The grudges now dividing the US have taken the schism of “him versus her,” in reference to President Donald Trump and his erstwhile electoral rival Hillary Clinton respectively. There is no more “us and them,” amid an atmosphere charged with incitement, revenge, threats and exclusion.
Gone is the American tradition of respecting the presidency through refraining from criticizing the president when he is on foreign trips, in affirmation of unity. Instead, the media and intelligence community are relentlessly assailing the man who has antagonized them, in an attempt to bring down Trump by any means necessary. America’s foreign policy bearing has been lost in the mazes of investigations, leaks, and speculations regarding alleged suspicious ties between Trump and his men in the White House, and Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin henchmen.
Their goal is to establish Trump’s alleged involvement in deals with Putin during the elections, including possible Russian interference in the vote to prop up the Republican candidate and breach US national security through the presidency. If these accusations were to be proven, Trump’s presidency would collapse, either with his impeachment or forced resignation. But until the investigations take their course, and the media tribunals deepen America’s schisms, the question will not be whether or not Trump will remain in power, but whether he will manage to govern amid a determination in the media and the intelligence community to paralyze him and bog him down.
Moreover, what kind of relations will the US have with Russia, Europe and the Middle East if the efforts of the so-called “deep state” — the alleged shadowy, but powerful networks within government bureaucracies — succeed in tying his hands and disarming his presidency? In other words, the Trump administration’s foreign relations cannot be steered in a traditional manner, but require extreme skills to navigate between the merciless waves. In turn, other countries, friendly or otherwise, are mired in uncertainty over relations with the US, watching with keen interest the fate of official investigations and the bickering between the presidency, media and the intelligence community. So what are the implications of this extraordinary situation?
The US will not collapse, no matter the wishes of its adversaries, and no matter the divisions brought about by Trump’s presidency. Donald Trump will not prove to be America’s Boris Yeltsin, as the vengeful Russians who enthusiastically supported him perhaps wished him to be. America’s configuration will not allow it. If it is true that Russia intervened in the US election to secure its interests through a Trump victory, then what has happened since the elections has shaken that weak notion, because the US is not a dictatorship and because accountability is enshrined in the constitution. Therefore, the US experience has proven that those who assumed the interference in the elections entailed superpowers and grand machinations were wrong, because the alleged meddlers are facing a backlash and the opposite of what they supposedly set out to achieve.
Indeed, US-Russian relations, at best, remain hostage to the results of the investigations and the ensuing uncertainty. Worse still, the alleged meddling has tarnished Russia’s image in the minds of a majority of Americans, who are now antagonized against Russia. Putin himself has commented on this, accusing American parties of deliberately inciting public opinion against Moscow.
What concerns many Americans are the implications of the domestic problems on the US’ external appearance, undermining its prestige as the world’s preeminent power and its international influence. These Americans are angry about the conduct of the media and the intelligence community, although not all of them necessarily support Donald Trump. These Americans insist that US interests should be paramount, not the political divisions. They blame the presidency, the media, and the intelligence community for the crisis, and believe the Republican-dominated Congress will not allow the impeachment of the president. This segment, which forms a major part of the American public, wants all sides to cease and desist.
Ordinary Americans are angry about the conduct of the media and the intelligence community, although not all of them necessarily support Donald Trump.
Most American media outlets have abandoned professionalism and decided to politicize, no longer even pretending to be objective, having joining one of the two camps — pro- or anti-Trump. True, Trump has antagonized the media with his narcissistic strategy aiming to marginalize and sideline his critics. However, this does not mean the media can abandon its duty, and slide into campaign-waging. Every journalist has the right to hold power to account, but this privilege does not grant the right to deviate from the norms of the profession, no matter what the justification.
For these reasons, there is resentment against the American media, and its determination to incite, although there is still a public interest in accountability. A segment of the US public fears for national interests and international position. The intelligence services stand accused of leaking information at the expense of national security, and some Americans want them to stop.
On the other hand, this segment of the US public wants the president to stop being arbitrary and to show some self-control. It wants Trump to put an end to his vacillation between discipline — as shown by delegating tasks to members of his administration — and going out of bounds as evident, for example, when the US president shoved the prime minister of Montenegro during a meeting with NATO leaders. These Americans want the media to support the president and end its shenanigans, because the issue touches on national interests.
The self-styled liberal media has decided to tear down everything Trump achieved in his visit to Riyadh in May. The media decided to wage a campaign against Saudi Arabia, which had arranged summits with the US president.
The history of appeasement with Tehran, and the media’s infatuation with Iran, date back to the tenure of former President Barack Obama. Perhaps this is why media have decided to wear blindfolds and side with Iran despite its alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad and its support for the militias and their atrocities, and despite Iran’s strategic alliance with Russia in Syria. It is truly odd because the media is attacking the president for seeking to mend ties with Russia, and for criticizing Iran’s policies of regional dominance.
A test awaits the relationship between the Trump administration and Putin’s government, and the kind of media coverage that will follow. By mid-June, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will establish a new anti-terror department at the UN Secretariat. Before all the clamoring about alleged suspicious ties between Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador in Washington, and associates of Donald Trump, diplomatic sources had indicated that the chairman of the planned anti-terror department would be a Russian and would have the rank of undersecretary, with Kislyak being the prime candidate. It remains unknown how the media will handle this. In the event the Trump administration approves Kislyak for the post, there will be several implications, according to one ambassador, who asked not to be named. And if the administration vetoes Kislyak, then there will be problems that the secretary-general probably did not anticipate.
Russia may insist on its candidate for the post or may choose to avoid confrontation and choose a substitute, such as Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, previously a senior UN official. Either way, there will be implications for relations with the US and the UN.
The state of US-European relations following Trump’s visit to Brussels indicates the European powers are now less certain about the NATO partnership, not necessarily because of Trump’s evasiveness on Article 5 regarding collective defense, as the media suggested. The main reason instead is the US president’s increased isolationism, and in light of Trump’s apparent desire to relinquish the burden of US leadership without contribution by other allies to the cost.
On the one hand, one can say this is exactly what Putin wants for NATO: For the alliance to be weak and without US leadership. On the other hand, the positions of Trump may push Germany, France, and others to take the lead in Europe and stand up to Putin, instead of hiding behind Trump. Either way, the geopolitical cards are being reshuffled, but they may end up empowering Europe to prevent any intervention and meddling in their affairs.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.