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Donald Trump And The New Global System

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Spectator.

Well, Trump has certainly done what he promised he would do, and more, especially on foreign policy. No fake news there. In only the first three weeks of his presidency he set in motion an almost total disruption of U.S. foreign policy as we have known it for the last seven decades. From this apparent chaos, Trump hopes to create a system that favors the United States and its interests.

As former National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn wrote in his February 13, 2017, resignation letter: “In just three weeks [Trump] has reoriented American foreign policy in fundamental ways to restore America’s leadership.” In truth, the Trump foreign policy chaos is likely to accelerate centrifugal forces in the global system that will be the death-knell of American exceptionalism and leadership, hastening a rebalancing of global power with the United States as just another player.

The outcome of this chaos and disruption is likely to be different from what the president intends, and it means a dramatically different modus operandi for U.S. foreign policy, with no hope of returning to the “old order.”

In the first three weeks Flynn referred to, the litany of disruptions heralding the new chaotic era is long: insulting Mexico; a phone call with Vladimir Putin, denouncing the strategic nuclear New Start agreement and seeking a different partnership with Russia; calling the 70-year-old NATO treaty “obsolete”; banning travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries; halting refugee entry into the country for 120 days and cutting the U.S. refugee admission target in half; declaring that the United States will stop China if it tries to take over islands in the South China Sea; canceling U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement; seeking to reduce U.S. funding for international organizations; insulting the Australian Prime Minister over a trivial refugee issue; promising a massive military budget increase and military buildup while calling for an end to military “nation building”—and surely many more actions I have left out.

Defenders of the way business used to be done have been outraged, on behalf of alliances, friends, treaties, agreements, or the legacy of what they accomplished when they were in office. But the seemingly random, uncoordinated, free-form Trump assault on 70 years of U.S. foreign policy, in its somewhat childish way, may accelerate the rebalancing trend already well underway before January 20, 2017. A Clinton presidency might have delayed this trend, but, inevitably, we are seeing the emergence of a different, non-hegemonic international system, one already apparent since the late 1990s, a world more similar to the Great Powers of the 1890s than to the “Cold Warriors” busily defending the old order.

Over the past 28 years, since the end of the Cold War, while neo-conservatives raged on about the victory of democracy and American global domination as far as the eye could see and pundits could predict, beneath the apparently calm surface of American hegemony, cracks in the Cold War system were already emerging, sometimes with a helping hand from the U.S. administration of the moment.

While NATO expansion, which provided reassurance to the former Warsaw Pact nations, was seen as a vital part of the Cold War victory, the expanded reach of the alliance and an implied promise that countries on the Russian border might soon become part of the “West” set Russian teeth on edge, contributing to an inevitable revival of Russian power and its unilateral self-assertion in the world. The rise of China, which began even before the end of the Cold War, was not something the United States could “contain” by military force or assertive policy; it is something that must be accommodated by recognizing that power relationships have changed and the previous rules in the Pacific, even broader global rules, had to evolve.

U.S. diplomatic and military dominance in the Middle East had already eroded well before the Obama administration offered support to democracy movements. Iran was already engaged in cross-region support for regimes and movements, a process that goes back to 1979. Saudi support for fundamentalist, violent jihadism was already apparent. Al Qaeda existed since the mid-1990s, its appeal amplified by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, the spiritual home of Sunni Islam. The Bush administration accelerated the cracking of the Middle East political glacier by invading Iraq. The later military “surge” put a pretty face on what was a strategic, military, and political failure and no sustained increase of U.S. troops could have guaranteed security or prevented the outbreak of tension between Sunni and Shia in the region.

Significant and growing U.S. counter-terrorism efforts that began in the Clinton administration, expanded with Bush’s Iraq invasion, and doubled-down with Obama’s drone strikes and special operations deployments did little to stem the metastasizing terrorist organizations. U.S. policy may even have stimulated the expansion and attractiveness of terrorist behavior by providing the extremists apparent evidence, however untrue, that the United States was an enemy of Islam.

