Trump’s Foreign Policy Mess

David Usborne doesn’t think that Xi Jinping will be moved “by the usual golf-and-cocktails Mar-a-Lago treatment,” and in fact believes that it’s a terrible idea for Trump to be meeting with him at this point in time. One main reason for this is that it’s pretty obvious that our president isn’t even remotely prepared.

You almost wish President Xi Jinping had lingered in Helsinki rather than continuing on his way to southern Florida for his two-day sojourn at Mar-a-Lago, the stucco-and-terracotta confection that nowadays, on account of its owner, has been dubbed the Southern White House.

That would be Donald Trump, who seems entirely unprepared for a first face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart. He doesn’t have his ambassador in Beijing yet. His trade negotiator has not been confirmed. Nor are the State Department experts who would normally formulate Asia policy and brief the president on it yet in place. It is possible we are underestimating the homework he has done ahead of it, but on balance that seems unlikely. True, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, went on a ground-laying trip to Beijing last month, but was assailed for issuing a statement afterwards that read as if it had been written for him by his hosts.

In Tillerson’s case, he has an excuse because he read that statement between naps.

More seriously, it’s a bad time to talk to China because one of the top topics on the agenda will be what to do about North Korea, and to do that properly Trump needs to consult very closely with South Korea. But South Korea is experiencing a change in government at the moment after former president Park Geun-hye was first impeached and then arrested on (among others) charges of “bribery, abuse of power, coercion and leaking government secrets.”

Sending Tillerson there last month was a good idea, but he needs to go back (hopefully with a few packed cases of Red Bull).

The fact that Steve Bannon has been kicked off the National Security Council may indicate that H.R. McMaster is exerting control and that the adults in the intelligence and military communities realize that they need to get their ducks in a row in order to deal with the crisis on the Korean peninsula, as well as (possibly) with any fallout or change of policy vis-a-vis Bashir Assad in the aftermath of yesterday’s chemical attack on Syrian civilians.

Trump mentioned the Syrian atrocity during a joint Rose Garden meeting this afternoon with King Abdullah II of Jordan. What he didn’t mention was Russia, which is shocking I know. It was doubly notable because Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations was simultaneously pressing for a Security Council resolution condemning the attacks which was immediately opposed by Russia on the premise that Assad’s planes had only inadvertedly bombed a rebel chemical weapons barrack. They broke out Trump’s old standby and called the rest of the world’s reporting “fake news.”

To which I say, “that’s probably bullshit but we should make absolutely sure that it’s not.”

On the surface, it makes no sense for the Russians to allow Assad to use chemical weapons right now for precisely the reason that Trump was inclined yesterday to see Assad as more a partner in the fight against ISIS than as war criminal in need of a jail cell. Yet, while speaking in the Rose Garden this afternoon, Trump seemed like a different man:

“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” the president said during a Rose Garden press conference on Wednesday with Jordan’s King Abdullah. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal that people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many many lines.”

Trump doubled down on his criticism of the Obama administration’s approach toward Syria, but said that the attack which has killed at least 72 people “had a big impact on me” and has changed his approach toward the country.

“It’s very, very possible that it’s already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” Trump said.

I tried to shrug off Trump’s criticism of Obama and the hypocrisy involved since Trump vociferously opposed intervening in Syria back during the debate over the chemical attacks near Damascus in August 2013. If he’s changed his position, that’s his right, and he’s never going to stop trying to ding Obama.

But if he were truly free to challenge Russia and Assad, he might have indicated it by criticizing Russia’s role in helping the Assad regime target their opponents and by criticizing Russia’s obstruction on the Security Council. That he did neither is just one more in a long line of dots that connect to demonstrate that the president is captured by the Kremlin.

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