Trump and Pompeo Embrace Autocrats and Disparage Opponents at Home

WASHINGTON — President Trump has long claimed that he puts “America first” overseas. But in two remarkable statements on Thursday, Mr. Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, explicitly favored foreign autocrats over elected American leaders.

Mr. Pompeo chose Cairo, the site of President Barack Obama’s 2009 address to the Islamic world, to deliver a caustic, point-by-point repudiation of Mr. Obama’s message. He paid tribute to Egypt’s repressive president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for his courage in supporting Mr. Trump’s alternative approach.

About an hour later, on the South Lawn of the White House, Mr. Trump said that China’s Communist Party bosses negotiated in better faith than the Democratic leaders in Congress, with whom the president is in a bitter standoff over his border wall that has shut down much of the federal government.

“I find China, frankly, in many ways to be far more honorable than Cryin’ Chuck and Nancy. I really do,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “China is actually much easier to deal with than the opposition party.”

This is the same China that Mr. Trump’s national security strategy designated as one of the greatest threats to American interests — a revisionist power determined to “erode American security and prosperity” with predatory trade practices, military aggression, and a regime that represses its people while trying to undermine America’s democracy.

Mr. Trump’s affinity for strongmen is well established, as is his contempt for his predecessor and his habit of gleefully ridiculing opponents, regardless of their party affiliation. But rarely has the Trump administration offered such a striking display of embracing autocrats as friends and painting those at home with whom it disagrees as enemies.

“It’s such a break with the tradition that you unify the country against opposition abroad, and you act with a certain decorum in dealing with opponents at home,” said the presidential historian Robert Dallek. “There seems to be none of that in this administration.”

Mr. Trump’s comments about Mr. Schumer and Ms. Pelosi came in an off-the-cuff exchange with reporters as he left the White House for a trip to the border in Texas. It suggested that the president was still basking in the afterglow of his steak dinner with President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires last month, when he agreed to call a truce in his trade war with China.

Mr. Pompeo’s address, by contrast, was carefully choreographed in both its language and setting — a highly symbolic effort to discredit what Mr. Obama heralded as America’s “new beginning” with the Muslim world.

Mr. Obama, the secretary of state said, underestimated the scourge of radical Islam; declined to stand up to the mullahs in Iran, even as they brutally cracked down on protesters; turned the other way while the militants of Hezbollah massed rockets against Israel; and did nothing after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria used sarin gas against his own people.

“The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering,” Mr. Pompeo said at the American University in Cairo. “Now comes the real new beginning.”

Mr. Pompeo lauded Saudi Arabia for working with the United States to curb Iran’s malign influence in the region. He said nothing about human rights and did not mention the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the C.I.A., an agency he once led, concluded was ordered by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a close ally of Mr. Trump.

To those who watched Mr. Pompeo harshly question Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2015 when he was a House member investigating the Benghazi attacks, the fact that he would attack a Democratic president was hardly surprising. But that he did it on foreign soil angered some diplomats, who subscribe to the adage that partisan politics should stop “at the water’s edge.”

Even those who were deeply critical of Mr. Obama’s Middle East policy said they found Mr. Pompeo’s speech off-key — more a stunt aimed at his boss back in Washington than a serious attempt to set out a new blueprint for American involvement in the region.

“There’s something a little cheap about going to Cairo,” said William Kristol, the neoconservative political analyst, who has been equally critical of Mr. Trump. “If he doesn’t approve of Obama’s Cairo speech, the way you do that is not to give another Cairo speech.”

Mr. Kristol noted that Mr. Obama’s speech was also a rebuke of his predecessor, George W. Bush, especially for the Iraq war and his use of torture on suspects after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. But by comparison with Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Obama’s language was delicate.

“9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country,” Mr. Obama said at Cairo University. “The fear and anger it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our own ideals.”

In his dissection, Mr. Pompeo did not mention a line that would seem more likely than any other to provoke a Trump official: Mr. Obama’s admission that the United States played a role in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 — a coup, he said, that had left a residue of suspicion toward America. Mr. Pompeo’s focus was on making the Iran of today start “behaving like a normal country.”