Other fractures in the system were also appearing before Trump. Although the United States had been central to the creation of the global security and financial institutions of the Cold War, by 2015 both China and Russia had created new international institutions: organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Russia, four other members, and organizational ties with India, Pakistan, and Turkey, among others, but not the United States); the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (57 members, including the U.K., but not the United States); and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (16 Asian nations, including China and India). In addition, Turkey, long a close NATO ally, resisted using its territory to create a northern front in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And Indian military power and international assertion have been well under way over the past 20 years.

Almost all of Trump’s foreign policy actions have pumped on the gas, incentivizing others to accelerate the redistribution of power and influence and undermining of the former order. It is as if he intended, through disruption, to blow up business as usual. By unleashing battles with nations allied with the United States since the 1940s, insulting neighbors, abandoning carefully negotiated trade agreements, and asserting that America should come first, Trump has pushed buttons around the globe. The result is even less U.S. leadership and even more “go-it-alone” behavior.

As Trump moves close to Putin, the architecture of sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine crumble and both Germany and France could move closer to Russia. As the United States emphasizes “old energy” and rejects the existing architecture of global trade agreements and dismisses international climate accords, China asserts a stronger role in global climate change and trade discussions. As the U.S. stance toward Iran toughens, China emerges as a potentially potent partner for Iran.

The Iraq invasion already condemned the U.S. to a marginal role in Syria; the Trump stance accelerates a role Russia was already playing in that country, including closer Turkey-Russia cooperation, independent of the United States. Russia organizes a conference to explore resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan, and invites everyone except the United States and NATO countries supporting the Kabul regime.

In Europe the centrifugal trend is very clear. The U.K. has decided to leave the E.U., further weakening that bulwark of the old order. France may move toward a more authoritarian regime this spring, with consequences for the future of European security and economic arrangements. The President of the E.U. Council of Ministers, Donald Tusk, described the changes in Washington as one of the “threats” now facing the E.U. And Germany, which has emerged as a more assertive power, faces difficult choices about how far it moves toward accommodation with Russia and whether it should develop more traditional instruments of power, such as military forces and nuclear weapons.

As the new German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it: “The old world of the 20th Century is gone.”

President Obama seemed to understand that centrifugal forces were at work in the world and, whatever the critique of his foreign policy, was working to adapt the United States to that change, while continuing its leadership. He asserted the necessity, even the inevitability, of American leadership, but with a lighter and less interventionist hand. Wherever one looks, the unpredictability of the Trump White House—its insistence on the foreign and economic policy nationalism rooted in “America First,” its hostility toward immigrants, its stalwart assertion of the critical need to protect America’s borders, his determination to expand America’s military—all point toward the end of exceptionalism and American leadership, as well.

History was already writing a concluding chapter to the role of the United States as global leader. That conclusion may come faster than we expect, with high risk and dramatic change. It is not clear that the Trump administration will be able to cope with this change; dealing with the arrival of the new international order may fall to the next administration, should this one survive the chaotic transition.

Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus at American University, a Fellow at the Stimson Center, and a policy consultant, living in Brunswick, Maine.

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One to travel to Palm Beach, Florida from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S.,  February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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IMAGE: Then Defense Intelligence Agency director U.S. Army Lt. General Michael Flynn testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on “Worldwide Threats” in Washington February 4, 2014.  REUTERS/Gary Cameron  

White House Delegitimizes Anything That Gets In The Way Of Its Propaganda

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

After years of posturing about repealing Obamacare — with scores of votes but no consensus plan to replace it — House Republicans finally released their bill to reshape the health insurance market on Monday.

President Donald Trump is one of the rare supporters of the proposal: Health care experts and reporters of all ideological stripes, health care industry stakeholders, and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill promptly panned the legislation, with many noting that it fails to achieve any real policy aim other than providing tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

Notably, Republicans released the bill without a score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which would project the number of Americans who would have health insurance if the law is passed and how it will impact the budget. House Republicans voted to pass the bill through committee yesterday even though they don’t have a sense of what will happen if it becomes law.

