Tuesday, July 17, 2018

How Many Dimensions Of Chess IS Trump Playing

Sure, it looks like a clusterfuck: Trump goes to North Korea, declares it solved. They stand up Pompeo and have yet to give back remains--but it's all good--gonna work out. Trump goes to Helsinki (or, just, HEL) and he looks like Putin's Bitch.

Okay, that's crass--but man he sure didn't stand up for American Intel or American Democracy or America in general--but: what if he's playing a deeper game. If some conflict with Russia is, eventually, unavoidable, maybe playing the compliant partner for now is a good move?

How would we know? What evidence do we have that Trump is making the smart, long-game strategic moves--vs. bumbling around way, way, way over his head? Let's look.

The Omnivore asserts there are a couple of domains or axes by which to check for bumbling vs. deep strategy. These are:

  1. Domestic Policy - how good has Trump been at moving the ball on his domestic policy positions.
  2. Foreign Negotiations - When Trump wants to exercise American influence, how does he do it--what are his goals vs. moves to achieve them?
  3. Foreign Diplomacy - What does Trump seem to want to accomplish with foreign diplomacy vs. what are his outcomes?

Domestic Policy

While it's true that no one would call the "Muslim Ban" (in quotes because (a) that's what it was supposed to be, (b) that was what Giuliani called it on TV, and (c) That was what lower-courts found it was) roll out good--indeed, it seemed to be geared for maximal chaos--perhaps that was just a first-month-in-office kind of thing?

After all, he got the 3rd one through after putting a friendly justice on SCOTUS, didn't he?

However: it appears that when it comes to repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something better, Trump not only had no ideas--he was surprised to learn how tough it was. He has now settled for trying to sabotage the ACA in the hopes that it will [ something something ]. This does not seem like the roll-out of a long-game plan.

He did get to sign a tax cut (which is unpopular and is short of the tax-restructuring that we were promised) and he got Gorsuch through (which, erm, was really due to McConnell who is playing a kind of long game right out in front of us).

In short, on the domestic policy front, The Omnivore can't see any evidence that the president is handling things strategically. In fact, he often seems to get in his own way for inexplicable reasons (such as Tweeting the trans-gender ban or having his Muslim-Ban tweets used against him in court).


Foreign Negotiation

Trump came into office offering exclusive skill in the Art of Negotiation (the Deal). He felt he could make smarter deals than anyone else--especially Obama--and so get the nation what it needed. How has that faired?

Well, for starters: the TPP was created as a tool against Chinese dominance of APAC trade. It was meant to give the US leverage in confronting China on its trade practices. Trump threw it out--and then proceeded to try to negotiate with Xi. A gun-fighter who throws away his best gun and then goes in with a knife isn't what we would generally think of as "brilliant."

But the TPP was unpopular with people who mostly didn't understand it--so maybe Trump needed to do that in order to win American's trust.

How about NAFTA deals? Firstly, they are not going what you would call well. The Mad-Man strategy of negotiation does, certainly, have some impact: there is little doubt at this point that Trudeau and the new Mexican president consider that Trump is likely "crazy enough" to wreck NAFTA. That provides some extra leverage that, say, Obama would not have had.

On the other hand, Trump's approach is to make his administration offensive to Canadians and Mexicans. This limits their leader's ability to "just suck it up." Sure, everyone would like to go back to all this being swept under the rug--but Trump's rhetoric makes it actively harder for elected politicians facing off against him to tale the L. This isn't strategic. It's the opposite.

Now--let's make something clear: there is one area in which Trump is playing the long-game: in the trade wars with Europe and China, Trump seems to be predicting short-term pain for long-term gain. That is: he knows the trade-wars will hurt people in America--but he is betting that America's economy is strong enough to weather them--and we will come out stronger for it.

Is this true?

The Trade Wars Saga

The Omnivore is not an economist--but even so, there seem to be some problems here. The first is that Trump's voter-base is uniquely easy to target. Going after "Obama Voters" would have been comparatively difficult for enemy nations, same for Bush or Clinton voters. Trump, on the other hand, has some specific demographics that are easier to target. This means that the pain will not be evenly distributed.

The second problem is that with China--who really does do a bunch of unethical shit that we need to address--their centralized government will be harder to knock down than our divided one. This means that Trump doesn't have a long time to win this thing--he needs to survive the 2018 mid-term elections and then be able to make a credible run at 2020. Otherwise China will just wait him out. Right now, this is all up in the air: the long-game strategy here doesn't look appropriate.

