US: divided and dangerous

November 11, 2018


The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

TWO years ago, the 2016 US presidential election campaign, and the surprise success of Donald Trump, revealed the deep fissures within America’s body politic. The bitter campaigns run in the 2018 mid-term elections have deepened these divisions.

The ‘blue’ Democratic states are mainly on the east and west coasts of the US, while the ‘red’ Republican states are in the middle and south. However, the division is more complex, geographically, socially and economically. There are Democratic strongholds in the urban and suburban areas within the ‘red’ states; and Republican support centres in rural areas within the most heavily ‘blue’ states.

The Democratic Party encompasses: educated and progressive white Americans; African-Americans, Hispanics and other immigrant communities. The Republicans include less-educated and working-class whites, mainly in the rural areas or ‘middle’ America’s ‘rust belt’ of dead and dying manufacturing industries, evangelist and other Christian groups, the military community, the hard-line Israeli lobby, as well as many affluent white members of corporate and establishment America.

The midterm elections have transferred control of the lower house of Congress to the Democrats. This was anticipated; but the scale of the swing is significant. In the northeast, Republican representation in the house has been virtually wiped out. There are now over 100 mostly Democratic women in the house including, for the first time, two Muslim women representatives.

Trump has mastered the art of diversion through atrocious assertions and rhetoric.

However, since the 2018 Senate races were mostly in rural ‘red’ states, the Republicans have not only retained but expanded their majority in the Senate. In the governors’ races, the Democrats scored several victories, but Texas and the crucial ‘swing’ state of Florida were retained by the Republicans, though by narrow margins.

In the midterm election process, the Democrats pursued a more coherent and strategic campaign, focusing on ‘table’ issues, such as healthcare, and largely avoiding the fractious debates unleashed by Trump on immigration, race and religion.

Although President Trump has offered “a beautiful bipartisan type” cooperation between the two houses of Congress, and some have spoken of cooperation on infrastructure and trade, the odds are that the spilt Congress will reflect the split country. If anything, the rhetoric and political wrestling will intensify as the focus shifts to the 2020 presidential election.

With control of the House, the Democrats are in a position to intensify the investigations into Trump’s possible 2016 electoral collusion with the Russians, his tax returns and family finances and other facets of potentially illegal behaviour.

If, after replacing his estranged attorney general with a trusted nominee, Trump fires special counsel Robert Meuller and shuts down his Russia-collusion investigation, the Democrats will have added justification for intensifying investigations in the house committees. And although they presently disavow any intention to impeach Trump, if violations of the law are established, a motion of impeachment could be moved. It would need only a simple house majority to be adopted, although impeachment would be blocked in the Senate (unless the Republican Party decides at that stage that Trump will be a liability in 2020).

Trump has already lost the support of many of the independents and women who were with him in 2016. His support base may erode further if the economy slows down or if there is a significant political reversal. Several economists believe that the US economy has reached its peak in the present cycle. The IMF predicts it will slow by one per cent due to Trump’s trade restrictions. The economy could also stall if the Federal Reserve persists in raising interest rates.

If faced with major political reversals, the traditional course adopted by beleaguered leaders is to divert attention and /or initiate populist actions. Trump has mastered the art of diversion through atrocious assertions. Such emotionally charged and divisive rhetoric is believed to have already made America a more violent place, as evidenced by the ‘pipe bombs’ addressed to prominent Democrats, the massacre of over a dozen Jews in a synagogue and the general rise in hate crimes and mass shootings.

More dangerously, the US president has the power to initiate an international crisis or conflict almost at will. Trump is more capable than most of his predecessors of doing so. He has many options. Although China and Russia have been declared “adversary” states, provoking a military crisis with either may be too dangerous. Yet, an attempt could be made to raise carefully calibrated tensions with one or both powers.

North Korea is a nuclear-armed state now and past posturing by Trump has revealed that Kim Jong-un is not susceptible to bullying and bluster. But if the ongoing denuclearisation talks fail, the threat of Armageddon could be revived.

Syria is an easy and current military target. The US could enlarge its military presence there to oppose the militant Islamic State group and Iran; consolidate control over a breakaway region with Kurdish cooperation; and/ or attack Iranian facilities in Syria in cooperation with Israel. However, any unilateral escalation carries the danger of an unintended wider confrontation with Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Iran may be the most likely choice of a Trump crisis-creation strategy. A casus belli for confrontation has been built already (Iran’s regional interventions and nuclear programme). Israel will be ready to support a US military adventure against Tehran as would most of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The threat of Iranian retaliation is serious but may be considered ‘acceptable’ since Iran does not possess nuclear weapons.

Pakistan must also remain vigilant. Although the present trajectory of discussions with the US on Afghanistan and bilateral issues is positive, it can be reversed if US talks with the Afghan Taliban fail and/ or if the US is obliged to accept a unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan. Vengeful actions against Pakistan could include: declaring it a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’; strikes against Taliban or other militant targets on Pakistani soil; and/ or encouraging a cross-border adventure by India. Such actions against ‘radical Islamist’ targets would be immensely popular with Trump’s present and presumptive supporters.

Hopefully, Pakistan’s diplomacy will ensure that such scenarios are not on Trump’s crisis menu. At the same time, Islamabad cannot afford to forget the lessons learnt from the events in Abbottabad or at Salala.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2018