For all his contempt toward Mr. Obama, Mr. Pompeo fell back on some positions that sounded a lot like those of the last administration. In Syria, he said, the United States would “work through the U.N.-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people.”

Nor is it clear that Mr. Trump’s praise of autocrats is encouraging them to act in ways that benefit the United States. It may actually do the opposite, as the case of Prince Mohammed demonstrates.

The trade talks between the United States and China, which ended this week in Beijing, were less rancorous than the shutdown negotiations between Mr. Trump and the Democrats. But they have yet to produce a breakthrough — and Mr. Trump’s decision to skip the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later this month because of the shutdown could put off a trade deal even longer.

“Strongman envy helps explain both the president’s comments and a muddled view of the Middle East,” said William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state who is now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The irony,” Mr. Burns said, “is that trashing his predecessor or congressional opponents on the global stage is seen by those same strongmen as evidence of his weakness and manipulability.”

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US pullout from Syria to be done in 'prudent' way: Trump

WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Donald Trump on Monday (Jan 7) sought to end fears of an abrupt US pullout from Syria, saying the fight against the Islamic State group was not over and that withdrawal would be done in a “prudent” manner.

“We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” Trump tweeted.

The president has come under withering pressure at home and in allied capitals after previous statements indicating that he considered the ISIS group vanquished and wanted US troops out of Syria imminently.

Trump’s new statement follows a trip by his national security adviser John Bolton to Israel in which he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that withdrawal would not happen before “ISIS is defeated and not able to revive itself”. 

The reassurances followed a diplomatic storm caused by Trump’s surprise announcement in December that appeared to signal a rapid withdrawal from Syria, where US special forces play an important role in supporting local forces fighting ISIS. 

“We’ve won against ISIS,” he said at the time. “We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land. And now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”

Allies like Britain and France warned that ISIS was not defeated. Questions were also raised over the fate of Kurdish groups that have done much of the fighting alongside the United States in Syria, but now fear attacks from Turkey. 

The initial pullout promise also sparked outspoken opposition from within Trump’s Republican party and the resignation of respected defense secretary James Mattis. 

In Monday’s statement, Trump complained that media coverage had skewed his original words, saying that his latest position on Syria was “no different from my original statements”.

Currently, about 2,000 US forces are in the Syria, which is in the grips of a complex civil war. Most of the US soldiers are there to train local forces fighting the hardcore-Islamist ISIS.

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Trump says US, North Korea 'negotiating' on location for next Kim summit

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Donald Trump said Sunday (Jan 6) negotiations are underway on the location of the next summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump, who held a historic summit with Kim in Singapore in June, said earlier in the week he had received a “great letter” from the North Korean leader but declined to reveal its contents.

“We are negotiating a location,” he told reporters before boarding a helicopter for the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, where he said he would be discussing a trade deal with China.

The letter from Kim came after he warned in a New Year’s speech that Pyongyang may change its approach to nuclear talks if Washington persists with sanctions.

Trump insisted on Sunday, however, “With North Korea, we have a very good dialogue.”

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China says US travel warning not based on fact

BEIJING – China hit back at the US yesterday, saying its updated travel advisory did not stand up to scrutiny.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing in Beijing that the country always welcomes foreigners, including Americans, but expects them to respect and abide by Chinese laws.

On Thursday, the US State Department renewed its warning for US citizens travelling in China, urging Americans to exercise increased caution due to “arbitrary enforcement of local laws” amid heightened diplomatic tensions over the arrest in Canada of a Chinese technology company executive.

The updated travel advisory maintains the warning at “Level 2” but also warns about extra security checks and increased police presence in the Xinjiang Uighur and Tibet Autonomous Regions, Reuters reported.

The advisory follows the detentions by the Chinese authorities last month of Canadians Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat and an adviser with the International Crisis Group think-tank, and businessman Michael Spavor. China says both men were suspected of endangering state security.

Tensions with China increased after Canadian police arrested Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer, Ms Meng Wanzhou, on Dec 1 in Vancouver at the request of the United States.

