Washington: As the US seeks a footing in negotiations on two fraught global crises – Syria/Russia and North Korea/China – the Von Trump Family presidency has taken centre stage, as a presidential son dares Moscow to mess with his “tough” father, who he said had been influenced in deciding to bomb Syria by a presidential daughter, who was “heartbroken and outraged” by civilian deaths in a chemical strike last week.
Speaking over the head of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was departing a G7 ministerial summit in Italy for what were expected to be difficult talks in Moscow, Trump’s son Eric used an appearance at a family golf resort in Scotland to claim that Thursday’s missile strike proved his father was not in league with Moscow and would not be “pushed around” by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Eric Trump, who jointly runs the family business empire with his brother Donald jnr, told reporters that Russian talk of war would not intimidate Donald Trump. There was “no one harder” than Trump if they “cross us”, he warned.
“If [Moscow] disrespect us and if they cross us, fine. There will be no one harder. He’s got more backbone than anybody,” the young Trump said of his father, who he described as “not a guy who gets intimidated ??? he’s tough and he won’t be pushed around. The cards will shake out the way they do, but he’s tough”.
But the policy incoherence in the most powerful capital in the world troubles US allies as they segue from Trump’s professorial predecessor, who would take months to make a decision, to Trump who will issue what may be, or not, a policy decision on Twitter or make a decision in seconds.
That’s what Trump did on Tuesday in a series of tweets in which he seemed to relegate his long-promised collision on trade with China by recasting it as a national security issue.
“I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” he tweeted. And minutes later he fired off a threat of unspecified unilateral action, almost as though he was impatient that Beijing had not responded to the earlier tweet: “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them. USA.”
A foreign ambassador in Washington vented his frustration to The Washington Post:
“Nobody can tell us on Russia what the American policy is; on Syria, what the American policy is; on China, what the American policy is. I’m not sure there is a policy. They will listen to me and tell me, ‘We will get back to you when there is a policy.'”
White House communications director Mike Dubke seemingly agrees, reportedly telling an administration strategy session in the days before the Trump missile strike that the absence of foreign policy coherence meant “there is no Trump doctrine”, according to a report in Politico.
By this stage of his presidency, Trump fully expected to be making-nice, as Americans like to say, with Putin. During last year’s campaign he declared: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” And he warned repeatedly against any involvement in Syria, other than in Washington’s war on Islamic State.
Upbraiding Trump for a doctrine that seemingly amounts to the US reserving the right to use force whenever the President is upset by something he sees on TV, commentator Max Boot invoked the words of the last Republican president to warn that the US was “back to killing camels”. In predicting he would be more forceful than Bill Clinton had been, George W. Bush had warned: “When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”
Tillerson arrived in Moscow on Tuesday talking up the inevitable demise of the Assad regime and the embarrassment that would represent for Moscow.
But he had been robbed of firepower because, at the G7 meeting in the Tuscan city of Lucca, his confreres, particularly Germany, France and Italy, refused to endorse a British bid for more sanctions on Moscow and Damascus after the Syrian chemical attack.
Meanwhile Putin, who in 2013 had presented Tillerson with the Russian Order of Friendship in his previous role as chief executive of ExxonMobil, issued a calculated insult by refusing to see Tillerson, making him the first US Secretary of State to be denied a meeting with the Russian leader while making an initial visit to Moscow.
And both Washington and Moscow dug in in a tense war of words over the Syrian chemical attack.
Tillerson has repeatedly blamed it on Russian incompetence and, on Tuesday, the White House released a declassified intelligence report on the attack, accusing Moscow of “shielding” the Damascus regime with “false narratives” on the attack that the US insists was carried out by the regime, possibly with Russian complicity, according to some officials.
And despite hopes in Washington that Moscow may be convinced that its alliance with Assad is a dead end, Putin backed in behind the Syrian dictator, likening Western accounts of the Khan Sheikhun gas attack to the failed intelligence that the US used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“It reminds me of the events in 2003 when US envoys to the security council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq,” Putin told reporters. “We have seen it all already.”
The Russian leader warned, too, that wittingly or otherwise, Washington was being pulled into the Syrian civil war, claiming it was Assad’s enemies who had perpetrated the Khan Sheikhun attack to provoke US retaliation, and that more such false flag operations were being planned. However, taking his lead from the Trump play book, he provided no proof of this claim.
Initially, the US framed the missile strike as a specific response to the illegal use of chemical weapons. But, on Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said further action could be considered.
Crude barrel bombs – oil barrels filled with explosives – are a weapon of choice that the Syrian regime drops by the thousand. Asked if Trump’s red-line warning to Assad was on chemical or conventional munitions, Spicer said: “The answer is if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this President. That is unacceptable.”
Later, the White House tried to walk back the threat by claiming Spicer was only referring to barrel bombs that also contained chemicals.
