Pragmatists prevail over ideologues in President Trump’s Syria strike

Pragmatists prevail over ideologues in President Trump’s Syria strike

By MADHAV NALAPAT | New Delhi | 9 April, 2017
Madhav Nalapat, Pragmatists, White House, Donald Trump, Syria, Syria strike, US Senate, Jared Kushner, President Xi Jinping
That the US and Russia are once again becoming deadly foes, is a geopolitical gift to Beijing.
According to US-based analysts tracking policy in that country, Jared Kushner (the soft-spoken counsellor to the President of the United States) was “the force behind the cruise missile strikes” on the Al Shayrat air force base held by the government of Bashar al Assad in Syria. “Within minutes of getting the news of the chemical weapons attack on a location controlled by anti-Assad groups, Counsellor Kushner was emphatic that the US needed to move against Assad for the outrage”. There was “no hesitation or ambiguity in his stance”, an analyst based in Maryland, who is tracking the Trump administration, claimed.

However, the analysts spoken to were of the view that “a simultaneous attack on ISIS targets in Mosul and Raqqa ought to have been carried out” at around the same time as the attack on the Syrian air force base, else “an impression may grow internationally that President Trump is walking away from the policy of giving priority to the destruction of ISIS”. They claimed that “advance information about the strikes was made available to Turkey” and that “some elements in Ankara alerted ISIS and Al Nusra units operating in Syria about the impending strike, so that within an hour of the attack on the Syrian air force base, ISIS and Al Nusra launched six coordinated attacks on Assad government troop positions”. They warn that “elements of ISIS and Al Nusra are embedded within the opposition groups” backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US and that “territory taken over by these groups immediately become unsafe for Syria’s minorities, especially Christians and Alawites, which are therefore clustered within the zones still under the control of the Assad regime”. And although Atlanticists are hailing the strike’s capability to panic Kim Jong Un into abandoning his WMD programs, the reverse is true. It is fantasy to believe that 59 cruise missiles aimed at a target from which Russian anti-missile fire was deliberately avoided can have any positive effect on the North Korea situation. Instead, the Syria strike will reinforce the lesson of Iraq and Libya, that handing over WMD simply makes a future attack by the US and its allies inevitable.

Interestingly, the same Clinton-era intelligence channels that have for close to a year been supplying defamatory titbits of disinformation about Donald Trump, have been “completely believed by the Trump administration”, in much the same way as data on suspected WMD stockpiles in Iraq were relied upon by George W. Bush in his 2003 war against Saddam Hussein. “From the very first minutes of the news of the (chemical) attack, any information contrary to the narrative of the Assad government being wholly culpable was dismissed as false” by Jared Kushner and others in the Trump core team. These included reports that the stockpiles destroyed in the bombing were, in fact, those stored by anti-Assad groups operating in the vicinity. In the hours following news of the attack, Kushner talked “multiple times” with the 45th President of the United States, “warning him that his administration would look as weak as that of Barack Obama unless there was a robust and immediate response to the chemical weapons attack”. His recommendation was that the attack be directed against the Assad government, which he held to be guilty of the chemical attack. According to an analyst, “Kushner works closely with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, with the four forming a formidable wall of influence around President Trump”. Over the past weeks, “a quiet but energetic effort has been going on, especially by Priebus, to replace hardcore ideologues with those seen as pragmatic”. Of course, the definition of “pragmatic” adopted by what may be called “traditionalist Republicans” within the new administration refer to their being committed to policies that have been in vogue since the 1990s, and which were largely continued by George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama, especially in his first term.

A prime target of the White House/NSC/DoD/State Department “pragmatists”, according to these analysts, is Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. MacFarland, who is sought to be removed through “assigning her an ambassadorial post in a country in Asia that is an ocean away from the US”. Counsellor Steve Bannon too is marked for removal as “too ideological” by the pragmatists within the Trump administration, who are also allied with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his very low-key manner, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has emerged as an effective policymaker in the new administration. The analysts spoken to claim that the hard-working Chief of Staff is looking towards a political future for himself, hopefully in the US Senate, once his White House tenure ends. “Priebus has succeeded in seeding the administration with several who are equally committed to his traditional and pragmatist worldview”. He has also “overseen several bureaucratic moves to ensure that ideologues with what he defines as hardcore policy positions be prevented from entry into an administration” still largely in the process of formation more than a hundred days after Trump’s inauguration on 20 January.

“Essentially, the pragmatists have ensured that staff selection at senior policy levels gets slowed down until the ideologue picks drop out of the contest and get replaced by pragmatists”, a senior analyst claimed, adding that “in the initial days of the Trump administration, Steve Bannon sought to infuse the administration with a large number of like-minded ideologues” and would have succeeded in this, but for the intervention of Chief of Staff Priebus. Much of US policy gets worked out at the Assistant Secretary level, and most of these posts remain unfilled even as the newly ascendant pragmatists in the administration battle it out with their ideologue foes to ensure that their own people get in.