Mr Lu said China will protect foreign citizens’ “security and legitimate rights and interests in China, including freedom of entry and exit”.

“Of course, we also hope that foreign citizens in China should respect China,” he added.

He dismissed the latest US travel advisory, saying that the large number of American visitors to China last year alone was proof that China was a safe country.

“The travel advisory issued by the US, quite frankly, cannot stand up to scrutiny. From January to November 2018, the number of Americans that came to China reached 2.3 million,” he said.

He also said that the US has in recent years “used various excuses and reasons to set up obstacles for Chinese citizens to enter the United States and conducted unprovoked inspections”.

“This is a problem that the US should pay attention to and correct.”

In its previous travel advisory for China issued on Jan 22 last year, the State Department urged Americans to “exercise increased caution” in the country because of “the arbitrary enforcement of local laws and special restrictions on dual US-Chinese nationals”.

In comments to US talk show host Sean Hannity, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US didn’t change the level of the warning for China.

“We did change some of the language. We do our best here to constantly review things that might happen to Americans who are travelling abroad. We saw what happened with the American there in Russia.

“Our job is to always have Americans safe who are travelling, and we wanted to let them know that there have been more risks from what China has done in terms of folks travelling there and not being permitted to return. We just wanted to make them aware of that, and I am hopeful that we got the language just right so Americans will understand the risk but still travel there when it’s appropriate.”

Mr Pompeo was referring to former US marine Paul Whelan, who also holds a British passport, who was detained last week in Moscow on espionage charges. Mr Whelan was arrested by the FSB state security service last Friday. His family have said he is innocent and was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

Canada said on Thursday that 13 of its citizens have been detained in China since the arrest of Huawei’s Ms Meng. “At least” eight of those 13 have since been released, the Canadian government said in a statement, without disclosing what charges if any had been laid, Reuters reported.

Prior to Thursday’s statement, the detention of only three Canadian citizens had been publicly disclosed.

They are Mr Kovrig, Mr Spavor and Ms Sarah McIver, said a Canadian government official, who declined to be identified, on Thursday.

Ms McIver, a teacher, has since been released and has returned to Canada. Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor remain in custody. Canadian consular officials saw them once each mid last month.

At a press conference yesterday, Chinese Vice-Minister of Justice Liu Zhenyu was asked about the 13 Canadian citizens.

He said China is a country ruled by law and will handle this problem in accordance with the law. It will also protect the legal rights of the parties in accordance with the law, he said.

— Additional reporting by Tan Dawn Wei in Beijing and Nirmal Ghosh in Washington

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US warns Iran against space launches, ballistic missiles

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – The United States warned Iran against pursuing planned space launches and asked it to cease all ballistic missile activity, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday (Jan 3).

“The United States will not stand by and watch the Iranian regime’s destructive policies place international stability and security at risk,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We advise the regime to reconsider these provocative launches and cease all activities related to ballistic missiles in order to avoid deeper economic and diplomatic isolation.”

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Unification Is the Goal and Force Is an Option, Xi Jinping Says of Taiwan

BEIJING — China’s president, Xi Jinping, warned Taiwan that unification must be the ultimate goal of any talks over its future and that efforts to assert full independence could be met by armed force, laying out an unyielding position on Wednesday in his first major speech about the contested island democracy.

Mr. Xi outlined his stance one day after Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, urged China to peacefully settle disputes over the island, whose 23 million people, she said, want to preserve their self-rule. But Beijing treats Taiwan as an illegitimate breakaway from Chinese rule, and Mr. Xi said unification was unstoppable as China rose.

“The country is growing strong, the nation is rejuvenating and unification between the two sides of the strait is the great trend of history,” Mr. Xi told officials, military officers and guests in the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.

China would respect the Taiwanese people’s religious and legal freedoms in a unified “one country, two systems” framework, Mr. Xi said. But he warned that the profound political differences between Taiwan, a vibrant democracy, and China, a highly authoritarian government, were no excuse to reject unification.

“Different systems are not an obstacle to unification, and even less are they an excuse for separatism,” Mr. Xi said. “The private property, religious beliefs and legitimate rights and interests of Taiwanese compatriots will be fully assured.”

