Between Donald Trump and the US “Deep State”
by Federico Pieraccini
http://www.strategic-culture.org (February 21 2017)
In just two weeks as president of the United States, Donald Trump has left traces of how he intends to tackle various international political situations. The previous article dealt with a series of possible sabotage efforts suffered by the Trump administration. In this second and concluding article, I intend to analyze the situations in Iran, Russia, Ukraine, and Syria as well as the stance towards Nato, the EU and China. The goal is to decipher how Trump has used admissions, silences and bluffs in order to advance his intentions and obviate the deep state’s sabotage efforts.
Deep-state sabotage is in full swing and is increasingly influencing the Trump administration. The latest example can be seen in the resignation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He was forced to resign either for inappropriate contacts with the Russian ambassador in the US prior to his appointment, or for not telling the truth about his phone call to the Vice President and President.
As with the whole Trump presidency, it is very difficult to understand whether we are facing an act of sabotage from the deep state or whether this is yet another semi-improvised strategy to muffle the drums of war. We all know of Flynn’s closeness to his Russian counterparts, a rapprochement that cannot be placed in danger with the dismissal of the new National Security Adviser. Trump needs Russia more than Russia needs Washington; improving ties is something that Trump needs in order to avoid major conflicts and de-escalate the international situation. One could even imagine that Flynn was wisely removed given his harsh and trenchant positions on Iran that would send Washington on a terrible path of war with Tehran.
There are several international situations in which the intentions of the new administration are very difficult to understand and sometimes even provoke amazement. Let us first examine the administration’s attitude towards the Iran and Yemen. As noted a few weeks ago, very harsh words from the US administration were directed towards Tehran following a legitimate missile test, and especially with the defensive actions of the Houthis in Yemen. With Yemen and Iran not looking like diminishing their legitimate actions, the affair regarding Flynn could fall into a de-escalation strategy to contain excesses in Islamophobia expressed by the former National Security Advisor.
Trump has always preferred to counter deep-state sabotage attempts with substantial bluffing, as seen with the strong rhetoric used against Tehran regarding its recent actions, exactly as in Yemen for the actions of Ansarullah defense forces. The Trump strategy seems to want to please the factions closest to the neoconservative wing, the Israeli and Saudi lobbies. Targeting Yemen and Iran with words has at least temporarily quietened the drums of war of an important part of the establishment in Washington. Trump has to carry out a careful balancing act involving his words and actions in order not to not draw too harsh a response from the Washington establishment.
Flynn’s dismissal could also be seen as an easy attempt to sabotage and prevent a rapprochement with Russia; indeed this is likely to be so.
But meanwhile, we can consider one positive aspect: Flynn has always been highly Islamophobic, tending to find it difficult to distinguish between Wahhabi terrorist goons and legitimate Islamic fighters like the Houthis or Hezbollah. Flynn has usually maintained pro-Saudi positions and even pro-Qatar Muslim Brotherhood positions. It may even be that Trump has torpedoed his own personally chosen pick dampening the excessive saber-rattling against the Islamic Republic of Iran that was possibly laying the groundwork for an escalation that Trump had to reign in. This is pure speculation, but everything is possible with this unpredictable presidency.
Much Talk, Little Action
Trump still gives the strong impression that he intends to avoid any further conflict. Bluffing on Iran and Yemen seems to be the ideal choice for the Trump administration: harsh tones and words to placate the most hawkish factions without actually taking any action appears to be the new normal. The first strategy of Trump’s foreign policy therefore seems to be to employ a tactic of inaction. Not acting could well represent a new turning point in American foreign policy, avoiding further involvement in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf. This would represent the first confirmation of Trump’s intention not to squander American resources by going to war and betraying his election promises, thereby further impoverishing the United States. Observing the very intense words on Iran, let us try and analyze the intentions of the Trump administration. Certainly having people like General Mattis within the administration is a big test for how Trump will manage to contain the most
anti-Iranian wing of his inner council. Could Flynn’s departure be the first step of this internal cleansing, a warning signal to other pro-war figures? Or maybe it is none of the above and in actual fact the first successful sabotage from the deep state.
Silence as a Strategy of Inaction
Another important approach in Trump’s presidency is a frequent silence or lack of comment on international events. Two most recent cases concern Syria and China. With regard to the “One China” policy, Trump confirmed assumptions made in the past, namely that his intentions are anything but malicious. The tone was initially hard, only to be replaced by a long silence, and then finally words one would not expect, averting an international crisis on this front. It is a modus operandi that should be taken as an example for understanding the psychology of Trump. At first he was critical in a decisive way, calling into question China and Taiwan, then he no longer mentioned the topic, and finally he gave his blessing to the “One China” policy, initiating a likely mutually fruitful cooperation.