“The frequent contact of Jared Kushner with the ‘pragmatist’ camp has been decisive, as he has a force multiplier named Ivanka Trump on his side”, a source said, adding that “Ivanka is devoted to Jared and usually backs him in internal policy disputes”. And if there is an individual whom President Trump trusts absolutely (and with reason), it is daughter Ivanka, who has quickly distinguished herself in Washington both for her idealism as well as her commitment to the success of the Trump administration.

The analysts spoken to for information on the evolving situation within the new administration were early converts to the “Trump Revolution” of 2016. After the Syria strike, they are concerned that the ascendant pragmatist lobby within the Trump administration is placing too much reliance on the very intelligence operatives who worked hard to derail Candidate Trump during the 2016 Presidential elections. They fret that too much attention is being paid to following the counsel of those Republicans in the US Congress, who were publicly opposed to the 45th President of the United States “and still are”, although these days in a more camouflaged way. They add that “the Trump Revolution is very different from the traditional Republican platform”, and “the way in which party traditionalists were responsible for the failed legislative effort to replace Obamacare with Trumpcare, showed the pitfalls of relying completely on people whose dearest wish is to see President Trump removed from office”. The replacement would be Vice-President Mike Pence, “who has established a close and comfortable relationship with the Trump pragmatists, while keeping away from the Trump ideologues. It needs to be added that Vice-President Pence has shown himself to be fully loyal to his boss, the US President, and can therefore be relied upon to reject any effort by anti-Trump Republicans together with Clinton Democrats to get the 45th President impeached, so that he himself becomes the 46th President.

Those who were early signatories to the “Trump Revolution”, place their faith in the President himself and in his “instinct for danger” to ensure that Trump “walks back from a path that would shred to bits the policy constructs that he has been espousing” for more than a decade, and which he held on to during the 2016 campaign, despite efforts by the “pragmatists” around him to let go. At the core is whether the US administration accepts and acts on the transformation in global geopolitics caused by the replacement of the Atlantic Ocean with the Indo-Pacific as the pivot of the globe. “Obama saw this, even while the Clinton people around him derided his efforts of moving away from an Atlanticist focus”, a senior analyst pointed out, adding that Trump, with his businessman’s logic, has understood the centrality of Asia in the future of the US. In such a process, ensuring the support of, or at the least the neutrality of, Russia is vital to US interests. “What the missile strike on Syria represents is a move that could torpedo any rebooting of US policy towards the Indo-Pacific for the remainder of President Trump’s tenure in office”, an analyst claimed, adding that this would certainly be the case, “were the logic of the strike to be followed up by further steps” in that theatre of operations that would pit the US completely on the side of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey against Russia, Iran and (what is left of) Syria. Expectedly, Trump has earned praise from those who have been pressing for his impeachment for the missile strike, which has also been hugely popular with the Benjamin Netanyahu government in Israel, which has moved close to Saudi Arabia over the Syrian conflict in a way never before seen in the region.

The greatest beneficiary of the US missile strike on Syria is China. President Xi Jinping has played his hand with customary dexterity, and has made vague promises to the US President in the same way as he and his predecessors have to Trump’s predecessors. That the US and Russia are once again becoming deadly foes is a geopolitical gift of a very high magnitude to Beijing, exactly as was the case during the 1970s, when Richard Nixon reached out to Mao Zedong to help box in Moscow. Not only will China be the sole refuge for Russia, but Xi will also be in the position of being the only effective interlocutor between Trump and both Putin as well as Kim Jong Un. With the support of what till now had been viscerally anti-Trump media outlets, the pragmatists within the new administration can be expected to push forward their advantage. Although bested by ideological elements in the Republican Party in the Obamacare debacle, they have drawn first blood in Syria in a manner that they hope will ensure a reversal of the policies supported by Candidate Trump. Or in other words, the policy shifts from the past that are still being backed by the diminishing number of ideologues within President Trump’s inner circle and in his broader administration. However, the analysts spoken to say that “there is no way the US President will walk away from policies he knows to be correct”. In fact, they say, “the opposition witnessed from the start of the new administration has only made the President more convinced of the need to be firm on basics”, although “tactical adjustments may be made, for example as shown in the Syrian strike”.

As for Jared Kushner, these analysts say that the President’s son-in-law is “neither an ideologue nor a pragmatist, but simply, like Kellyanne Conway and a very few others, entirely committed to the success of the Trump administration”. They, therefore, expect President Trump to return to the Indo-Pacific and counter-terrorism focus that he remained committed to on the campaign trail “in the face of the same degree of hostility that he is facing now that he is in office”.

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