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Get ready world: 'Trump’s posturing is even more inconsistent and incoherent than Obama's'

But the potential for a conflict between the United States and Russia was, and may still be, on the brink, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“GET READY, RUSSIA.  Get ready, world.”

On Twitter – where else? – President Donald Trump five days ago told the world’s second strongest military power that he would be sending “nice and new and ‘smart’” missiles in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of poison gas on the people of his own country.

After Friday’s missile attack, the world nervously waits for what might lie ahead, should Russia come to the aid of its ally.

Inconsistent

Last Monday, however, the president had indicated that “major decisions” would be made in the next 24-48 hours. He then delayed. A mere two weeks ago, he stated that American troops would “very soon” be out of Syria.

Trump’s posturing is even more inconsistent and incoherent than President Obama’s, who he has attacked for not resolving this matter. The reality is that the horrendous situation in Syria, similar to other global trouble spots, is not readily amenable to being fixed.

But the president apparently doesn’t get it. His rhetoric is just more of the same from a man who may be the world’s most powerful leader, but who is not a deep thinker, is allergic to caution and probity, speaks and tweets whatever comes to mind – consequences be damned – and has little regard for anyone except himself.

Simply put, the bombastic New York businessman isn’t suited to being president.

Russian relations

Of course, none of this is new. What is new is the reality that the potential for a conflict between the United States and Russia was, and may still be, on the brink.

Thankfully, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May – united in revulsion at the deaths of so many Syrian children and in a belief that a response was required – seem to have restrained the extreme impulses of their colleague in Washington, DC.

It is improbable that the president’s new National Security Adviser John Bolton, a hawk’s hawk, will seek to do so when and if things flare up in future.

The rather militaristic bent of the Trump administration, when the candidate’s campaign promise to avoid entanglement in unnecessary foreign wars resonated with vast swathes of Americans and may have been the decisive factor in his victory, is beyond bewildering.

Shift in tone

At this point, although Trump attacked his predecessor for drawing a line in the sand with Assad and then capitulating, he likewise backed himself into an even more unenviable corner.

If he didn’t follow through on repeated threats to hit back against the individual he has labelled “a gas killing animal,” he would have looked weak. But if Russia were to fulfil its pledge to defend, the fallout doesn’t bear thinking about.

Tweets that followed his initial, highly inflammatory pronouncement, prompted perhaps by communications from Macron and May or briefings from the more reasoned occupants of his inner circle, such as Defence Secretary James Mattis, evinced a more conciliatory attitude toward Russia.

The president has opined that, while relations are currently at a low ebb, “there is no need for this”, that the US could help the Russians with their economy and that “we need all nations to work together.”

The shift in tone suggests that Trump, with Macron and May, are pursuing a nuanced plan of action with the crucial objectives of simultaneously standing up to Assad and avoiding World War III. Their limited, joint missile strike on Syria, was strategically targeted to inflict relatively insubstantial damage and, therefore, to not warrant a Russian military response.

Expressed colloquially, the message to President Vladimir Putin was: “We are who we are and we have to do what we have to do, and we hope you understand that.”

What do Americans think?

All of this engenders a big political question. What do the American people think?

There was widespread revulsion at Assad’s use of chemical weapons. At the same time, there is no appetite for war. The inward looking nature and isolationist spirit so prevalent in the US are responsible in roughly equal measure for President Obama’s indecision and for President Trump’s improbable triumph.

Why the latter has since been a relentless sabre rattler gives one pause. As an aside, the president’s far from supine language does not hint that the Russian government has “the goods” on him.

Meanwhile, speaking of the Mueller investigation, back at home, the New York office and residence of the president’s attorney, Michael Cohen, have been raided and many documents removed.

Speculation is that this FBI swoop was carried out in connection with the payment of $130,000 to the porn star Stormy Daniels prior to the 2016 election and possible violations of campaign finance law that might have occurred.

Whether the raid was, in fact, necessary or justifiable is an open question that US legal scholars are debating, but this aspect of the investigation – not related to Russia – is still another distraction for the White House.

Interesting times

And finally, a further, political difficulty arose for President Trump on Wednesday when the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan – who has usually, albeit sometimes unhappily, stayed onside – announced he would not seek an 11th term in Congress.

His purported reasons aside, it does not compute that a youthful House Speaker, knowing that his party faces a serious battle to hold a majority, has opted to walk away.

The last Speaker to do so was Tip O’Neill in 1986, but he was by then an elderly man whose Democratic Party held an impenetrable, approximately 75-seat edge over the opposition. Ryan’s exit signals that he was frustrated by the thankless task of dealing with some of his more radical colleagues and his unpredictable, de facto boss and just couldn’t continue. Regardless, it doesn’t bode well for the GOP.

“May you live in interesting times” has been an oft-bandied about idiom since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president fifteen months ago. Millions of Americans, however, clearly long to have good old-fashioned, “uninteresting” politics – warts and all – back.

We will get a better sense of how many have had enough of this equally squalid and terrifying circus in November’s mid-term elections.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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