Trump lame duck bodes well for international security

Volunteers load free groceries at a community food bank in the Crenshaw neighbourhood of Los Angeles, United States,  in July. (AFP photo) 

The commencement of the lame duck period of the Donald Trump presidency is marked by the departure of two high-ranking officials of the US state department in the last two days. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise announcement on Thursday that the US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook is resigning from his role at the State Department. 

Only a day earlier, another high-ranking State Department official deserted Pompeo’s ship when the Acting inspector general Stephen Akard also stepped down on Wednesday, less than three months on the job after President Donald Trump fired the department’s previous internal watchdog.

The two developments are not inter-related but neither comes as surprise. Pompeo was uncharacteristically terse in his reaction to Akard’s departure after WaPo and CNN broke the story. Pompeo said, “He left to go back home. This happens. I don’t have anything more to add to that.”

But Akard inherited from his predecessor Steve Linick who was ousted by Pompeo at least two explosive files over two investigations directly affecting Pompeo at the time of his firing. One probe related to Pompeo’s wife allegedly misusing State Department resources, and the other scrutinised Pompeo’s efforts to push through multi-billion dollar arms sales to Saudi Arabia sidestepping Congress. 

Akard apparently recused himself officially from the two high-profile investigations dealing with Pompeo and his wife. Conceivably, Akard, a career foreign service officer, didn’t want to carry Pompeo and his wife’s dirty linen, especially as there could be a ‘regime change’ in the White House following the November election, and Democrats are already leading an investigation into Linick’s ouster, and one of their main goals is figuring out what triggered Pompeo to push for his removal. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat, has subpoenaed four senior aides to Pompeo, accusing them of resisting interviews in an investigation. 

 Unlike Akard, the outgoing special representative Hook was a high-flyer. A hand-picked Pompeo hand, Hook had served as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff from 2017 to 2018 before being tapped to oversee Iran policy. And while on the Iran desk, he almost got elevated as National Secretary Advisor replacing John Bolton last year. 

Hook’s departure raises eyebrows since he was not only the Trump administration’s point person on Iran but also ‘policy advisor’ to Pompeo. On Hook’s departure, Pompeo issued a statement eulogising him, making it clear that the decision was entirely Hook’s. Pompeo claimed, “Special Representative Hook has been my point person on Iran for over two years and he has achieved historic results countering the Iranian regime.” 

Which was of course a vainful boast. The Trump administration has failed to produce any meaningful results via its ‘maximum pressure’ approach. And Hook is throwing in the towel. In fact, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently announced an expansion of Iran’s nuclear programme. Khamenei put his foot down on any negotiations with the Trump administration, saying, “He [Trump]  is going to benefit from negotiations. This old man who is in charge in America apparently used negotiations with North Korea as propaganda.” 

The contemptuous tone reflects the belief in Tehran that a change of guard in the White House by January is highly likely. Hook is smart enough to know he’d be marking time in an administration that has entered its lame duck period.  

No replacement is being considered for Hook whose portfolio will be additionally handled by the Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. Quite obviously, with the collapse of the ‘regime change’ project in Venezuela, Abrams is left with spare time. 

In effect, Hook’s departure signifies that rhetoric apart, the Trump administration is virtually mothballing the Iran policy. In sum, on three key templates of the Trump administration’s foreign policies — North Korea, Venezuela and Iran — the lame duck period is casting shadows. These files are unlikely to be reopened during the few remaining months of Trump’s first term as president. 

A lame duck period is a humbling experience. You hold levers of power but power has oozed out of your hands and no one takes you seriously anymore. Even the US’ European allies are looking past the Trump presidency with a sideways glance at what Joe Biden may herald. 

Foreign policy specialists in European capitals are analysing what the overall tenor of the Biden platform would entail — on the one hand, emphasising post-Covid multilateralism and cooperation with fellow liberal democracies, while on the other hand, reflecting the influence of the progressive left and pledging commitment to the Paris climate change treaty but also vaguely hinting at a new scepticism about globalism and free trade.

In a riveting commentary on Friday, the Guardian newspaper notes: “Biden’s promised end to the institutionalised mayhem, animus towards allies and pandering to authoritarians will be a relief. Competence, reliability and dialogue may not be a high bar to set a presidency, but simple normality would amount to a revival of the idea of the west, such has been the chaos of the past four years.” 

Of course, the litmus test of Trump’s lame duck period lies in the trajectory of the US-China tensions between now and the yearend. Pentagon is signalling interest to tamp down tensions after all the spectacular muscle flexing in the South China Sea by 2 US carrier strike groups. 

A fortnight after Defence Secretary Mark Esper disclosed his intention to pay a visit to China (his first-ever while in office), he made a phone call to his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe on Thursday. The Chinese report on their conversation said that the two ministers discussed bilateral mil-to-mil ties and “exchanges during the next phase.” 

It said Wei “stressed China’s stance on South China Sea and Taiwan, asking the U.S. to stop its wrong deeds, manage maritime risks to avoid dangerous moves that may escalate tensions”, while Esper said “amid current tensions, talks between two militaries should be maintained to avoid miscalculations.” 

A more detailed Pentagon readout flagged the US’ concerns as regards China’s behaviour on the whole and went on to say: 

“Secretary Esper reinforced his priorities for U.S.-PRC defence relations to focus on preventing and managing crises, reduce risk, and cooperate where interests of the two nations align.

“Both leaders agreed on the importance of maintaining open channels of communication and developing the systems necessary for crisis communications and risk reduction. Secretary Esper affirmed the principles of a constructive, stable, and results-oriented defence relationship between the United States and the PRC.” 

Clearly, the Trump administration has made an overture to ensure that tensions in US-China relations are kept under check during the lame duck period ahead and do not flare up even accidentally. 

On its part, Beijing also has reiterated interest in cooperation based on mutual respect and equal relationship, while underscoring unequivocally at the same time that China’s core interests brook no compromise. The general drift of State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s interview to Xinhua news agency on August 5 is that China senses that with the commencement of Trump’s lame duck period, priorities may change. 

With an eye on the future, Wang remarked toward the end of the interview, “With COVID-19 still raging across the world, China is prepared to have mutually beneficial cooperation with the US on epidemic control and economic recovery.” Beijing is sitting tight, confident of its V-shaped economic performance and growth trajectory and its ability to pull others along, too.