It was once a matter of common wisdom that the president of the United States was the most powerful person in the world. It was also almost universally accepted that the president, regardless of his political views, was worthy of considerable respect. For allies of the United States, therefore, finding a way to draw as close as possible to the president was seen as a natural primary objective of foreign policy.
Today, the first assumption is open to question, the second is no longer true and the third raises diplomatic challenges especially relevant to America’s allies in the Middle East.
While a considerable portion of the power of the president is associated with the unparalleled might of the US military, the will to use that force has declined dramatically and some of the greatest strengths of the US – its ability to wage nuclear war or contest a major conflict – are among those America is least likely to demonstrate. Recent experience in the Middle East has shown that lesser applications of American force are not an area in which the US has had much success in advancing its long-term goals, and have been very costly.
For each of these reasons, America’s military strengths contribute less to the day-to-day power of the presidency than they have at any time in recent memory.
This diminishment is compounded by the fact that America’s core alliances have been weakening over the past decades due to challenges within and between allied governments. Further, the relative power of rivals has grown, as has their ability to flex their muscles without effectively being counter-acted by the US or its allies. This refers to the relative gains of major powers like China and Russia, as well as the gains in capability of rogue actors like North Korea and Iran.
The stature of the US president is also under siege. In the past week alone, the president saw the departure of two top aides, the defeat of a signature legislative measure, swirling controversy over the mismanagement of his White House, and several instances of public rebuke from constituencies that would once have been considered reliable, uncontroversial bastions of support – from the heads of US police forces to the Boy Scouts of America.
The president is under investigation by multiple congressional committees, as well as by a special counsel appointed by the department of justice. His approval rating is at historic lows. He is an object of ridicule, not just by rivals, but also allies from Australia to Mexico to the EU. Leaders in Canada and Europe have distanced themselves from him and have argued that it is time to prepare for a world in which the US no longer played the leadership role it once did.
In other words, what is happening with Donald Trump in the United States is not normal.
It is also not sustainable. His own political party is seeing increasing dissent. Some, like 2012 GOP nominee for president, Mitt Romney, have long opposed hm. In the past week, the GOP presidential candidate prior to Romney, senator John McCain, cast a decisive vote killing a key Trump initiative. Others in the GOP leadership threatened strong action against Mr Trump if he removed his attorney general, as he was contemplating doing. If when we near the 2018 mid-term elections and Mr Trump is still in distress, his party will distance itself from him further. This will lead to more investigative pressure on him and even greater weakening. His inability to manage his White House or its message won’t help.
The result is that allies of the US such as those in the Middle East face a conundrum. The reflexive temptation is to seek closeness with Mr Trump and his team. This is especially true because some Trump instincts, such as his anti-Iran stance and his toughness on extremism, are so appealing.
But it is important to remember several factors. First, America lacks the will to act that it once had. Next, this president is much weaker than past presidents. In fact, he is almost certainly the weakest president since America became an international power.
Third, he has proven himself to be an extremely erratic leader. Fourth, he is almost certainly going to become weaker and may not last out his term of office.
Finally, there is a tendency in US politics to seek to reverse the policies of immediate predecessors regardless of the merits of the case. Mr Trump is doing so with Barack Obama’s polices. Mr Obama did so with George W Bush. Mr Bush did so with Bill Clinton.
In short, while getting close to Mr Trump may seem like the natural thing to do and may offer near-term benefits, it poses long-term risks.
Washington is very close to being paralysed by a constitutional crisis. And so for American allies in the Middle East, the best course of action may be dictated by remembering two folksy “American” sayings.
One has been attributed both to Benjamin Franklin and to Seneca, and it is: “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.” The other is in the form of a question-and-answer joke.
The question is: “How do you make love to a porcupine?” The answer: “Very carefully.”