Another important part of Trump’s policy of silence involves Syria. Since becoming president, Trump has rendered events in Syria irrelevant, making the issue disappear from the media radar. Thanks to Trump’s guerrilla tactics, lobbing smoke grenades hither and tither and signing two executive orders a day, the media simply does not have the time and perseverance to keep up with everything. One of the sacrificial victims has been the reality in Syria; but a lack of attention from the mainstream media is currently the best hope that we can desire for the Syrian people. Trump’s attitude seems to be deliberately cautious and silent about developments in that nation. The situation in Syria is firmly in Russian hands, and what seems to be occurring is an indirect coordination between Washington and Moscow against Daesh in the country. The silence from Trump certainly irritated the most radical and extreme wing of the deep state, but any attempt to sabotage this progress in Syri
a now seems to be wrecked thanks to the inaction of the Trump administration and the actions of Moscow. The final coup de grace would be to openly cooperate or act in joint US-Russia actions to defeat terrorism in the region.
Admissions to Confirm the Election Promises
Finally, Trump has never hidden and indeed has often touted his vision of the approach that should be taken with the Russian Federation. A rapprochement with Putin to combat terrorism is one of the pivotal points around which the Trump presidency rotates. During the election campaign he has never hidden his positive intentions, even though this increased the criticism directed towards him. This part of his tactic is based on the admission from the beginning of his campaign of his intention to reach a deal with Moscow. The first confirmation of this intention can be seen in Syria, with Washington apparently ceasing the flow of money and weapons to the so-called moderate rebels, pleasing Moscow and looking for a de-escalation of the conflict. Another important aspect regarding Trump’s statements in terms of foreign policy concerns the role of Nato and his European allies.
During the election campaign he repeatedly attacked the role of Nato, but then was forced to reach an agreement given the importance of the international framework guaranteed by Nato in Europe. This provided a very clear indicator of how Trump’s strategy works out if he has to defer to other considerations. He changed his initial positions by placing a strong emphasis on the need for US allies to pay their share of military spending, namely two percent of GDP. Currently all Nato countries, excluding the United States and Greece, fall below this commitment. Sharp focus is brought on the EU members on the cost of keeping Nato alive, forcing them to come to terms with the harsh economic reality that this implies. In the long term this could lead to a strong treaty revision of Nato. EU countries are increasingly facing difficulty in increasing defense spending, especially when considering existing austerity measures as well as the lack of importance placed on Nato by the European pub
lic, with the exception of the EU elite.
This tactic will further weaken the integrity of the European Union. In a sense, the Trump strategy in this case is crystal clear and will probably achieve its objectives.
This situation will provide the perfect opportunity for the European populist and nationalist parties to further attack the foundations of the European Union and its security framework guaranteed by Nato. If Trump wanted to undermine the EU’s foundations, pointing to the futility of Nato and at the same demonstrating to his base that he will act on his election promises, then this strategy seems perfectly calibrated.
Ultimately, we can already say that the relations between Trump and the deep state are essentially based on sabotage efforts against Trump, and the asymmetrical responses of his administration, ranging from bluffing, to silences, and admissions.
To correctly assess Trump’s foreign policy, one should divide into three categories the vicissitudes of the United States. In a first column we can include words and rhetoric; in the second, inaction; and in the third, actions taken.
While it is clear and obvious that the first column includes Iran, Yemen and the EU/Nato, it is worthwhile noting that the second column certainly includes inaction like shown towards China, Syria, and the events in Ukraine. The third column, for the moment, essentially concerns the first steps towards Russia and the rapprochement with Moscow. In this sense, it is worth remembering that the resignation of Flynn may just be a deep-state move to sabotage Trump before he takes decisive action to settle a deal with Russia. The tactic of not acting, or of inaction, is difficult to sabotage, as the deep state came to realize when Obama decided not to act in Syria in 2013. Criticizing actions taken is much more effective and easy for the media, as seen with the attacks on Trump’s team for ties with Putin that are deemed too close. In this sense, the hypothesis that Flynn has been sacrificed should not be discarded in this context as a way of promoting a rapprochement with Russia, elimin
ating one of the most contentious issues between the administration and the deep state.
On this aspect we will need to await the developments between Moscow and Washington, and how this will possibly change the rhetoric against countries such as Yemen and Iran, two countries long criticized by Flynn and his colleagues.
The only possible conclusion relates to the previous point, namely the clear division between words, actions, or inaction. At the moment, the Trump team’s strategy seems to use these three options to further advance their own interests and strategic objectives. Given the uncertainty surrounding the intentions of Trump’s administration, the only sensible attitude seems to wait and see whether the aggressive rhetoric remain just that. Another consideration relates to actions taken by the administration to approach and mend troubled relations with the Russian Federation. Finally is the inaction in foreign policy that amounts to a precise tactic. If words remain words and inaction will continue to remain a key part of the current presidency, perhaps for the first time in decades we will see in practice a positive change in direction from the new US administration.
In all this it remains to be seen whether Trump will really change the direction set by liberal hegemony with its global ambitions for a more realistic one as repeatedly suggested by the school of political realism represented by Mearsheimer. Only time, and actions, will tell.