The turbulence that has marked Donald Trump’s foreign policy from the beginning of his presidency is only getting worse.
The apparent assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has turned into one of the most complex foreign policy challenges the president and his team have yet faced. The U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship is now deeply strained, despite White House efforts to spin the Khashoggi story to the Saudis’ liking. The alleged killing was brutal and brazen. Some charge that the president’s anti-press messages and indifference to human-rights issues helped set the stage for the incident. Leading members of both parties are calling for sanctions against the Saudis and investigations into the president’s (and his family’s) commercial ties to the kingdom.
The controversy adds to other Washington dramas: changes in the top level of the president’s foreign policy team and the possibility that the Democrats will retake control of the House of Representatives in the midterm election. The combination could well make the first two years of Trump’s presidency seem calm and controlled. Foreign policy is likely to get significantly Trumpier, which is to say more combative and unpredictable. And the United States is almost certain to emerge weaker than it is today.
One loud signal of change came two weeks ago. Despite the president’s repeated assertion that he knew U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was planning on announcing her departure, the news clearly came as a shock. Haley’s team and colleagues at the U.N. expressed surprise. Diplomats at the State Department with whom I spoke did too. Ditto, the staff at the White House.
Why didn’t Haley wait, as tradition dictates, to resign until after the midterm? Some believe she was trying to sidestep emerging ethics questions about her use of private jets for travel. Or maybe, post-Kavanaugh, she was sufficiently uncomfortable about being associated with the Trump administration that she wanted out without delay. Haley swears she supports the president, but she did not handle her announcement in a way that supports that assertion.
The Trump team’s response was clearly improvised. Nothing illustrates this better than the behavior of former national security official Dina Powell, who withdrew from consideration for the U.N. post as quickly as the notion was floated. It appears that even the most basic conversation between her and the White House had not taken place.
Powell’s reluctance to rejoin the administration suggests an even bigger problem. Perhaps one reason she hesitated was because of the strongly anti-U.N. views of national security advisor John Bolton and the widely held idea that his interventions were a source of tension for Haley. He has a preferred candidate for the job: Richard Grennell, his former press spokesman at the U.N. and now ambassador to Germany, a man who shares Bolton’s disdain for the institution and his toxic bully-boy approach to foreign policy.
The influence of Bolton and other extreme nationalists around Trump, such as Stephen Miller, author of the administration’s anti-immigrant policies, is behind another expected personnel change in the foreign policy team. In multiple interviews, the president has suggested that James N. Mattis will soon no longer be Defense secretary. Trump called the secretary “sort of a Democrat” on “60 Minutes” a week ago, which was not, presumably, a compliment. Mattis later said he had the president’s support, but who believes him?
If Mattis goes, the gutting of the “Axis of Adults” in the White House — former economic advisor Gary Cohn, former national security advisor H.R. McMaster, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — will be largely complete. Trump will be surrounded by hard-liners and lightweights who are more than willing to enable his often erratic, sometimes incoherent impulses.
The Senate, usually the White House’s strongest countering force, can’t be counted on to offer much resistance if, as expected, it remains in the hands of the GOP. The current Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), is stepping away from the Senate. He has been at least a somewhat reliable source for a rational response to the president’s most reckless directives. His likely replacement will be little-known Idaho Sen. Jim Risch. Risch, neither as respected nor as measured as Corker, has reflexively supported the president’s initiatives, including pulling out of the Paris climate accords and raising the stakes in North Korea. As for the House of Representatives, even if Democrats win control the resulting long-overdue foreign policy check may backfire.
House Democrats can be expected to actively investigate Trump’s Russia ties and policies, the Khashoggi case, and much more. They will battle the president on how to handle the Iran nuclear deal, Brexit, defense spending and global climate change. They will put pressure on the authoritarian regimes Trump has cozied up to. Any sort of check against the worst impulses of Trump ought to be welcome. But the government will remain divided, and Congress is likely to be very close to paralyzed, incapable of changing the course of foreign policy. The result may be a United States unable to play a global leadership role, as bitter fights take place in Washington as to what that role should be.
For our allies, already rocked by trade wars, attacks on NATO and a generally mercurial U.S. president, the next two years will probably compound the confusion and worry. And only for our enemies will this new period be one of promise and opportunity.
David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and host of the “Deep State Radio” podcast.