Mr. Xi also accompanied his offer of talks with a warning — one implicitly also aimed at the United States, which provides Taiwan with military equipment and the possibility of support in a crisis.

“We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures,” Mr. Xi said in a section of the speech that drew rousing applause. Those options, he said, could be used against “intervention by external forces.”

The diverging positions staked out by Mr. Xi and Ms. Tsai have brought into focus how the disputed future of Taiwan remains a volatile question that could erupt into crisis, especially if either side misjudges the intentions of the other — or of the United States, a key ally that has strengthened support for Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which handles relations with China, said it did not have an immediate comment on Mr. Xi’s speech.

Mr. Xi’s offer of dialogue appeared unlikely to win over Taiwanese wary of the idea that they could retain autonomy under China’s principle of “one country, two systems,” Yun Sun, a researcher on Chinese policy at the Stimson Center in Washington, said by email after the speech.

“Xi is correct in that differences in political systems are the root of the problem,” Ms. Sun said. “But ‘one country, two systems’ is unlikely to be the answer the Taiwanese people embrace.”

Mr. Xi’s speech was a sharp reminder that, even amid many other external disputes, Chinese leaders remain preoccupied with Taiwan, especially their concern that the island could defy their demands and embrace formal independence.

China is Taiwan’s biggest trade partner, taking over 30 percent of its exports. Many Taiwanese, though, bridle at Beijing using its growing influence to isolate them from international participation, and to press them toward eventually accepting Chinese sovereignty over the island.

Since coming to power in late 2012, Mr. Xi has warned Taiwan against any shift toward independence and repeatedly met with Taiwanese politicians from the Kuomintang, the party that ruled China before the Communist Party and that now favors closer ties with Beijing. But Mr. Xi’s address was his first major speech as president devoted to Taiwan, said Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“My initial impression is that the speech is a reaffirmation of current policy,” Ms. Glaser said. She also noted that despite Mr. Xi’s renewed call for unification, he did not set a deadline. “It is notable that there is no mention of a timetable or deadline for reunification — it is just a goal,” she said.

Mr. Xi indicated that China’s multipronged pressure on Taiwan is likely to persist after Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, which is wary of moving closer to China, suffered stinging setbacks in local Taiwanese elections in November. The opposition Kuomintang won mayoralties in Taiwan’s three most populous cities, prompting Ms. Tsai to resign as leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, though she remains Taiwan’s president.

Chinese state-run media have depicted the election reversals as a vindication of Mr. Xi’s approach to Taiwan: a battery of measures to isolate Taiwan and undercut its international standing since Ms. Tsai won the presidency in 2016.

Taiwan’s status has been contested by Communist leaders since 1949, when Kuomintang forces defeated in the revolution retreated to the island. Tensions have resurged since the 1990s, when Taiwan became a democracy and many voters on the island turned to politicians who argue that Taiwan should keep China at a distance, or even assert outright independence.

Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party has been at the forefront of those independence-leaning views, and after she won power, China quickly cut high-level contacts, arguing that Ms. Tsai had failed to acknowledge that Taiwan and China are part of the same country.

In the past three years, China has accelerated efforts to peel away countries from the list of those that give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China. Last spring, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso established ties with China, and in August, El Salvador cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, leaving 17 nations that maintain their diplomatic allegiance with the island.

Mr. Xi’s speech commemorated the 40 years since China laid out a new approach to Taiwan soon after the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing at the start of 1979. But the United States has remained Taiwan’s most important partner, and the Trump administration has bolstered some support, to the consternation of Chinese officials.

In March, President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages official government exchanges between the United States and Taiwan. And in June, the United States dedicated a new $250 million unofficial embassy in Taipei.

On the last day of 2018, Mr. Trump signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which tries to counter China’s growing military influence. The section of the law on Taiwan reiterates American commitment “to counter efforts to change the status quo and to support peaceful resolution acceptable to both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” It also calls on the American president to send high-level officials to Taiwan and to regularly sell arms to the island.

