Global Affairs

The taming of President Trump

Removing Steve Bannon, putting in place a new national security team, bombing Syria. These have hallmarks of a revised, improved Trump administration.

LONDON • In all likelihood, United States President Donald Trump views his decision to launch a missile strike against Syria as a one-off event, a singular retaliation for that country's use of chemical weapons against its own people, rather than the start of a bigger American military involvement in the Middle East.

Still, the Syria missile strike will go down as a seminal event in the history of the Trump presidency. For it represents the first time an isolationist American leader who came to power dismissing all foreign military interventions as follies publicly acknowledged the fact that some military operations are justifiable and that some key international humanitarian values - again, not a favourite Trump concept - are worth fighting for.

And this comes after a number of other, subtler policy changes in the White House which all go in the same direction: towards the creation of a presidency which is less unusual and radical and more conventional than we initially feared.

Dare we say it? Could it be that Mr Trump is being tamed?

The past few months were exhausting, for both America's friends and foes. First came the shock realisation that the man everyone dismissed as, at best, a comical outsider, ended up holding the keys to the White House. Then came the even more shocking realisation that the newly-elected President actually had every intention of implementing many of the policies he espoused during his electoral campaign.

There was also the gruff, unpredictable personal manner of Mr Trump, which made every contact with him a journey into the unknown, an exercise in psychology as well as diplomacy.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Some leaders, such as Japan's Shinzo Abe or Britain's Theresa May, engaged with Mr Trump early, and appear to have established a personal rapport. But others, such as Germany's Angela Merkel, fell flat on their faces when they tried to engage with America's new leader.

During her recent meeting in the White House, Chancellor Merkel, who runs Europe's biggest nation and economy, not only suffered the ignominy of an American President pretending not to notice her offer to shake hands in public, but was also presented by Mr Trump with a "bill" calculating the money Germany allegedly "owed" the US for America's military protection since World War II. It was the sort of childish prank which did no favours to either Mr Trump's knowledge of history, or his familiarity with accountancy.

And then, there were the almost daily scandals, the policy flops and the infighting in the White House which proceeded with such fury and created such a bewilderment around the world that it felt as though the Trump administration has been around for ages, when in fact Mr Trump has been in charge for just a quarter of one out of his four-year mandate.

The scandals are still there. But there is also plenty of recent evidence that the administration understands the mess it is in, is prepared to learn from its mistakes and is willing to change both policies and behaviour.

The scandals are still there. But there is also plenty of recent evidence that the administration understands the mess it is in, is prepared to learn from its mistakes and is willing to change both policies and behaviour.

Last week's removal of Mr Steve Bannon, Mr Trump's chief strategist, from the National Security Council is one such example; the controversial former fringe journalist with a self-proclaimed mission to destroy what he calls the "administrative state" which apparently includes everyone classified as a liberal, was the generator of many of the administration's recent disasters, including the half-baked ban against travellers from some Muslim countries.

Yet of equal importance is the fact that Mr Trump reversed his previous decision - also inspired by Mr Bannon - to marginalise the US intelligence chiefs; they are now restored to their position as members of the National Security Council, a step which is not only logical, but which is also guaranteed to improve decision-making in security matters.

Talk of "overhauling the intelligence community", another pet obsession of Mr Bannon and Mr Michael Flynn, the three-star general who lasted barely 24 days as Mr Trump's national security adviser, has also mercifully disappeared.

Unlike many other decisions undertaken by the current administration, last Friday's missile strikes on Syria should serve as textbook examples of an exemplary military mission. The targets were carefully chosen, attention was given to minimising civilian casualties, America's allies were consulted while its opponents were informed, the operation was precise, the communication with the media short and clear and enough ambiguity is being retained about future US actions so as to keep all enemies on their toes.

Furthermore, some pretty impressive people are now joining the administration. The appointment of General H. R. McMaster as the new national security adviser was received with enthusiasm in most Western capitals, where the military scholar is respected for his strategic foresight and organisational skills.

And while most of the media's attention concentrated on allegations of supposedly nefarious links between Russia and some White House officials, the Trump administration appointed Dr Fiona Hill as its chief Russia policy adviser. Dr Hill, a Brit by birth, is regarded as one of the best brains on Russia, a woman who commands respect with most governments and think-tanks. Arguably, the current US administration now has access to superior Russian expertise than its predecessors.

SELF-CORRECTING MECHANISMS

What accounts for this transformation? Partly, the self-corrective mechanisms of the American constitutional system. As Mr Trump has discovered, while he enjoys wide discretion on foreign and trade policies, he cannot achieve very much domestically without the support of Congress as well as the acquiescence of judges; hasty presidential decrees and furious tweets in the middle of the night cannot enforce visa bans or reform America's healthcare system.

Mr Trump was also quickly confronted with the potentially catastrophic implications of his initial plans to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, discard America's adherence to Nato or brand China a "currency manipulator"; mercifully, he has refrained from doing all these things. And, as the old saying goes, American presidents don't search for crises; the crises search for them. He did not intend to spend any time on Syria, but events presented him with an opportunity of differentiating the current administration from the previous one, which stood idly by as the Syrian regime gassed its people.

Besides, it is worth recalling that the portrayal of the Trump administration as a team of weirdos incapable of brewing their own tea, may be a favourite one in the US liberal media but is just wrong. While there are some questionable characters in the administration, there are also some serious heavy-hitters, such as Defence Secretary James Mattis or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who managed the recent Syria operation.

Mr Tillerson may be criticised by foreign governments for spending too little on overseas trips and showing no enthusiasm for the shuttle diplomacy of his predecessors. But he has wisely decided that, at least for the moment, his most important job remains at home in Washington, where the State Department needs defending from proposed financial cuts, and where the enduring influence of the diplomats needs to be reasserted.

For both Mr Tillerson and Mr Mattis, the latest Syrian episode was an opportunity to remind their President that there is no substitute for professionalism, and that, in a crisis, it is experience which counts for more than gut instinct.

To be sure, Mr Trump's process of accommodation to the realities and practicalities of power is still in its infancy. Many lower-rung government positions remain unfilled, because the President insists on vetting candidates, and picks only those he approves of. The infighting within the White House has yet to be resolved. The positions of Ms Ivanka Trump and Mr Jared Kushner, the President's daughter and son-in-law, still need to be clarified. And Mr Trump himself is unlikely to abandon his image as the perpetual contrarian, the man who simply rejects conventional wisdom, almost regardless of the topic.

Nevertheless, there is no question that the administration knows it needs an overhaul; as a senior official recently put it in language borrowed from Silicon Valley, America is currently run by the "beta White House", implying that a patched-up version will soon be released.

And that, too, will be entirely in keeping with America's recent history. For it is by now largely forgotten that both Mr Jimmy Carter and Mr Bill Clinton had a chaotic and largely ineffectual start to their presidencies, and both had to make huge personnel and policy changes within months after coming into office.

Mr Clinton's makeover worked as intended, launching a presidency which is now largely remembered positively, while Mr Carter's never recovered from its initial disastrous start.

A message of hope there, but also one of warning for the current President.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'The taming of President Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe