Every few years – sometimes four, sometimes eight – America’s political mood swings from one pole to another.
It’s a not-uncommon disorder for democracies. Voters get disgusted with one flavor of politics and opt for another. For better or worse, the United States doesn’t have a Baskin-Robbins democracy. So, the vacillations in Americans’ political taste can only pendulum between chocolate and vanilla.
It’s one thing for America to lurch from one end of the spectrum to the other on fiscal matters, the advisability of universal health care, or the economic impact of immigration.
On foreign policy, however, the shifts are not just mystifying to those outside U.S. borders, they’re downright frightening.
Consider the Trump administration’s decision to make a U-turn on Iran policy. This week, Trump has pledged to go against the previous administration, many of his own top advisors, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations in decertifying that Iran has abided by the terms of the nuclear deal negotiated back in 2015.
For Trump’s critics, including virtually all Iran policy experts at the moment, this attempt at scuttling the world’s most sophisticated arms control agreement sends absolutely the wrong signal to Iran. Trump is essentially saying, “It doesn’t really matter whether you have adhered to the letter of the agreement, we’re still going to break our commitment because, honestly, we just don’t like you. And by the way, you can’t count on the United States to keep its word in the future.”
Trump is sending an even more damaging message to the rest of the world: “We as a country suffer from mood swings so severe and delusions so enduring that we can no longer be a responsible member of the international community.”
After deep-sixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, the Trump administration is making good on this one campaign promise even as all the others stall in Congress or the courts. Trump will make America First even if it means going against obvious American national interests, even those defined by the Chamber of Commerce.
This is not the first time that other countries have witnessed the political instability of the United States. But in the past, some underlying continuity provided a measure of reassurance to other countries. Voters might choose vanilla or chocolate, but the world still expects in the end to get some variety of ice cream.
What makes the Trump era different is the lack of that underlying continuity. Trump might look like vanilla or chocolate or some kind of swirl, but in reality he’s Semtex in a cone. After pretending for a year or more that he’s a natural product of the system, even top members of the governing party have become deeply worried about the orange brick of plastic explosive that now occupies the Oval Office.
Past mood swings
The last 40 years of American political life have been a series of switchbacks. Ford made way for Carter who made way for Reagan. After George H.W. Bush came a leftish turn under Clinton, a rightish turn under George W. Bush, then a left with Obama, then a hard right with Trump.
In some cases, the new party in power instituted a profound policy transformation. Ronald Reagan ushered in a new economic order. George W. Bush introduced a new post-Cold War unilateralism.
Trump has vowed to destroy the old order altogether.
Adversaries and allies alike can be excused for suffering from whiplash trying to keep up with the changes. Let’s consider this problem from the vantage point of North Korea, which has had only three leaders in over 70 years and no significant U-turn in policy during that time.
The North Korean leadership negotiated a deal with the Clinton administration in 1994 only to come face to face six years later with open hostility from the George W. Bush administration. It was a bewildering experience. Kim Jong Il apparently mourned what had been possible under Clinton, saying to the former president when he visited in 2009 that “The United States would have had a new friend in Northeast Asia in a complex world.”
Then, after finally managing to secure agreement with this initially hostile Bush administration in 2005, North Korea came up hard three years later against the cautious indifference of the Obama administration. The North Koreans were not entirely blameless in this shadow play, but still they must think that the United States has cyclical bouts of insanity.
It’s not just the North Koreans. The democratic world, for instance, found the transition to the George W. Bush years particularly bewildering. Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration announced that it wouldn’t implement the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. After the attacks, the administration broke with international law by embarking on a “preventive” war, violating the Geneva Conventions on treatment of captured combatants, and engaging in torture. The administration also backed away from the Rome statute establishing the International Criminal Court in May 2002 and withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russia in June 2002. All of these actions profoundly troubled America’s allies.
And yet in some respects even the Bush years seem like a golden age of multilateralism compared to the present moment. The Bush administration mobilized international support against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. It attempted to fashion its own “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq. It would put together six-party talks to negotiate a deal with North Korea. It pushed through a Central America Free Trade Agreement. Bush may have been a cowboy, but he didn’t embrace an entirely go-it-alone ethos.
In other words, even with its sharp turn toward unilateralism, the Bush administration held to a bipartisan consensus in favor of multilateral initiatives that benefit the United States. In some ways Bush offered only a variation on the Clinton theme of “a la carte multilateralism” in which the United States picks and chooses the international structures with which it wants to cooperate.