“Nothing has changed in our posture,” the White House said in a statement hurriedly emailed to reporters. “The President retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”
Despite the power demonstrated in Trump’s decision to unleash missiles on Syria, he has said little on the subject since – barely a tweet – confusing some capitals about where the US goes next on the Syria crisis.
Seeming to embrace Trump’s tweet shift from economic nationalism to a foreign policy with an evolving, uncharacteristic humanitarian twist, Tillerson told reporters in Lucca that the US was aiming to negotiate an end to six years of conflict in Syria, and it wanted Russia’s help in ousting Assad.
“We hope that the Russian government concludes that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad,” he said, arguing that Russia had to choose between a stronger alliance with Iran, the militant group Hezbollah that is fighting with Assad, or work with the international community to end civilian suffering in Syria.
“We do not want the regime’s uncontrolled stockpile of chemical weapons to fall into the hands of ISIS or other terrorist groups who could and want to attack the United States or our allies,” he said. “Nor can we accept the normalisation of the use of chemical weapons by other actors or countries in Syria or elsewhere.
“We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people,” Tillerson insisted. “Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role. Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”
Analysts warn that Putin has been testing Trump since his January inauguration: fighting has intensified in eastern Ukraine, Moscow now recognised passports issued by the Ukraine rebels and seemingly has endorsed their adoption of the Russian rouble as their currency, he’s moved troops to his border with former Soviet republic Belarus and, in the breakaway Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia, the Kremlin has folded local armed forces into its own.
Further, US generals accuse him of fostering an alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan, where NATO and the US have a combined military force of 14,000, and of supporting anti-government forces in Libya.
In an op-ed in The New York Times, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell and Obama adviser Evelyn Farkas warn that, in the absence of a clearly stated US-Russia policy, Putin “wants to see how far he can go until we say ‘enough'”.
Moscow is ramping up its rhetoric. The Foreign Ministry has declared the relationship with Washington at its “most difficult period since the end of the Cold War [because of a] long list of irritants that have arisen through Washington’s fault”.
The ministry warns that, in the absence of improved relations, “Moscow will react reciprocally”. And the Russian general staff is warning that another US attack on the Syrian regime will be “unacceptable”.
Just as the US wants something from Moscow in Syria, Trump is pressing Beijing to deliver, by using its economic pressure to bend North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
Trump has raised the stakes by diverting a US Navy strike group towards the Korean Peninsula. The day before his “we’ll go it alone” tweet, the President told the Fox Business Network: “We’re sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.”
Pyongyang responded on Tuesday, warning that “pre-emptive strikes are not the exclusive right of the United States” and threatening to “hit the US first”. There is speculation among analysts that the North’s dictator Kim Jong-um will launch a nuclear or missile test in the coming days to mark this weekend’s 105th birth anniversary of his grandfather and founder of the modern state, Kim Il Sung.
Trump also is set to tighten pressure on China. In the coming days, he is expected to sign an executive order against countries dumping steel in the US and China is an obvious target. And the administration is also reportedly shopping its threat to declare China a “currency manipulator”, which can result in US tariffs on goods imported from China.
Some analysts predict that, despite the sabre rattling, Trump’s objective is to extract Chinese co-operation through a trade-based deal with Beijing. At last week’s Florida summit, which was overshadowed by the US missile strike on Syria, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a 100-day plan to overhaul the trade relationship, which Trump accepted.
Meanwhile, Beijing has been attempting to exploit the family aspect of the US presidency, courting Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Pointedly wearing a red dress, Ivanka Trump was an honoured guest at the Beijing Embassy’s Chinese New Year celebration in February. It also enlisted Kushner to smooth the way ahead of the summit, during which the couple’s children were wheeled in to sing in Chinese for Xi and his wife.
But other analysts fret that Trump will have been emboldened by his first use of presidential force in Syria to see military action as a first resort in a crisis.
Veteran Washington analyst Walter Pincus writes: “Although last Thursday’s pinprick attack will have little direct impact on the Syrian civil war, it has given Trump a needed success that he has savoured ??? Trump wants immediate results and does not appear to recognise, as Commander-in-chief, he must consider secondary and tertiary longer-term results that may come from any quick, immediate military decisions.”
Trump ally and former house speaker Newt Gingrich thinks everything is hunky dory: Trump is shedding the isolationist rhetoric of his campaign, he’s leading from the front and he’s talking about babies. And he’s talking about the power of the Trump family.
“The emotion as he talked about the ‘beautiful babies’ [killed in Syria] is a real reminder of how much the President loves children and especially babies,” he writes on the Fox News website. “You can see it in how he treats his own children, but it really came through in his remarks.
“Finally, for the first time I can remember, an American president said ‘God bless America and the entire world’. The President so many had feared was an isolationist has proven he will represent America first – but will also care for those in harm’s way around the world. It was a feeling President Reagan would have fully shared,” Gingrich wrote.