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Trump's game of musical chairs takes a dangerous turn

Rex Tillerson: the Secretary of State’s firing signals that there is one less “adult in the room”. Photo/Getty Images

The Trump White House, in which Kiwi Chris Liddell is playing a bit part, has taken a turn for the worse.

Timing, as they say, is everything. A few days after former Australian Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating praised US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy as “surprisingly good … pragmatic” and worth persisting with, one of the prime pragmatists was terminated with considerable prejudice.

It’s unlikely that historians will lavish many superlatives on Rex Tillerson’s short stint as Secretary of State. Trump thought he looked the part, with silver hair and gruff demeanour presumably deemed to bestow gravitas. That aside, the former ExxonMobil chief executive’s main qualification seemed to be a familiarity with the Russian oligarchy based on their shared interest in converting fossil fuel into wealth. If he’s remembered for anything, it will be for driving morale at the State Department to the depths at which mineral resources lie awaiting discovery.

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But he was one of the “adults in the room”, so we were told: a voice of moderation, a well-travelled individual who saw the world as it is, not as Trump thinks it should be. Now he’s gone, shortly to be followed by National Security Adviser General HR McMaster, another grown-up. Before being fired, McMaster was “Tillersoned,” his credibility methodically eroded by claims, attributed to anonymous White House sources, that he no longer had Trump’s confidence and was on borrowed time.

Tillerson is being replaced by current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a hawk’s hawk. McMaster's replacement is John Bolton, a former US Ambassador to the United Nations recently described as “by far the most dangerous man we had in the entire eight years of the [George W] Bush administration”. Dick Cheney, eat your heart out. Richard Painter, a former chief White House ethics lawyer, went on to say that making Bolton the National Security Adviser would be “an invitation to war, perhaps nuclear war”. There were reports that the biggest obstacle to Bolton’s appointment was his moustache, since Trump believes “looking the part” begins with being clean-shaven. Whisker-free Kiwi Chris Liddell, on the other hand, was a shoo-in for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Co-ordination role to which he was recently appointed.

Chris Liddell takes on a policy co-ordination role. Photo/Getty Images

Downhill all the way

Keating’s timing was off, but his views warrant consideration since he was one of the most interesting, entertaining and influential political figures in our part of the world of recent times. His conviction and boldness enabled him to dominate the Australian political landscape for more than a decade, but also contributed to his demise and premature departure from politics, at age 52. He described his approach as “downhill, one ski, no poles”; he could’ve paraphrased a French general’s assessment of the charge of the Light Brigade: “It’s magnificent, but it’s not politics.”

Keating’s assertion that the US “has gone 24 years without a strategy” reflects his liking for sweeping statements and big-­picture thinking as well as, perhaps, an affinity for the “great man/woman” view of history.

Bill Clinton, he says, was a “domestic” president who blew the opportunity to remake the world following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It probably didn’t help that Clinton’s Russian counterpart was the mercurial – that is, frequently drunk – Boris Yeltsin or that Serbia’s genocidal rampage through the former Yugoslavia restored a chill to Russo-American relations.

The proposition that Bush wasted his two terms “trying to propagate American values in the Middle East” is a contender for understatement of the year. Keating acknowledges that Barack Obama inherited a mess – two wars and an economy in freefall – but faults him for “timidity and lack of policy ambition … In terms of the big game, we lost two more terms.”

By “big game”, Keating appears to mean managing the relationships with Russia and China. Trump’s method is to flatter their leaders and, in the case of Russia, turn a blind eye to its various provocations and attempts to undermine the West, even to the extent of denouncing America’s security and intelligence apparatus for drawing attention to it. This is less grand strategy than perverse reluctance to stand up for the national interest for reasons we can only speculate about. Suffice it to say, broadcaster Megyn Kelly, just back from interviewing Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and retired four-star US Army general Barry McCaffrey are far from the only ones who think the Russian leader has some sort of hold over Trump.

John Bolton, despite the apparent handicap of a moustache, is tipped to become National Security Adviser. Photo/Getty Images

Trump’s proposed meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has been derided as providing a propaganda coup for the rogue state and being doomed to fail. Neither charge has much relevance. Of course it may fail – for that matter, it may never take place – but the situation is so fraught and the potential consequences of conflict on the Korean Peninsula so dire that any avenue that might lead to a peaceful resolution must be explored.

And as satirist Bill Maher points out, it just might work: “There are a hundred reasons why this is dangerous. We’re talking, after all, about a family that has reneged on every deal they ever signed. And Kim Jong-un can’t be trusted either.” But there’s common ground to build on: Trump and Kim “have the same interests – flattery, celebrity, tyranny. Both have daddy issues and overeating issues and problematic family members and inexplicable hair.”

It may be the case that, just as Richard Nixon’s credentials as a red-baiting Cold War warrior enabled him to engage with China in 1972 when a less hawkish president would have faced ferocious opposition from the right, so Trump’s sabre-rattling and cult leader status within American conservatism may enable him to reach an accommodation that a Democratic president would struggle to sell domestically.

None of which diminishes the absurdity of planning a meeting with Kim Jong-un while preparing to abandon the Iran nuclear agreement that would be hailed as a diplomatic triumph if it were replicated with North Korea. Nor does it mitigate the surreal, sometimes ominous, always venal nature of this Administration.

Do as I say, not as I do

Trump’s boast that he lied out of ignorance and in order to bluff Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was swiftly followed by the sacking of former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe for a “lack of candour”. Although part of a wider campaign against the Russia investigation, this was an act of spite carried out at the urging of a – self-styled – multibillionaire in order to jeopardise a public servant’s pension.

If you contemplate the rogues’ gallery surrounding Trump, the sex scandals and the relentless ad hominem attacks, lies and exaggerations, it’s hard to resist the idea that celebrated intellectual George Steiner’s prediction – “the Mafiosi, the thugs and the third rate move into the seats of power” – is coming to pass before our eyes.

Commentators have interpreted the abrupt imposition of tariffs, Tillerson’s sacking and the Twitter targeting of special counsel Robert Mueller as Trump signalling he won’t henceforth be constrained by the adults in the room. If what we’ve observed this past year is Trump on a leash, we can only wonder how rabid Trump Unleashed will be.

This is an updated version of an article first published in the March 31, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.