The United States and China have brushed close to military conflict over Taiwan: in the 1950s and in 1996, when President Bill Clinton dispatched two carrier groups to seas off Taiwan after China fired intimidating missiles ahead of a Taiwanese presidential election.

The United States dispatched warships to the Taiwan Strait three times last year to show support for Taiwan. That was done under Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, whose resignation last month has left some question about the Americans’ involvement going forward.

In his speech, Mr. Xi “appears to implicitly make an argument that use of force should be a last resort,” Ms. Glaser said. “Of course, Xi has to leave that option on the table, but he makes clear it is not his preference.”

Chris Buckley reported from Beijing and Chris Horton from Yuli, Taiwan.

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China commerce ministry says China, US held vice-ministerial level call on Friday

BEIJING (REUTERS) – China and the United States held a vice-ministerial level call on Friday (Dec 21), achieving a “deep exchange of views” on trade imbalances and the protection of intellectual property rights, a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said.

The statement, posted on the Chinese ministry’s official website on Sunday (Dec 23), said the two countries “made new progress” on those issues, without specifying further.

It also said China and the United States discussed arrangements for the next call and mutual visits.

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Opinion | How Jim Mattis Failed

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who submitted his resignation on Thursday, was the last “adult in the room” of the Trump administration — or so claim a small army of pundits, who now worry that the president, finally unchecked, will unleash an unvarnished, unpredictable America First foreign policy on the world.

There’s no arguing that Mr. Mattis is an admirable man who did his best to counter an erratic president. The question is whether he succeeded in his mission.

Though Mr. Mattis ostensibly left because he disagreed with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, in his letter of resignation he makes clear that it was really about the accumulation of slights and compromises that over his two-year tenure left him and his worldview sidelined.

Mr. Mattis’s original plan may have been to subtly guide the ship of state through treacherous international waters for four years. The president’s heedlessness and, especially, his disregard for the United States’ strategic alliances, partnerships and reputation made that scenario infeasible.

If Mr. Mattis had ever hoped that veteran military figures like himself could rein in the president, that illusion was shattered in April with the ignominious departure of Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.

Mr. Mattis and the president occasionally agreed — for instance, on the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Initially, he and General McMaster got Mr. Trump to denounce torture (grudgingly), walk back the spurning of NATO, recertify the Iran nuclear deal (twice) and, to some extent, stiffen his position on President Vladimir Putin of Russia and sporadically acknowledge Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

But Mr. Trump did not consult Mr. Mattis before withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal or suspending joint United States-South Korea military exercises in June, at the Singapore summit — moves Mr. Mattis opposed. He ignored Mr. Mattis’s request that the White House secure congressional authorization before launching airstrikes in 2017 in retaliation for Syrian chemical weapons attacks. Mr. Mattis’s opposition to moving the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem did not seem to register, for even a second, with the president.

Unlike some of his fellow cabinet members, Mr. Mattis never demeaned himself before the president in an effort to get his way. Since early in the administration, when Mr. Mattis alone declined to indulge Mr. Trump the ritual adulation he demanded during an inane public cabinet meeting, it was clear the secretary of defense held the president in dubious regard.

For a while, even as the failures mounted, Mr. Mattis seemed to be holding the line: He looked like a Spartan Marine helping rescue America from a willfully ignorant, libertine businessman. Then, by early 2018, Mr. Trump started to gain confidence on foreign affairs and perhaps detect in Mr. Mattis — whom he initially fetishized as “Mad Dog,” the archetypal military tough guy, reportedly to Mr. Mattis’s chagrin — a note of condescension. The president pushed out Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and General McMaster, Mr. Mattis’s de facto allies, and replaced them with Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, two more simpatico hawks.

As secretary of defense, Mr. Mattis still had bureaucratic control of the American military and its assets. But that afforded him only the power of delay and limited obstruction — not a practical veto or even, necessarily, a strong voice at the table in the White House Situation Room, especially with Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton backing the president’s every play.