But according to the White House, there’s no reason to wait for the CBO’s report because the office can’t be trusted to properly analyze the bill anyway.

“If you’re looking at the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday when asked about the issue. “Last time, if you look at the number of people that they projected would be on Obamacare, they are off by millions. So the idea that we’re waiting for a score — it will be scored. But the idea that that’s any kind of authority based on the track record that occurred last time is a little far-fetched.”

That’s a shocking repudiation of the expertise provided by an agency of nonpartisan experts helmed by a director hand-picked by the administration’s own secretary of health and human services, then-Rep. Tom Price (R-GA). It’s also a notable shift for Spicer, who repeatedly cited the CBO’s reports on the impact of Obamacare and its score of Republican replacement legislation while serving as the communications director of the Republican National Committee.

The CBO’s initial 2010 score of the Affordable Care Act wasn’t perfect — the law has cost less and insured fewer people than the agency originally predicted. But at least a score provides a frame of reference for what a bill that will impact the health care of millions of Americans will actually do.

Right now that doesn’t exist. Asked during a March 7 press briefing whether he could “guarantee that this plan will not have a markedly negative impact on deficit or result in millions of Americans losing health insurance,” Price could say only that “the goal and the desire I know of the individuals on the Hill is to make certain that this does not increase the cost to the federal government.”

And so Spicer was reduced to trying to damage the reputation of an impartial source of information, presumably because the CBO’s forthcoming score will add another log to the fire currently scorching a key administration priority.

This is the latest effort by the White House and its allies to discredit information sources other than those approved by the president.

Battered by criticism for its incompetence, extremism, and corruption, the administration is trying to build an environment in which its supporters have a ready stream of scapegoats and alternative facts with which to explain away White House scandals, while the rest of the public exists in a constant state of confusion, not sure who they can believe or trust.

Trump and his White House want to be able to engage in a widespread disinformation campaign, as is evidenced by his constant stream of false claims. But he can’t do that if other sources who dispute his lies are considered credible sources of information.

The administration’s effort begins with its constant denigration of the news media.

Building on decades of conservative attacks on the press, Trump’s campaign treated reporters as a punching bag. Trump responded to critical coverage by blaming the outlets producing it, denying everything, threatening lawsuits, and denying their reporters credentials. He lashed out at reporters on Twitter and encouraged his supporters to jeer at the journalists covering his rallies.

That vitriol followed Trump to the White House. As president, Trump has said that he is in a “war with the media,” calling reporters “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” and claiming that they will “pay a big price” for purportedly lying about him. He has described major newspapers and networks as “fake news” sources that are the “enemy of the American people.”

The White House staff has followed Trump’s lead, championing his attacks on the press and adding their own.

Spicer used his first appearance as press secretary to claim reporters had engaged in “deliberately false reporting” and has criticized the media because their “default narrative is always negative.” Chief of staff Reince Priebus has claimed “there’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen.” Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has called the press the “opposition party” and said that “It’s going to get worse every day for the media.”

These efforts create an alternative narrative in which critical reporting about the White House is recast as an effort to bring down the president using what Trump has characterized as fake sources and deliberate lies.

When Trump isn’t claiming that journalists are making up their sources, he and his administration allies are trying to cast critical leaks from inside the government as part of a shadowy conspiracy against his presidency. Those government workers are a third independent source of information that the administration wants to discredit and delegitimize in order to preserve their control of the information ecosystem.

As The Washington Post detailed, Trump believes “that his presidency is being tormented in ways known and unknown by a group of Obama-aligned critics, federal bureaucrats and intelligence figures,” which are referred to within the White House as the “deep state.” According to the Post, Bannon has been stoking these fears:

Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist who once ran Breitbart, has spoken with Trump at length about his view that the “deep state” is a direct threat to his presidency.

