking: he equates the nation with ISIS and al-Qaeda in terms of its danger to the rest of the world. Apparently, all those “Death to America!” chants are not exactly endearing to Iran’s cause—shocking.
This political posturing exhibited by the Trump administration bereft of a concrete strategy in the Middle East, coupled with competing interests that seem difficult, if not unlikely, to reconcile, makes various outside onlookers concerned that an all-out conflict with Iran is not only possible, but probable. In a recent piece which appeared in Politico, Dennis Ross, an experienced U.S.-Middle East negotiator, accedes to as much from the jump by stating that “Trump is on a collision course with Iran.” In laying out the state of affairs in the region which concern both the United States and Iran, Ross goes into depth about the forces and motivations behind what has happened and potentially will happen. Admittedly, much of it is beyond my ken as a humble blogger, but a significant point in his analysis involves the notion that Iran is seeking to create a land corridor to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria. Ross is not the only one to suggest this direction for Iran as an extension of its foreign policy, but regardless of who is supplying this intelligence, if you will, this adds a bit of a wrinkle to American aims in this region. While there clearly is no love lost for Iran within the United States, nor is Assad a popular figure (rightfully so), the U.S.’s priority is ISIS and al-Qaeda. Add Iran’s interference and the presence of the Russians, and we’ve got quite the situation on our hands. On one hand, we want to fight jihadists and don’t want to go looking for trouble with Iran or Russia. On the other hand, though, by letting Iran operate unchecked, this could make it harder for us to fight extremism in and around Syria.
Simply put, and as Dennis Ross elaborates, things are not so simple in this neck of the woods. The YPG, a group of mostly Kurdish fighters who has been most effective alongside the U.S. Armed Forces in fighting ISIS, also has ties to Assad’s government, and there is the risk that clearing militants out of certain areas within Syria will be an immediate boon to the regime and will lead to the kind of oppressive conditions for Sunnis that helped produce ISIS in the first place. The powers-that-be in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states, while certainly concerned with the fate of Syria and ISIS’s influence, are presently more absorbed by the blockade of Qatar, with the Saudis in particular making demands of Qatar to cut ties to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, to close a Turkish military base stationed there, and to disband al-Jazeera, among other things, as well as making unspecified threats should its leadership not comply within a short span. Meanwhile, Iran and Turkey are helping Qatar weather the blockade with food supplies. Each country seemingly has its own agenda, if not multiple reasons for its behavior, at that.
In light of this, as Ross explains in closing, the United States is tasked with trying to navigate the morass of conflicts and clashes of worldviews in the Levant and surrounding areas in forming a strategy moving forward. Saudi Arabia and the UAE need to be convinced to help reshape Syria given a defeat of ISIS and an end to the Assad regime. Turkey has to work with, as opposed to against, the anti-ISIS coalition, and has to be assuaged about its concerns about the growing Kurdish/YPG presence at the Turkish border. And Qatar has to stop supporting extremist groups and giving voices to, for instances, those who condone violence against Israelis by Palestinians—even if there are legitimate issues with the relationship between Israel and Palestine, including our own blanket support for Israel despite the proliferation of West Bank settlements. As Dennis Ross puts this succinctly: “In a confusing landscape, the administration must leave little doubt about its objectives and priorities.” And yet, there are so many doubts about our objectives and priorities, chief among them whether the presidency, for Donald Trump, is merely a vanity project and means by which to enrich himself. Or to try to gain access to certain resources in the region. Just saying what many of us were thinking.
Pres. Trump’s tough talk on Cuba and Iran—and for that matter, Mexico or the Paris agreement—may play well with specific segments of the American electorate. Let’s build a wall! Let’s put a boot in the ass of those who don’t like freedom, baseball, apple pie, and the rest of ‘Murica! Where it doesn’t go over so well is in those countries at which Trump is pointing his freakishly small fingers. In response to Trump’s announced policy shift, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez referred to it as a “grotesque spectacle,” vowing his country will “never negotiate under pressure or under threat,” and scoffing about Trump and America lecturing them on their human rights records—of all countries. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian vice president and head of the country’s atomic energy organization, has similarly warned the U.S. about siding with Saudi Arabia, selling them guns, and threatening to upset the balance of power in the region while ignoring its security concerns. In other words, these countries are not cowed by Trump’s rhetoric, nor would we expect them to be particularly jazzed up about being all but coerced into behaving a certain way. Donald Trump’s brand of “diplomacy,” as a subset of his professed ability as the consummate deal-maker, seems to be little more than a combination of transactional stick-and-carrot appeals and vague militaristic threats, as if a simple token of appreciation or show of chutzpah will be enough to get the other side to acquiesce. Whether it’s because the United States has lost its standing somewhat, whether other leaders believe #45 is only interested in idle gestures, or both, however, they appear more than willing to stick by their principles. Especially when, you know, they’re in the right.
Donald Trump’s vision of America is one of the greatest country in the world continuously being taken advantage of for our riches and generosity. This coming from a man who wears designer suits and claims to speak for the downtrodden among us, and who experiences delusions of persecution in his own life, imagining himself as the subject of the greatest witch hunt in our history. You mean, more so than the actual Salem Witch Trials, Donald? Although that was before we were technically a country, and you’re only getting off with a technicality with this sort of logic. It doesn’t take long before Trump’s claims, unsupported by verifiable evidence, fall apart like a flaky French pastry, and either way, you figure it would behoove him to act with a little more dignity. Though America is great for the ideals on which it was founded, it is not without its excesses and hypocrisies, the likes of which are surely not lost on its critics around the world. As such, it is arguably worth very little to cry about being a victim when we have and continue to throw our weight around economically and militarily.
Alas, Mr. Trump can only pout and stamp his feet, and work to squander, in record time, the credibility and goodwill Barack Obama, the imperfect President that he was, worked to foster. In a framed conflict of America vs. the world, we all lose. What’s more, if prevailing trends in international relations continue as they are, we evidently have much more to lose in the coming days, weeks, and years.