Gordon Campbell on Tillerson’s problems with Trump

Photo: Mark Tantrum

Yesterday, as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his flying five hour visit to New Zealand, Foreign Policy magazine put its finger on why other leaders in the Asia-Pacific region have been left feeling deeply sceptical about the mission of re-assurance by Tillerson and US Defense Secretary James Mattis. The duo were “admirable, but not convincing” – because they obviously don’t speak for the President they serve.

Thus, Tillerson’s sober re-assurances to PM Bill English that the US remains committed to global and regional engagement (on trade, climate change and mutual defense) count for very little – because on all such matters, President Donald Trump is listening far more closely to other, nationalist voices in the White House, such as his chief strategist Steve Bannon, and his policy advisor Stephen Miller.

This isn’t speculation. Only a couple of weeks ago during Trump’s trip to Europe, this gaping rift in the Trump administration was cruelly exposed, with Tillerson once again ending up on the losing team. At issue was whether a key Trump speech would contain an overt commitment to Article 5 in the NATO alliance – ie, a provision of major importance to eastern European states, who are facing a resurgent Russia. Tillerson, Mattis and national security advisor Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster had good reason to think that this commitment would be in the Trump speech. Not only America’s European allies ended up very disappointed:

National security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all supported Trump [making the Article 5 commitment] and had worked in the weeks leading up to the trip to make sure it was included in the speech, according to five sources familiar with the episode. They thought it was, and a White House aide even told The New York Times the day before [that the line was definitely included.

It was not until the next day, Thursday, May 25, when Trump started talking at an opening ceremony for NATO’s new Brussels headquarters, that the President’s national security team realized their boss had made a decision with major consequences—without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change.

Whether it be on defence, foreign policy or on climate change – where Tillerson again wound up on the losing team when he advocated that the US should stay in the Paris climate change agreement – the likes of Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson happen to occupy a parallel reality to the one that’s inhabited by the President:

Trump’s impulsive instincts on foreign policy are not necessarily going to be contained by the team of experienced leaders he’s hired for Defense, the NSC and State. “We’re all seeing the fallout from it—and all the fallout was anticipated,” the White House official told me. They may be the “adults in the room,” as the saying going around Washington these past few months had it. But Trump—and the NATO case shows this all too clearly—isn’t in the room with them.

What was also cruelly exposed yesterday was just how low New Zealand ranks on the US totem pole. For all the nice words that were uttered at Premier House yesterday about the value of our defence contribution in Iraq and Afghanistan, the absence of US Defense Secretary James Mattis – who evidently didn’t feel it was worth making the last leg of the trip from Sydney to Wellington to thank us – spoke a lot more loudly. That aside, what Tillerson didn’t talk about in Wellington yesterday was almost as interesting as what he did discuss.

For example: late last year, New Zealand co-sponsored a UN resolution on the Israel/Palestine conflict that has proved to be highly controversial. Since then, Trump has taken the pressure off Israel by backing the US right away from its previous support (under Barack Obama) for a two state solution. Well, did New Zealand believe it essential, I asked English yesterday, that the US should still be advocating for a two state solution? English seemed genuinely puzzled by the question. But our policy hasn’t changed, he replied. Yet the US policy has, I pointed out, and repeated the question. Do WE think that THEY need to be advocating for a two state solution? Our policy hasn’t changed, English repeated. Was this issue discussed in the talks with Tillerson, another reporter asked. “No,” English replied.

Great. So we’re militarily involved in trying to bring peace in the Middle East. We host a visit from the US Secretary of State. And we don’t even discuss with him the central obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

The Terrorism Factor

New Zealand will soon be at a crossroads in its military contribution in Iraq, and how that relates to the war on terrorism. With the would-be caliphate of Islamic State in ruins and its last stronghold in Mosul about to fall, the terrorist group is about to revert to what it was a decade ago. In other words, IS is expected to melt back into the Sunni population as a guerrilla force at home, while still functioning as a terrorist threat abroad.

So what does New Zealand plan to do then? Do we embrace an entirely open-ended commitment to nation-building in Iraq? The Iraqi government (whose Army we train in Iraq) is essentially a Shia-dominated puppet of Iran – and the punitive actions taken by the Army against the Sunni population in the late 2000s was a crucial factor in the emergence of Islamic State. To some extent, IS has since been discredited by its own brutal actions in power – but unless the Iraq government changes its spots, the same problems (largely to do with its governance of the Sunni minority) will recur. A fortnight ago, I had this exchange with English at his post-Cabinet press conference, about the duration of our military commitment in Iraq, and the changing nature of our mission:

Q According to news reports the last Islamic State urban strong-hold in Iraq is about to fall. When that happens, will that be a trigger for at least some of our troops to return home?

English: We simply haven’t considered that issue and we made the commitment to train the Iraqi forces. I would imagine that even if the hostilities – that, you know that area falls to government forces – that you’re still going to need training of government forces to maintain order. I think everyone has learned lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan about declaring victory too early. Our assumption has been that there would be an ongoing need. Now, there may be advice that says that’s not the right assumption – but these are places where the need for – there’s a paramount need for local capacity to provide the credibility of that, from being local – not NATO or international – and we would want to contribute to that effort.

Q That [commitment] would then be open ended, wouldn’t it? I mean, logically, if the threat [from IS] is reduced, then the imperative to put our troops in harm’s way also reduces.

English: Yeah, that’s the underlying logic. … And all I’m saying is that the fact that there’s been some military success there doesn’t guarantee the security of the population. We’re interested in building the capacity of the Iraqi Army, ideally in a way that means New Zealand troops can come put of there and never have to go back.

So… our military contribution to Iraq is fast becoming a virtually open-ended exercise in nation-building. And we continue to train an Iraqi Army as its tasks shift away from overt urban conflict with IS, and into the provision of internal security for the wider population. In the past, the Iraqi Army has been a spectacular failure in that highly political role. How, one wonders, are NZ troops going about training them to be good at policing their own people?

And now… the afterglow

Cigarettes After Sex maybe isn’t the right term to describe this country’s mood in the aftermath of the Tillerson visit, but it is a great name for a band. Especially for this band, which creates an intimate, seductive mood on this first track “Apocalypse” from their recently released album. The apt comparisons are with Mazzy Star (back in its 90s hey-day) and more recently, with the likes of Beach House. All good. The video footage by the way was shot by the experimental film-maker, dancer and voodoo initiate Maya Deren (1917-1961) and it comes from her 1943 film “Meshes of the Afternoon” – which played around with time and causality in interesting ways.