One of the most characteristic qualities of the Trump era is the deep-seated uncertainty. We talk a lot about the endemic chaos and unpredictability that President Trump seems to thrive on. But I mean something different. Most Presidents usually act in relatively predictable ways based on a more or less known set of basic beliefs and policy goals. The Trump White House operates very, very differently.
Did the President abruptly decide to remove all US troops from Syria because of his oft-claimed isolationism or claim that America wasn’t getting enough money in return? Was it to upend a bad news cycle? Was it a pay-off or favor to Vladimir Putin? Was it an effort to get Turkey to lay off its campaign against the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi? Was the President simply seeking the satisfaction of unrestricted, dramatic action as legal peril surrounds him?
(For what it’s worth, my best guest is that he was trying to help Russia directly or Saudi Arabia by doing a favor for Turkey.)
Each of these explanations is quite plausible. It’s likely that more than one of them played into the decision. But that uncertainty makes it difficult for any observer to judge the merits of the decision, predict its effects or even know whether the policy is likely to change in a day or a week or a month.
It’s not crazy to think we shouldn’t be militarily involved in the Syrian civil war. But a jagged withdrawal is likely to leave allies on the ground ripe for slaughter. And in any case, the policy question is hard to grab hold of or evaluate since it seems very likely that a corrupt or politically self-interested rationale is actually driving the decision.
The same basic conundrum plays out on numerous policy fronts. A maximally confrontational posture toward Russia is not in America’s interest. There’s a good argument that Russia is a declining but belligerent power the US should try to restrain in critical areas but mainly seek to avoid conflict with. Yet it is impossible to judge President Trump’s actions through anything like this policy lens when there is abundant evidence Trump is under some kind of corrupt Russian influence. You can play this out with perhaps half the big foreign policy questions the US faces today and nowhere more so than in with the monarchies of the Persian Gulf.
This most basic level of transparency – knowing roughly the reasons why the government is doing the things its doing – is something Americans have mostly been able to take for granted. But today we can’t. And that has knock-on effects down the line of democratic self-government and accountability. If we don’t know why things are happening, whether they’re happening for plausible policy reasons or because of pay-offs or extortion or whims, we can’t properly react to them. We can’t properly understand what is happening with no clear idea why it is happening. We lack the basic information around which political groupings properly react to those in power, supporting the government’s actions or opposing them. It generates a climate of profound uncertainty and civic paralysis.
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