In short, the idea that Trump's people will put up with some shit for a little while and then America will dominate trade looks iffy because of the timing and cohesion of the players behind it--not even addressing the specific tactics.


Foreign Diplomacy

In the realm of keeping America safe from threats we are looking at three major players:

  1. Iran - if they start nuclearizing again, we have some really bad choices. A war with them would be terrible. Without a terrible war, we cannot easily stop them (bombing with conventional weapons will be ineffective).
  2. North Korea - Already having nuclear weapons, going up against them would be a NIGHTMARE scenario. We'd win--the cost would be unthinkable. We want them to decay from the inside and die peacefully.
  3. Russia - Russia is active in Ukraine and Syria. Challenging them there could, yes, lead to escalation. Americans aren't threatened in either place. Do we challenge them because they are doing bad things? Or turn away and let the bad things continue?
Iran - Trump's major action on Iran has been to unilaterally pull us out of the JPCOA Iran deal. What he left in its place was . . . chaos. The other nations involved were not convinced to end the deal--indeed, while the deal had some limitations and weaknesses (including the need for further action on Iran's missile development and a need to address some of the 10 year sun-set clauses) a case for strengthening the deal would likely have been met with some interest. Pulling out--and then ordering allies to "return to sanctions" was a move that, at least temporarily, worked in Iran's favor. Europe doesn't want to stop its money-making deals and Trump has not made the case for returning to sanctions (indeed, Iran has threatened retaliation of we manage to impose sanctions). 

This is not a position of strength from which to bargain--in fact, the somewhat haphazard nature of Trump's apparent decision making seems, again, to weaken the position he nominally wants.

North Korea - The only happy-conclusion to North Korea is internal collapse followed by partial reunification. Anything less than this will result in either a nuclear Nork or an unthinkable, erm, kinetic action. Trump's meeting with Kim has made the internal-collapse path harder--not easier. Now that Kim has achieved something generations of Kims have sought, he is more credible with his generals--not less. He shows no actual appetite for disarmament. 

Russia - Russia is a threat on a number of fronts. They are actively exerting military strength in Syria and Ukraine. They pressure Europe. They have conducted cyber-war against Britain (Brexit) and the US. They use Russian-signature nerve agents to kill abroad. They assassinate troublesome reporters. 

What are Trump's goals?

We don't know. Presumably to "keep us from uncontrolled escalation" in the form of potentially nuclear conflict. As far as that goes--fine--however let's consider a (limited) number of things here. The first is the Syria No-Fly zone. We have a number of reasons for not wanting Assad to secure power as a Russian puppet in Syria (their only external naval port is there--so denying them that would be geopolitically valuable to us). Trump is backing off on that--as much as he can.

A No-Fly Zone would force a confrontation--but it would not necessarily escalate to a full-on military one. This was Hillary's plan and it would have denied the Assad forces one of their best weapons. Trump has abandoned it.

How does this keep us safe? By backing down and ceding Syria to them and Iran--hostile actors we wish to pressure on other fronts.

There is Russian aggression in Ukraine. We sent them anti-tank rockets. These were demanded by the State Department for months. They sat on Trump's desk. He finally did it--which, good--but it is not a show of "toughness"--rather it is a show that Trump can be pressured by the State Department.

Why do we care about Ukraine? Well, they gave up Russian nukes in return for a promise of protection. Does this ring any bells? America's interests are on the line here--and we've moved from Obama's over-cautious position to one where we have US congressmen LITERALLY parroting propaganda (if the people of Alaska wanted to become Russian I'd be OK with that).

This is a huge victory for Putin and makes the US and NATO look toothless. Does it "keep us safe"? Only if we assume that Putin would move to outright physical attacks on us in response. That isn't certain or even indicated.

Finally there is Russian cyber-aggression. It played in Brexit. It was tried in France. It'll keep being tried until someone stops it. Who will stop it? We can only hope Merkel or someone else. 

How does this keep us safe? Presumably escalation to cyber-war would mean escalation to physical war--so we must just sit and take it.

Analysis: All of this is bullshit. None of it looks strategic.

1 comment:

  1. It's incredible how when presented with the same information people can come to different conclusions.

    While I essentially disagree all around (but you're absolutely right on ACA 'fix'. A blunder thusfar) I enjoyed the article and, again, your voice.

    Look forward to more readings. Best of luck!