That much was on display when the president ordered thousands of troops to the Mexican border this fall to repel the “caravan” of immigrants he said were mounting an “invasion” — a flagrantly cynical ploy to rile up his political base ahead of the midterms. Mr. Mattis seemed to understand that the deployment would amount to a technical breach of the Posse Comitatus Act, which restricts the use of the military for internal law enforcement; he sought to minimize the number of troops involved and slow-rolled the deployment. Publicly, however, he defended the move as “humanitarian,” proclaiming that “we don’t do stunts,” and ultimately acquiesced.

Nor was he much for cabinet infighting. Mr. Mattis could have tried to outmaneuver Mr. Bolton — who has wanted him gone for some time — and stay in his job, discreetly devising stratagems for eluding dangers posed by Mr. Trump’s erratic behavior and blunting objectionable military initiatives.

James Schlesinger, secretary of defense when President Richard Nixon was self-medicated and irrational in the later days of Watergate, supposedly short-circuited Mr. Nixon’s major national security decision-making authority. But he had obliging senior colleagues, including Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state.

Mr. Schlesinger was also a famously cocky civilian willing to circumvent the constitutional chain of command. Mr. Mattis is cut from more regimented cloth. As commanding officer of the United States Central Command in 2013, he was candid with President Barack Obama about his reservations concerning the administration’s conciliatory approach to Iran and quietly left his post early.

Even as prominent Republicans as well as Democrats criticized Mr. Trump’s nationalistic, anti-Europe displays in Brussels and Helsinki, Mr. Mattis offered no more than deflective, anodyne remarks. Although he admirably dragged his feet on barring transgender troops, holding a military parade and starting a space force, more interference might only have nourished Trumpian delusions about a “deep state.”

The turning point for Mr. Mattis came when he backed the administration’s obdurate refusal to accept the C.I.A.’s assessment that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had most likely ordered the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Increasingly, when Mr. Mattis hasn’t appeared marginalized, he has looked tamed and compromised. Even before the Syria drawdown was announced, it was time for him to go.

Mr. Mattis is undoubtedly a patriot, and a proud one. Out of office and having left of his own accord, he could now serve his country as a praetorian critic. Mr. Trump's nominee to replace him is likely to be a pliant sycophant. But the present moment is propitious for an admired soon-to-be ex-official to air dire misgivings about the strategic state of the country. A galvanized Democratic majority intent on holding Mr. Trump and his administration in check is about to take over the House, and the heretofore craven Senate is showing signs of resistance. The adult who is leaving the room may now, finally, speak truth to power and be heard.

Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was director for political-military affairs, Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013.

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Asia Reassurance Initiative Act passed by US Senate will beef up engagement across Indo-Pacific

WASHINGTON – An Act that is seen as a significant indication of bipartisan support for deepening US engagement in the Indo-Pacific region is quietly making its way through Congress amid Washington’s daily diet of political drama.

The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (Aria), which was passed by the Senate on Dec 4, is being closely watched by the Asia policy community and Asian diplomats. The House is due to vote on it within days.

The legislation in effect lays down a policy framework to support the United States’ commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific region and the rules-based international order”, according to Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who sponsored the Bill.

It authorises US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) to be appropriated every year for the next five years to fund the activities outlined, including military, diplomatic and economic engagement and assistance, which has thus far been seen as anaemic. And it recommits the US to every treaty or alliance in the Asia Pacific.

“Washington wants to send a clear signal to Asia that the United States will remain an effective, respectful ally and partner,” Dr Patrick Cronin, senior director at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), told The Straits Times.

“Money has its limits, but this proposed five-year funding programme would help lubricate our regional diplomacy at a time when so many friends in the region are urging greater US engagement.”

“With House support, this legislation provides another tool to support regional states as they seek to strengthen the software and hardware of national security,” he added.

Certainly, the Aria is in the context of the US’ mounting strategic competition with China. It mentions Taiwan, saying the US should make regular arms sales to Taiwan tailored to countering threats from China, including supporting Taiwan to develop “asymmetric capability”, and that the US should encourage the travel of high-level Taiwan officials to the US.

“It’s another component to the great power rivalry with China,” said Ms Yun Sun, director of the China Programme at the Stimson Centre. “It’s more resources for the relationship between US and its partners in the region.”

Bipartisan support for a more robust posture to compete with China, was by itself significant in post midterm election America, she added.