This kind of Bush-style unilateralism wrapped in a-la-carte multilateralism has returned to the White House. It’s represented by most of the top administration officials involved in foreign affairs: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Pentagon chief James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. These are the so-called adults in the room.
But Trump is something different. And that’s what has thrown Republicans like Bob Corker (R-TN) into a tizzy.
Corker and Iran
When the Obama administration was trying to win congressional support for the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015, the Republican Party was skeptical, to say the least. In the Senate, Republican lawmakers even managed to attract four Democrats to their effort to break a Democratic filibuster against a resolution to reject the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But the effort still fell two votes short, and the deal went through.
Bob Corker was part of this Republican bloc. But his role behind the scenes was more complicated than this vote might indicate. Together with Ben Cardin (D-MD), Corker negotiated a series of deals with the Obama administration that ultimately eased passage of the bill by requiring not congressional approval but, rather, congressional disapproval of the agreement (which required more than a simple majority vote). In return, the administration agreed to various oversight mechanisms – including one that requires the president to certify Iranian compliance with the deal every 90 days. Corker and Cardin also worked to expand non-nuclear sanctions against Iran.
Bob Corker is not a moderate Republican. He has an 80 percent ranking from the American Conservative Union for 2016 (by comparison, Susan Collins of Maine clocks in at 44 percent). He’s no softie on Iran, either. Last year, he continued to try to pile on additional sanctions against Iran. Ultimately, he had to content himself with an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act for another 10 years. During the presidential campaign, Corker advised Donald Trump on foreign policy and was even in the running for secretary of state.
Corker is cut from the same cloth as Rex Tillerson. They’re conservative Republicans who believe in “America First.” But they’re also committed to preserving a measure of professionalism, if nothing else, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. They want to preserve U.S. alliances. They want to advance the interests of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
They’re not isolationists, and they’re not exactly internationalists either. They occupy the right wing of the underlying foreign policy consensus that encompasses the think tanks, lobby shops, and mainstream media in DC. They play ball whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House and whichever party controls Congress. They are part of the continuity in American foreign policy that transcends the elections.
So, when Bob Corker takes aim at Donald Trump, it represents a serious breach not just within the Republican Party but within the foreign policy establishment. Over the weekend, Corker charged that Trump was making threats toward other countries that could send the United States reeling toward “World War III.” Later, Corker tweeted in response to Trump, “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” Having decided not to run for re-election, Corker is now free to speak truth to power.
Corker’s most proximate concern is Trump deciding to bomb North Korea. But the issue of Iran is also on the senator’s mind. Trump has blamed Corker for the Iran deal when in fact the Tennessee senator was merely trying to give Congress some say over the process. When the president decertifies Iran’s compliance, according to the legislation that Corker helped to pass, Congress will then have the authority to re-impose the nuclear-related sanctions that the JCPOA lifted. But the Republicans have a slim majority in the Senate and the president can’t afford to alienate a single member of his party.
So, why pick a fight with Corker just when the president will need him most on the congressional battle over any new Iran sanctions? Writes Adam Taylor in The Washington Post:
By handing off any real decision to Congress, [Trump] can avoid having to make a hard decision himself. And by picking a fight with Corker, he has a scapegoat if his supporters grow frustrated with a lack of action in Congress. It seems plausible that Trump’s allies are simply being prepared for another legislative failure.
In other words, it’s all about the war that Trump and his still-loyal lieutenant Steve Bannon, assisted by U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, have declared on the “deep state.” They want to dismantle the foreign policy establishment that has presided over America’s engagement in the world. A progressive might find much to rejoice in this attack, given that America’s engagement with the world has often been through war and corporate penetration. But the establishment is more than that, and Trump/Bannon also want to unravel everything of diplomatic and humanitarian value as well.
Also, Trump and Bannon aren’t really interested in draining the foreign policy swamp in DC. They simply want to install their own cronies who will ensure that war and globalization benefit them rather than Kissinger and his ilk. It’s a shell game designed to fool Trump’s base, but the rest of the world has kept its eye on the ball. That’s why Israel and Saudi Arabia, who also benefit from Trump-style war and globalization, continue to rejoice at White House policies when everyone else is aghast.
Trump is calculating that every defeat he’s handed by the foreign policy establishment will only boost his standing for the next election. The outrage of Bob Corker and the international community only burnishes his reputation among those who want to build walls everywhere, from the border with Mexico to the public bathrooms of North Carolina, and destroy everything else.
But those elections are still some time away. In the meantime, Corker and other freethinking conservatives in his party may be the only thing that can contain the politician of mass destruction that is Donald Trump.
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