U.S. President Donald Trump broke the world record this week in flip-flops, turnarounds and backward rolls per minute. He abandoned old positions without looking back, spoke out of both sides of his mouth without batting an eyelid and invented himself all over again without thinking twice. Pundits, analysts and politicians around the world felt dizzy, like riders on a particularly rough roller coaster.
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He was Vladimir Putin’s pal; suddenly he’s his rival. He said NATO was an obsolete organization that doesn’t fight terror; now he’s decided it’s no longer obsolete and it does fight terror. He was suspicious of China; now he's a fan. He promised to declare that Beijing was a currency manipulator but he’s over that now. He wanted to dismantle the Export-Import Bank, but doesn’t feel like it anymore. He pledged to sack the Federal Reserve’s Janet Yellen but is no longer in the mood. He was Steven Bannon’s number one fan until recently, but now he thinks his strategic adviser is overrated and his end may be nigh.
From the beginning of his election campaign, Trump thumbed his nose at conventions of consistency and turned his back on accepted notions of truth and lies. In this regard he is a postmodern president. His reality isn’t made up of firm facts but of the words that happen to come out of his mouth at any given time. When he says that former President Barack Obama wiretapped his campaign staff, his words become his reality. Moreover, things can change from one minute to the next: Yesterday Putin was great and China terrible, but today it’s vice versa. Today Israel is great and we love her, but tomorrow she’ll be stubborn and uncooperative and what about those billions that we spent on her defense?
Trump has shown in the past week alone that while Congress and the Supreme Court may shackle the president on domestic policies, in national security and foreign affairs he is an absolute king. He ordered Tomahawk missiles to slam a Syrian air base without waiting for anyone’s permission and made clear that he would do so again. He carried out a 180-degree turn in his attitude toward NATO and in his geostrategic approach to Russia and China without giving any advance notice that this was about to happen. Tectonic shifts that usually take years to occur are suddenly happening from one moment to the next, like an earthquake that hits with no advance warning.
And this is before we get to Trump’s shocking statements, which are no longer quite so shocking and therefore don’t raise the ruckus they used to. With a gleam in his eye he told Fox News how he had informed Chinese President Xi Jinping of the attack in Syria “while we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it.” Trump added that he told Xi that there are “59 Tomahawk missiles on their way to Iraq.” His interviewer, Maria Bartiromo, corrected him: “You mean Syria,” to which the leader of the free world replied, “Yeah. Syria.”
Perhaps the fact that Trump was so widely lauded for the Syria bombing despite the fact that it contradicted everything he’d ever said on the subject is spurring him to see just how far he can go. In his press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump proclaimed NATO no longer obsolete, as if he was Moses raising his staff to part the Red Sea. After a ten-minute talk with his Chinese counterpart about North Korea, Trump said, “I realized it’s not so easy.” He said it in the same devil-may-care tone that he had previously used to proclaim that health care was “complicated.” Trump has no problem admitting, in effect, that whatever he’s said, promised or declared in the past was probably based on random thoughts, hot air and a few sentences he happened to pick up on CNN or Fox News, but a brief conversation with someone who knows what they’re talking about convinced him that things are more complex, if not the polar opposite of what he previously thought.
To Trump’s capriciousness one must add the power struggles and palace intrigue at the White House, which, three months into the Trump presidency, resembles a Byzantine court after a thousand years. It’s clear right now that the so-called moderate wing led by the princely couple of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, together with Trump’s Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn, are on the ascendant, while the stocks of the radical alt-right branch, of which Bannon is master, are on their way down. Are these divide and rule tactics meant to consolidate his power and keep his advisers on their toes, or just standing up for his relatives, or perhaps an indication of a serious shift by Trump to a more moderate and centrist position? No one knows, and even if you do know, that doesn’t negate the fact that your knowledge is fleeting and temporary.
The bombing of Syria, the downgrading of Bannon and the rise of the so-called “globalist” wing – a term often used as a euphemism for Jewish – have all disappointed Trump’s hitherto enthusiastic supporters on the isolationist right. Since most of them aren’t ready to burn their bridges with the president yet, they have vented their rage and frustration on social media, many with anti-Semitic attacks on Kushner and his co-religionists. Conspiracy theorists have no doubt that White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s crazy talk this week of Hitler as a pale version of Syria's Bashar Assad was a bone that Trump threw to his white supremacist admirers, telling them in effect to sit tight, because our hearts are with you.
On the other side, Trump’s recent moves have stirred hesitant hopes among traditional conservatives and centrist Democrats that the president is finally leaving the loony right behind him and will henceforth reside within the boundaries accepted by all recent presidents. GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s harshest critics, said after the strike on Syria that he’s “never been more encouraged” by the new administration. Committed liberals and leftists, meanwhile, don’t believe a word Trump says, no matter what. They even discount the spin about a supposed rift with Putin, viewing it as a ruse to cover up the collusion between Trump and the Kremlin, evidence of which continues to pile up every day.
One can’t completely discount the possibility that Trump’s moves are actually the work of a political genius, whether they are part of a rational and calculated plan or the result of a sixth sense and gut instincts. In this scenario, Trump is shaking up traditional divisions between right and left before he sets up a coalition of mainstream Republicans and moderate Democrats that will advance his domestic agenda. He is showing strong leadership that can be seen from afar, making it clear to Americans and the world who’s the boss. He is sowing doubt among America’s friends and foes alike, resolutely employing measured force and maneuvering between the world’s superpowers as if he was Henry Kissinger’s heir. Just as he was denigrated and disparaged during the election campaign but hailed as a miracle worker in retrospect, the day will come when everyone will understand that his seemingly erratic moves were part of an uber-strategy that cemented America’s superiority, confounded its enemies and gave the world peace in our time.
The opposite version, which is more widespread, is that Trump is still the same ignorant, inexperienced, incompetent and irrational president most people thought he’d be. Despite his spin that there is a method to his madness, he and his way-too-small coterie of confidantes are ad-libbing and improvising their way to inevitable disappointment and disaster.
These conflicting views may soon be put a to a test in North Korea, where Trump seem to have thrown to the wind some of the caution shown by his predecessors Obama and George W. Bush. “Hold me back, hold me back,” he is urging China in order to force it to take action, while concurrently starting a dangerous game of chicken with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, one of the few world leaders who is definitely more unhinged than Trump is. The dispatch of a naval strike group lead by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson – the ship from which Osama Bin Laden’s corpse was thrown into the Indian Ocean in 2011 – could soon impale Trump on the horns of a harsh dilemma if Pyongyang carries out a nuclear or ballistic missile test. Trump will then have to choose between restraint that entails humiliation or a reaction that will bring about escalation, at a time when neither U.S. forces nor the rest of the world are ready for it.
Israel, of course, is following events nervously. Some analysts are conjuring a scenario in which Trump is carrying out a master plan that involves Russia, China, Syria, North Korea and even Iran. For many others, Trump’s widely welcomed bombing of Syria does not allay fears that he has no idea what he’s doing. And what about Trump's regional peace plans, which would plunge Israeli politics into vertigo and free fall? This is definitely a cause for concern for Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which would fall apart in an instant if peace talks were advanced. But one can always pray that Trump will wake up tomorrow morning with a new song in his heart, as a popular Israeli song puts it, and decide that peacemaking doesn’t really interest him. Let Israelis and Palestinians keep on killing each other if that’s what they want, he’ll say, instantly erasing from his mind any recollection of his promises to broker what he once called “the ultimate deal.”