By Barbara Slavin
At long last, 2016 is almost behind us.
For the majority of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton and for millions beyond our borders, 2017 is filled with apprehension. But in the spirit of a new year, this analyst hopes that Donald Trump will exceed expectations and that those who opposed him will offer constructive criticism when warranted and praise if it is earned.
Contrary to campaign promises to be “boring” as president, Trump will likely continue to seek to provoke attention through tweets and other statements that defy conventional wisdom and decades of established U.S. policies. But words matter less than actions and the shock value of his 140-character musings may wane as his presidency takes shape.
Trump’s policies will be influenced by a number of factors, many beyond his control. Adversaries, from the Islamic State to Russia, Iran, North Korea and China, will almost certainly test the new president’s resolve. Domestic opposition groups, flush with new funds, will also not be silent. Trump’s options to respond to these challenges will not be unlimited.
Here, then, are some not-worst-case scenarios for Trump’s first year:
Having promised to reduce U.S. military adventurism and to eschew regime change, Trump will focus on defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria and try to reach an accommodation with Russia that reduces violence and provides humanitarian access to more Syrians.
Trump could listen to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and U.S. European allies and continue to uphold the Iran nuclear agreement; American companies such as Boeing that stand to benefit from new business with Tehran will also lobby the White House to strictly enforce, rather than shred, the Iran accord.
Trump may upend decades of U.S. Middle East practice by renaming the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem an embassy. He has nominated a strident supporter of Israeli settlements to be U.S. ambassador to the Jewish state. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, infuriated by the U.S. abstention last week on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement policies, will have to weigh his desire for such symbolic gains against the complications they would bring to Israel’s courtship of Sunni Arab states in an unofficial alliance against Iran.
China promises to be a major focus of attention for the new administration and here Trump’s protectionist threats could give way to tough negotiations that help American businesses without triggering a trade war that would adversely impact American consumers. It would be great, to use the president-elect’s favorite adjective, if Trump retains elements of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would boost U.S. trade and provide more leverage with China. Expect Trump to claim enormous credit for any minor concessions, just as he hyped a decision by Carrier Corp. to temporarily preserve a few hundred manufacturing jobs in Indiana.
On immigration, Trump will face opposition from U.S. businesses that employ foreign help, as Trump’s own businesses often have. The State Department and Homeland Security Department will explain to their new secretaries just how “extreme” the vetting already is for those seeking visas or asylum in the United States. The wall on the Mexican border is more likely to be a fence in places; Trump has already backtracked on his threat to deport millions of undocumented but otherwise law-abiding Latinos.
While several of Trump’s nominees raise concerns – particularly his national security adviser and those tapped to head the departments of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency – others could provide welcome adult supervision.
Retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the nominee for Defense Secretary, has already convinced Trump that a couple of beers and a pack of cigarettes would work better than torture for interrogating terrorist suspects. That Mattis outranked retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the national security adviser-designate, could help counteract Flynn’s Islamophobic attitudes toward the Middle East and South Asia and compensate for Flynn’s lack of expertise on other issues such as modernizing nuclear weapons.
Rex Tillerson, the outgoing head of Exxon-Mobil and Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, will also be an important voice for moderation. Tillerson has been described to this analyst as a smart, level-headed manager with deep expertise in some of the world’s most troubled areas. In a sign of his good judgment, Tillerson has refused to accept uber-hawk John Bolton as his deputy, according to a well-informed source. Tillerson’s intimate knowledge of Russia should also help Trump craft a new policy toward Moscow that defends American interests and those of our allies while acknowledging the depth and legitimacy of Putin’s resentment toward post-Cold War U.S. disrespect of Russian prerogatives.
Another key counterbalance to Trump will be the U.S. Congress. Although Republicans hold a majority in both houses, their 52-48 margin in the Senate is too slim to give the White House a lock on confirmations and legislation. The Senate will also act as a check on the more ideological House of Representatives and the latter’s expected efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act and other social programs.
Although Trump now has the power to select more than 4,000 political appointees to the federal government’s departments and agencies, they will have to rely on a 2 million strong work force to accomplish their goals. When these appointees go too far and make mistakes, count on the bureaucracy to resist and leak information to a press corps that will be vigilant for any hint of malpractice and scandal.
Nonprofit organizations devoted to causes that Trump has threatened and groups affiliated with the Democrats will be on alert from Jan. 20 for evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors that could merit impeachment proceedings. Trump will need to build a wall between himself and his businesses or risk violating a provision in the Constitution that forbids foreign payments to a U.S. chief executive.
The new president and his staff will undoubtedly have a steep learning curve as they acclimate themselves to Washington and vice-versa. Foreign leaders and terrorists as well as domestic pressure groups will impact Trump’s tenure in unexpected ways. The next year will be anything but boring, but hopefully, not disastrous. In any case, a new chapter in U.S. history is about to begin.