Advisers pointed to Bannon’s frequent closed-door guidance on the topic and Trump’s agreement as a fundamental way of understanding the president’s behavior and his willingness to confront the intelligence community — and said that when Bannon spoke recently about the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” he was also alluding to his aim of rupturing the intelligence community and its influence on the U.S. national security and ­foreign policy consensus.

Over the past few months, the “deep state” has become a frequent topic of discussion for the writers of Breitbart, some of whom reportedly remain in contact with Bannon following his move to the White House.

The “deep state” was first described at Breitbart in a December 12 piece on the site headlined “The Deep State Vs. Donald Trump,” authored by the pseudonymous “Virgil.” The term is used as a catch-all designation for Trump’s purported domestic enemies, including but not limited to Democrats, anti-Trump Republicans, the press, all 22 million local, state, and federal government employees, every person who works for a government contractor, “all the wheeler-dealers, plus the hired-gun experts, lawyers, think-tankers, foundation executives,” anyone who benefits from government regulation, and companies that receive federal loans and loan guarantees.

According to the piece, the “deep state” is acting solely to protect its “luxe life” from Trump’s “drain-the-swamp pledge.” The author portrays Trump’s “purported ‘Russia Connection’” as solely an invention of those sources aimed at damaging the president.

Virgil, who has written for Breitbart since 2012 and has provided much of the site’s “deep state” coverage, describes himself as a “grizzled Beltway veteran.” His other writing for the site also revolves around Bannon priorities, including attacks on the press, glowing descriptions of ethno-nationalism and criticisms of globalism, and defenses of the White House chief strategist.

The Breitbart writer describes the press and the bureaucracy as allies in a war against Trump, and recommends the administration respond with a “permanent reworking and rewriting of operating budgets and statutory laws” — in other words, the firing and imprisonment of leakers.

Breitbart’s criticism of the “deep state” picked up significantly after retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser following media reports that he had communicated with the Russian ambassador. Over the next few days, the website published four different pieces blaming those stories — and Flynn’s resignation — on the “deep state.”

“The Deep State can now claim a Trump administration scalp. And it’s hungry for more — a lot more,” wrote Virgil. Without changes, he warned, “the situation will only get worse; the new future inside the federal government will be the bureaucratic version of kill-by-leak or be- killed-by-leak.”

Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow devoted much of his radio show on February 15 to the “scalp” the “deep state” had obtained, even asking a guest if it was part of a “coup happening from the Deep State.”

Last weekend, Trump’s escalating fury at his floundering administration finally manifested in an entirely baseless claim that Obama had ordered him to be wiretapped during the 2016 election. Obama denied the claim, baffled Republicans ran for cover, and reports circulated that FBI Director James Comey had asked the Justice Department to deny Trump’s statement because it “is false.”

But at Breitbart — apparently the initial source of Trump’s allegation — this was portrayed as a brilliant attack on his foes. “The White House statement on ‘DeepStateGate’ — President Donald Trump’s allegations that former President Barack Obama ordered surveillance on him during his 2016 presidential campaign — has the feel of cards and chips thumping down on the table,” wrote John Hayward. “After months of unfounded allegations and badly sourced speculation intended to cripple his administration, maybe Trump wanted to prove that only one side of the partisan divide is permitted to make ‘wild allegations.’ Obama’s plants in the Deep State can leak whatever they please, law and truth be damned.”

The press. Government employees. Non-partisan government agencies helmed by Republicans. All of them are now being portrayed by the administration as unworthy of the public trust, because they put out information damaging to the president. Only Trump can be trusted. “I am your voice,” as Trump declared during his RNC speech. “I alone can fix it.”

When nothing the president says can be believed, and the president says that no one that rebuts his statements is trustworthy, the information ecosystem is taking on a truly authoritarian shape.

IMAGE: White House spokesman Sean Spicer holds a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. January 24, 2017.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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IMAGE: Gen. Michael Flynn, a possible Trump VP pick, appears on Al Jazeera to discuss the GOP candidate in May.