But while making specific reference to China, North Korea and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, saying “core tenets of the United States-backed international system are being challenged”, Aria is also very broad, covering relations with countries and regions from India to Asean, to the Korean peninsula and Japan, and support for issues from democracy to cyber security to maritime security.

It recognises the links between environmental security and maritime security, and focuses on actions to disrupt illicit networks at sea and across Asia where there is rampant trafficking in humans, drugs and illegal fish, notes Ms Sally Yozell, a senior fellow and director of the Environmental Security programme at the Stimson Centre.

On Dec 7, Senator Gardner said: “Aria provides a whole-of-government, long-term strategy in Asia that advances American national security interests, promotes American businesses and creates jobs through trade opportunities, and projects American values of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Co-sponsor, Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, said Aria would “do important work to address challenges in the Indo-Pacific by authorising much-needed funds to promote democracy and strengthen civil society, the rule of law, transparency, and accountability”.

The Aria does not appropriate funds, but authorises their appropriation. The actual appropriations come in subsequent Congressional budgets.

“Success should therefore be judged not in the sole passage of the legislation but in the prioritisation for the region that we will see in Congressional budgets for 2019, 2020, and beyond,” said Mr Eric Sayers, senior adjunct fellow for the Defence Programme at CNAS.

“The strength of this legislation doesn’t lie in the text, but the recognition that a bipartisan group of senior Senators… are coming together to say the Indo-Pacific should be a top priority and that they are committed to working with their colleagues to see that vision translated into a shift in appropriations for the State Department budget,” he said.

Some say what Aria specifies and authorises, is spread thin.

“It’s a decent start to more proactively competing for US interests in the Indo-Pacific,” said Dr Sameer Lalwani, senior fellow, Asia Strategy and South Asia director at the Stimson Centre. But “it still appears overly reliant on military tools, short on actual resourcing, and spread a mile wide and an inch deep”.

“The appropriation of US$1.5 billion is better than nothing but spread across dozens of countries in the Indo-Pacific is far less than what is required,” he said.

But if the House passes it – and there is little reason why it should not – it is without doubt a significant policy development.

Under the Barack Obama administration, there was a big rhetorical commitment to the Asia Pacific or Indo Pacific region, but the US “just flat out did not readjust our resources in a way that actually backed that up”, said Dr Lindsey Ford, Director of Political-Security Affairs for the Asia Society Policy Institute.

The Aria marks an important start to rectifying that, she said.

“The Aria… if passed, would be probably one of the most consequential pieces of funding legislation that has to do with Asia, that US Congress would have passed in years,” Dr Ford told ST.

“It is really comprehensive, it is not simply looking at North Korea or China, it is not simply China bashing. It takes a broad brush look at how (Congress) can influence US strategy,” she said.

“And it puts a really strong emphasis where it should, which is how does the US work more closely and strengthen the relationship with our allies and partners.”

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Opinion | Foreign Policy Under Trump

To the Editor:

Re “We Will Never Be the Same,” by Ivan Krastev (Op-Ed, Dec. 4):

The only thing more disturbing to me than Donald Trump’s presidency is the tendency to hold him accountable for all of the changes and challenges in the world today, including what Mr. Krastev laments as America’s “lost” sense of global leadership and rising tensions with China.

Let’s remember that it was George W. Bush who, after 9/11, started a bold foreign policy of regime change and democracy promotion that created a boomerang effect on America’s leadership in the world.

And it was Barack Obama who initiated a foreign policy shift from “indispensable nation" to “nation building at home.” Obama officials touted America’s new global role as “leading from behind.”

Even President Trump’s hard-line approach to China predates him. George W. Bush formally changed China’s label from “strategic partner” to “strategic competitor.” And Mr. Obama began an aggressive “pivot to Asia” to help contain a rising China.

Yes, Donald Trump’s style is corrosive and destructive. And many of his polices are without nuance. But if America is to rebound from the Trump presidency — which it certainly can — the first step is to candidly recognize how we got here.

Stuart Gottlieb
New York
The writer teaches American foreign policy at Columbia University. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the Senate.

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