Trump clears path for foreign policy switch

Trump clears path for foreign policy switch

When President Donald Trump spoke to a group of senior Washington journalists at the Gridiron Club recently, he knew the routine: Make some light remarks about the news, tell a few self-deprecating jokes, and move on. When Trump began speaking of North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-un, he quipped: “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.” The line received hearty laughs, partly because it hit on a question many in Washington — and around the world — are asking: Is Donald Trump a little, well, mad? Or is he, as the old adage goes, crazy like a fox
This is the sort of question being asked after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired to become the latest of dozens of senior Trump administration officials to walk through the exit door, either due to resignation or termination. Chaos would be an understatement to describe this White House. Tillerson will be replaced by Mike Pompeo, the CIA director and former Kansas Congressman, who seems to share Trump’s skepticism toward the Iran deal as well as establishment foreign policy views.
Pompeo and Trump are on the same wavelength. Tillerson and Trump, it seems, were on different planets.
In retrospect, Trump may have liked the idea of Tillerson more than Tillerson himself. After all, here was a successful CEO of one of America’s most profitable companies, gray-haired and serious, a businessman who might just shake up those pesky “globalists” at the State Department, and who came highly recommended by elite foreign policy figures like former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He seemed tailor-made for President Trump.
 
With Tillerson gone, rumors abound that the president would also like to show McMaster and Kelly the door, which would allow his postures on foreign affairs to take shape into actual policies.
Afshin Molavi
When the autopsy is completed on Tillerson’s short and bumpy tenure at the helm of America’s diplomatic corps, there will be the multiple reports of his feuds with senior Trump administration staff, his apparent disregard for the career diplomats at the State Department, and his foreign policy disagreements with the president on everything from Russia (he was more hawkish) to the Iran deal (keep it alive, he felt) to the Paris climate agreement (stay in, he said) to steel and aluminum tariffs (don’t do them, he argued). Oh, and there was also that time he allegedly called the president “a moron.”
Tillerson was, as Washington dubbed him, part of the “adults in the room” along with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly, and National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster. These men restrain Trump’s more unconventional foreign policy instincts, keeping them as often as they could as postures rather than policies. 
There is a reason that Washington and the broader media obsess about the personalities surrounding a president. These men and women can make a big difference in influencing the president’s agenda and shaping policy. Consider the steel and aluminum tariffs recently announced by Trump. The departure of White House staff secretary Rob Porter amid a swirl of abuse allegations against a former wife, and the elevation of Peter Navarro, a hawkish trade official, to a senior White House position proved to be a key turning point in shifting Trump’s posture of skepticism toward the free trade system into an actual policy with real world ramifications. 
Porter and the recently resigned Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, often tag-teamed to restrain Trump or perform bureaucratic interference against the trade hawks. Now, most of the free-traders in Trump’s White House are gone, and Navarro will continue whispering in the president’s ear while shaping policy.
The tariffs are a foolish policy that will harm the US economy, hurt American allies, and disrupt the global economy at a sensitive moment, when growth has been on the rebound. Trump’s “trade hawks” may have won the internal battle, but America and the world will lose this war.
Today, rumors abound in Washington that Trump would also like to show McMaster and Kelly the door. If he does, we will be entering uncharted territory, where Trump’s postures on foreign affairs will begin to take shape into actual policies.
If the North Korea head of state summit gambit is any indication, one thing is clear: Predicting what Donald Trump will do next is a fool’s game. Given the madman theory of international relations, he may even like it that way.
 
  • Afshin Molavi is the co-director of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact. He is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @AfshinMolavi
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