“If the USA sneezes, the rest of the world catches pneumonia,” says an old adage. So, what happens to the rest of the world when the wheels completely come off in the USA? People across the globe would like to know. In the US, we are wondering how many crises and revelations of corruption and cruelty the country can take before the system breaks down entirely. In less than two years, Trump’s presidency has brought us scandals and outrages on a daily basis. We have an environmental protection agency run by polluters, a department of wildlife conservation overseen by trophy hunters, a State Department staffed by amateurs, a Congress purchased by wealthy private interests, an immigration control agency involved in kidnapping and abusing children, and a Supreme Court that could soon contain not one, but two sex offenders. Trump’s tax cuts have made the super-rich even richer, and his tariff policies towards China are poised to bankrupt American farmers and blue color workers. And let’s not even mention the skyrocketing national debt and all the dangers it poses for another massive financial collapse. And this is just the view from the domestic policy front.
But in a world of globalized capital and information, the line separating domestic and foreign policy has blurred. This is most obvious in the Trump administration’s immigration policies and the Muslim travel ban, where rising nativist and racist sentiments inside the country impact US relations with other nations. A quick glance at the administration’s foreign policy might lead one to think that there’s nothing new under the sun. In the Middle East in particular, US foreign policy seems to be simply a reprise of the neoconservative visions of the Bush-Cheney years: Iran is in the cross-hairs again, and Israel can do whatever it wants with even more impunity than ever.
But there the similarities end. Donald Trump fancies himself a successful and savvy businessman. His autobiography, The Art of the Deal (which he did not write) celebrates his ability to drive a hard bargain and seal amazing financial deals. Anyone who has investigated the actual results of Trump’s business acumen will draw very different conclusions, of course. His businesses have failed, gone bankrupt, and cheated people out of millions of dollars. Given his self-centered and narcissistic character, Trump views foreign policy not as interchanges between nations, but rather, as arrangements between him other individuals. It’s no surprise that he has focused so intensely on North Korea, and that news coverage of bilateral negotiations have centered on the personal relationship between Trump and Kim. Trump is less interested in the long-term benefits and effects of a US-North Korea deal than he is in being lauded as the larger-than-life deal-maker capable of striking a very dramatic bargain on the world stage. His ego is as fragile as it is immense, and this is what guides US foreign policies now. Attempts to make sense of US diplomatic behavior from traditional international political perspectives are futile. Trump will do what Trump wants to do, the rest of the nation—and the world—be damned.
For the last 80 years, US foreign policy focused on the Middle East has spawned an entire industry of think tanks, pundits, political theories, and academic programs. Oil and Israel have been the key concerns, and on the surface, this has not changed. But look a little closer, go a little deeper, and it becomes clear that the Trump administration’s actions are internally inconsistent. Gone completely is any emphasis on or interest in human rights (except where Iran is concerned). Trump’s deal-making personality and love of power have emboldened and elevated some of the worst political tendencies in the region, exemplified by the dictatorial El-Sisi in Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s arrogant Muhammad bin Salman (MbS, as he’s known here). The latter, in particular, has benefited from the astounding nepotism of the Trump Administration, which has entrusted the weightiest and most critical issues facing the Middle East to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. In Washington, DC, some pundits sarcastically describe Kushner and MbS as “BFFs” (Best Friends Forever), noting the importance of interpersonal, not inter-governmental, relationships in the Trump Administration. MbS is laying waste to Yemen with war crimes, threatening Iran, and extending a hand to Israel, even as the US moves its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while pulling crucial funding from Palestinian refugees and turning a blind eye to Israel’s settlement building in the Occupied West Bank as well as its continuing murderous behavior in Gaza. How does one explain this? As an outcome of Saudi hatred of Iran? As the result of financial deal-making between MbS and Kushner?
Although Trump’s favorite motto is “America First,” when it comes to US presence and influence in the Middle East, the president seems happy to turn over military and diplomatic influence to Russia in Syria. Despite a few light bombing campaigns against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, Trump wants nothing to do with the Syrian disaster, or the disaster next door in Iraq, which his Republican predecessor George W. Bush created. To the relief of many of us in the anti-war movement in the US, Trump does not want to send US troops to Syria or Iraq. But he does seem keen on a war with Iran, especially since John Bolton joined his administration.
For Americans who oppose Trump and his domestic policies (and we are a majority, about 70 percent of the population) the key question is “How will we fix all of these messes after Trump is gone?” The damage to our institutions is significant, and will take years to repair. The damage might even be so great as to prevent the removal of Trump by impeachment or at the polls in 2020. For anyone living outside the US in Latin America, the EU, or the Middle East, the same question of how to fix Trump’s mess is equally pertinent. Trump has always wanted to be an exceptional and unique person. He has certainly achieved that by being uniquely responsible for ruining lives at home and abroad, now and into the foreseeable future. When the wheels come off in the United States, the entire world skids off the road.