Flying into the JFK airport in New York from Dubai these days is like going back a few years in civilization. The glitz and glamour of a growing metropolis and the technological marvels one sees in Dubai, despite rumors of a slowdown there, are conspicuous by their absence in New York. Machines have replaced many immigration agents in JFK, a new phenomenon, but many of them are not user-friendly and unresponsive. The general atmosphere is one of sedate business rather than of exciting growth and change. The potholes on Manhattan roads remain and construction activities are slow. Hotels like the Carlyle, where the glitterati congregate, have a mustiness about them which one cannot see in Dubai’s Atlantis. The warmth of welcome that the Statue of Liberty symbolizes has been replaced by fear and anxiety among migrants. But, despite all the aberrations of an unpredictable Presidency, the economy is doing well and the prospects of a second Trump administration worry Democrats and thrill Republicans.
The demands to impeach the President, which began within weeks after he was sworn in, are still afoot and the grounds for them are the Russian interference in the elections of 2016. The Mueller report has enough material to indict the President, but the report was inconclusive enough for the Attorney General to recommend no action on it. Mueller, who was on the President’s hit list, has survived many other Trump appointees and the President is using the Mueller report to claim that there has been no collusion or cover-up. But after the House Judiciary Committee voted to enforce a subpoena issued to the Attorney General for the full contents of the Mueller report, the US has come closest to a constitutional crisis, the worst so far.
The Democratic challengers of the President multiply day by day, but there are no serious Republican contenders, even though many in the Grand Old Party believe that the President had undermined the party. Age was an issue when Trump offered his candidature, but the same issue is in the President’s favour today as the two serious Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are older than him and he feels young and vibrant.
The President is unaffected by impeachment threats as he knows that his majority in the Senate will safeguard him. He had no hesitation in having a one-hour telephone conversation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on the global situation, without the issue of Russian intervention featuring in it. Like Bill Clinton in the Lewinsky days, the President is busy dealing with weighty matters of state like North Korea, Iran and Venezuela and not overtly concerned about the threat of impeachment. The Democrats are also coming round to the view that it is better to focus on the election than on the impeachment, which is bound to fail.
Joe Biden, who started leading the polls even before he announced his candidature recently, and raised a contribution of more than 6 million dollars in one day, has been tainted by his official and personal actions as the Vice President. Shots of him in inappropriate contacts with women of all ages are seen on television, not to speak of his alleged interference in Ukraine to help a company with ties to his son. The candidature of Pete Buttigieg, who is in a gay marriage, which has been characterized by the Time magazine as “unlikely, untested and unprecedented” will be another distraction in the months to come.
Unlike the Nobel Prize for Peace winner, Barack Obama, Trump has only withdrawn US forces from abroad, even from active fronts like Syria and Afghanistan. His own National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has been on the warpath all his life and he has been constantly urging the President to use force in different theatres of tension and conflict, particularly North Korea. For all his threat of rage and fury, Trump has not declared war on anyone. Washington grapevine has it that Trump has a hard time restraining his National Security Adviser on Korea and Iran. Bolton has just issued a warning that the US is ready to defend itself if Iran threatens its interests in the Gulf or elsewhere and announced the deployment of USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and others to the US Central Command region as a signal. More recently, Trump has announced the deployment 1500 soldiers near Iran.
The regime changing policy of the US is very much in Trump’s global strategy and the first candidate for it may well be Venezuela. But here again, Trump is not showing any anxiety to put American boots on the ground. His phone call to Putin may have been to bring change without a war in Venezuela. Trump seems to believe in using his jaw rather than his arms. Bluster in words and peace in action has tempered the image of the President as a bull in the china shop. His announcement of withdrawals from international treaties was swift, but he seems to be relying on his bureaucracy to soften the blow. The Paris Treaty commitments have not been reversed, pending the formal exit of the US and the sustainable energy projects may outlast the Trump Presidency.
Trump went beyond expectation in the case of India when he exerted pressure on Pakistan to release the Indian prisoner of war, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistan’s custody and thus stopped the escalation of the conflict. Similarly, China was told in no uncertain terms that the international community will not tolerate inaction in the case of Masood Azhar anymore. Though the listing of Azhar as a terrorist was not an earth shaking event, the US Secretary of State took the credit for facilitating it. In both these cases, Trump demonstrated a clear pro-Indian stand vis-s-vis Pakistan and China. In the bargain, the US seems to have got an assurance from India that it would not violate the limits on the amount of oil India would be allowed to import from Iran.
In a negative development, a warning has come from Trump that India should not assume that it would get a waiver from US sanctions if it went ahead with the purchase of the S-400missile shield from Russia. This is contrary to the earlier understanding. Similarly, it has been announced that India will lose access to preferential trade terms even as negotiations are under way on trade issues.
On China too, the evolving US position is seemingly paradoxical. The trade war appears negotiable and there does not seem to be a strategy to strangle China. The way China relented on the Azhar issue shows that China is sensitive to the US position. China does not seem to put any pressure on the US on North Korea either way. China also does not sense much pressure from the US to contain it in the Indo-Pacific, with the quadrilateral having receded into the background.
The western allies of the US are expressing concern that the President is deviating from national priorities like countering China and Russia to deal with nations that pose no real threat to the west like Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. The Democrats believe that such shifts will damage the credibility of the US with the European allies in the long term as the Europeans are likely to cultivate other powers. Among the countries that are named as being agitated about the US policy are Turkey, South Korea, Japan and India.
In the case of India, the concern is that enough attention is not being given to contain China. European countries are agitated over the anti-Iran moves of the US, which affect their cooperation with Iran. The other partners in the Iran deal remain attached to the deal in the expectation that they can multiply their business relations with Iran, even though Iran has threatened to resume nuclear activities prohibited under the nuclear deal.
Behind these perplexing policies, there seems to be a clear game plan for the President to secure a second term and then push his agenda with greater vigour. But the America First policy is likely to weaken the US beyond repair even after the elections in 2020.