The Duck of Minerva

This is not fine.

15 May 2017

The perhaps apocryphal story is that in the wake of the 2016 election, submissions to top journals in political science declined by 15% or more. While this sabbatical year has been productive in many respects, I have not made as much progress on a book project as I would have liked. I wonder why? Last week’s events — the dramatic firing of FBI Director James Comey and the series of justifications and admissions by the president and his team — have underscored the challenge for all of us in terms of allocating our time and attention.

This is an academic blog informed by our sensibilities and expertise, mostly comprised of political scientists of international relations. It is not a partisan outlet, but as Donald Trump and those who enable him have emerged as perhaps the greatest threats to our democratic institutions in my lifetime, I have been a vocal critic of policies and moves that undermine our system of government.

Over the weekend, I participated in a non-partisan mock Town Hall for Texas Congressional District 25 (where I live) organized by the pop-up citizen advocacy group Indivisibles. 400 people turned out. Our Representative Roger Williams (R), though invited, did not attend.  I was one of a dozen experts on a panel to respond to constituent questions.

My remit was foreign policy and also environmental policy. I prepared some written remarks which I tried to weave in to answers to questions and post them below. While I have a specific critique  of the Trump Administration and Congress’ enabling of some of his worst tendencies, I tried to be fair. You be the judge.

The event started off with a rendition of America the Beautiful and was cast as a cross-ideological citizen-led effort to hold our leaders accountable and resist authoritarianism. We all have to find our way, but I needed to do more than blog and vent on Twitter.

(1) What’s your take on the first 100 days of the Trump administration’s foreign policy? Are there areas of concern? Are there areas that have given you some reason for confidence? To what extent do members of Congress have responsibility for or oversight of the administration’s foreign policy?

Trump’s first 100 days have been characterized by considerable uncertainty and turmoil on the foreign policy front, starting most notably with the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn over lying to Vice President Pence about his contacts with the Russians during the campaign. And, if you think of the immigration ban as a foreign policy issue or at least an issue with major implications for foreign policy, then the Trump administration has represented a radical departure from the last administration. (Roger Williams went on CNN and was one of the first public defenders of the immigration ban).

Since Flynn’s ouster and replacement with H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser, we’ve seen the Trump administration gradually gravitate to have a more conventional national security posture on a number of issues with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the Vice President dispatched to reassure NATO allies and allies in Asia. McMaster has also hired a number of very solid people at the National Security Council that have in turn reassured national security experts. At the same time, a number of unqualified people and zealots continue to inhabit positions with some visibility if not responsibility related to foreign policy, including Steve Bannon, Steven Miller, KT McFarland, and Sebastian Gorka. Those people can’t be gone soon enough. As the president departs for his first foreign trip next week to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, and Belgium, I worry who he’s taking with him.

The problem is that even when the adults seem to be in charge of foreign policy, you still have to deal with a president whose impulses in the foreign policy space are bad, whose knowledge is scant, and whose temperament is erratic. Thus, we have seen any number of instances, from calls with the Australian prime minister and the Mexican president where Trump has antagonized important relationships. We have also seen that same ability with important parts of the National Security establishment including CIA and now the FBI.

At the same time, the Trump administration has proposed radical downscaling of the size and budget of the State Department, particularly in terms of diplomatic instruments and foreign aid, and Rex Tillerson’s early diplomatic forays have been less than reassuring.

Here, Congress has actually been more generous. For example, the Trump administration’s proposed budget considerably reduced funds for food aid just as a famine is emerging in northern Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, and South Sudan. In the budget deal that was reached more than a week ago for the last five months of the 2017 fiscal year, $990 million was allocated for famine relief which will save millions of lives and may help prevent those countries from becoming failed states. It’s an open question what will happen for the 2018 budget, but it suggests that Congress and the Democrats still have some leverage to extract concessions that protect some important priorities in foreign policy. (Roger Williams voted against that consolidated Appropriations Act which averted a government shutdown and funded famine relief and other essential programs.)

Another area where there has been considerable rhetorical upheaval is in the trade space where Trump has threatened to withdraw from NAFTA and upend other commitments. He’s also tried to link trade to other issues like South Korean missile defense. Here, I think Trump’s aggressive nationalism not only risks important trade relationships (with Mexico, which is important to Texas) but I doubt that these moves do much for manufacturing jobs for the working class, as Trump intends.

(2) We have seen a couple of instances in which tensions have flared with North Korea over their missile tests and with respect to Syria after it used chemical weapons, and the Trump administration responded by sending Tomahawk missiles. It should be noted that Roger Williams opposed the use of force in 2013 in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons but fully supported the missile strike by the Trump administration. What does these episodes say about the decision-making process in this White House and the role of members of Congress? 

I think one of the core challenges is that we have inconsistent messaging from the White House about what its intentions are in Syria and North Korea. In both instances, you had different Trump administration officials saying contradictory things about what the Trump administration was trying to do. In the case of Syria, this could lead us to make commitments or take actions that elevate U.S. involvement in the country’s civil war without a strategic idea about how to end the war and deal with other countries like Russia and Turkey who have important interests at stake. In the case of North Korea, we risk escalating the conflict, perhaps unnecessarily leading to a militarized conflict on the Korean peninsula that could be disastrous. Even a conventional war could lead to missile strikes on Seoul and deaths of hundreds of thousands.

I don’t know if there is anything that the Congress can do to restrain these tendencies, other than do its job in continuing the Senate investigations in to the Russia hacks and effects on our election. I think Congress is at a disadvantage here when it comes to foreign policy. In the absence of information on the President’s tax returns, we can’t know the extent of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. This underscores the need for an independent investigation.

We need a member of Congress  who represents the district well and isn’t just a rubber stamp for a president who doesn’t know what he’s doing, has erratic and questionable judgment, doesn’t respect our democratic traditions, and has in his inner circle a number of people with limited expertise and radical policy views who can’t or won’t say no to the president’s worst impulses.

Other things that concern me are the lack of political appointees at DOD and the State Department where Undersecretaries and Deputies and other positions remain vacant, leaving the government understaffed in key areas. Now, if the Trump administration fills these positions with hacks and charlatans, that won’t do us any good.

Another feature of the Trump administration is cozying up to authoritarian leaders, not just Putin but also Egypt’s Sisi and countries that were democracies that are now backsliding such as Turkey and the Philippines. While there are important national security interests at stake in both countries and regions that might motivate US engagement with them, Trump has gone further to praise their leadership and court them with favorable attention in ways that may not deliver national security benefits for the US but merely entrench dictatorship.

One other thing we’ve noticed is that Trump administration has loosened the terms of engagement for the military in the use of force, delegating civilian control to military commanders in ways that have led to an upsurge in the use of force by the United States in countries like Yemen where we’ve backed a disastrous military campaign by Saudi Arabia. We should keep an eye on this as it may lead us to escalate our military involvement in places that create further blowback for America in the future.

(3) The Administration has sought to repeal many of the Obama administration’s policies on climate change and other environmental issues, including possibly withdrawing from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change. What’s behind the Administration’s moves in this space? What might be the practical importance of these policies for the United States and for Texas?

This is an area where the president has allowed Scott Pruitt and others to try turn the clock back to revive a dying coal industry by repealing all of the moves that the Obama administration set in motion to try to deal with climate change. He and Pruitt have gone further proposed large cuts to the EPA to try to undermine its commitment to clean and clean water, all in the name of loosening regulations on industry. Clearly, Trump is listening to the most extreme voices on deregulation here as many leading companies are committed to climate change policies and protecting the environment, but Trump has empowered radical anti-environmental forces.

I think here again Congress in its first budget didn’t go along with all of these cuts; whether they will do so in 2018 remains to be seen. Pruitt seems to have had the upper hand, but some of these moves like repealing the Clean Power Plan will be contested in the courts. Other areas where there are finalized rules will take some time to undo. Just last week, three Republican Senators — McCain, Graham, and Collins — defected on repealing the Obama administration’s methane rules.

Internationally, the Trump administration’s anti-environmental posture means that the US participation in the Paris Climate agreement is up for grabs with rumor having it that the US was poised to pull out until a series of internal meetings were cancelled and the decision was deferred until after the G7 meeting at the end of the month. It’s unclear what kind of participant the US will be if it stays.

I was heartened to see that the US and Sec. Tillerson supported a measure at the recent meeting of the Arctic Council to move forward on efforts to cut back black carbon, an important contributor to climate change because soot on snow causes more absorption of solar radiation. (Roger Williams has already sided with anti-environmental forces this Congress with efforts to undermine the EPA’s Science Advisory Board by voting for HR 1431).