There are growing signs that Trump’s unpredictable Syrian policy stance is the subject of a fierce power struggle in his administration
‘I thought I was escaping the madness, but….’ The ‘but’ spoke volumes as my arriving friend from Washington greeted me at Heathrow this week.
She certainly had a point. Since the London trip first entered her diary, the UK has endured the madness of a chaotic general election, a series of terrorist outrages, a scandalous tower block inferno and the launch of Brexit negotiations sans an effective government or a coherent strategy and with a dud prime minister consigned to political death row.
For the moment, at least, Britain is rivalling Trump-era America in the political madness and uncertainty stakes, and that was the spirit of her arrival message. There really wasn’t much point arguing with that. After all, it’s been quite a decent week (these things being strictly relative, of course) for Donald Trump.
Loyalist Republican Karen Handel won the high-stakes, high-profile special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, denying the Democrats their first major victory since Trump took office.
Its importance to both sides was exemplified by the staggering $56m campaign spend, the highest in US history for a congressional seat that was being projected as a ‘referendum’ on the first six months of the Trump presidency. Unquestionably it was the most hyped ‘by election’ in modern US history.
‘Huge win for President Trump and GOP in Georgia Congressional Special election’, triumphantly tweeted the president as the exit poll predictions hit the late night airwaves. ‘Thank you @FoxNews’, was also thrown in for good measure by The Donald. (Not sure Rupert Murdoch would have been particularly pleased by that in the week Ofcom passed its report on 21st Century Fox’s controversial bid for Sky through to DCMS Secretary of State Karen Bradley, who is now scheduled to make a statement on the politically-explosive deal to Parliament on June 29).
Sure enough, Handel effusively thanked Trump for his many supportive tweets as she celebrated her victory, surrounded by supporters chanting, ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ …a scene that clearly played well with a certain insomniac TV viewer in the White House.
But when you drill down into that Georgia result, the euphoria in the White House wasn’t exactly reflected by Republican party strategists and number crunchers. Handel’s narrow 5-point winning margin in a traditionally safe seat the GOP has held for almost 40 years compared unfavourably to the 20-point one posted by former Republican Congressman Tom Price, whose appointment to become Trump’s health and human services secretary, created the US equivalent of a by-election.
That said, it still represented a disappointment for the Democrats who invested more than $23m backing the challenge of an eloquent, passionate 30-year-old political neophyte Jon Ossoff, who they genuinely believed could upset the odds and win.
Interestingly, however, it was another result the same night that caused more furrowed brows among Republican strategists. The contest in South Carolina’s Fifth District, triggered by Congressman Mick Mulvaney’s ‘elevation’ to become Trump’s budget director, received much less media focus as it was seen as a Republican shoo-in. In the event, Republican multi-millionaire real estate tycoon Ralph Norman only scraped home by 3% over Democrat tax attorney rival, Archie Parnell, compared with Mulvaney’s 18% victory margin last year.
For those Republican strategists, torn between public ‘celebration’ and ‘private’ concern over next year’s mid-term elections that will determine their hold on Capitol Hill, the latest opinion poll ratings on President Trump serve up additional food for thought.
The CBS poll put Trump’s approval ratings at their lowest yet – 36%. It also showed that Trump’s handling of the Russian Connection interference in last year’s presidential election campaign is the primary reason for his sinking poll figures, with 63% disapproving of Trump’s response to the investigations, with only 28% supporting him.
In addition, 57% gave more credibility to sacked FBI director James Comey’s account of events than to the president’s (31%). And an overwhelming 81% – including many Republicans – opposed efforts by the White House to stop the Russian Connection investigations.
It helps explain why leading Republican party figures have privately made it clear to Trump that if he pressed ahead with his rumoured plan to sack investigating Special Counsel Robert Mueller they would publicly oppose him, even at the cost of triggering a constitutional crisis. Suddenly, all those hostile White House leaks against Mueller, a revered former FBI chief himself, have dried up. Quelle surprise!
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Republican strategists were also keen to flag up the positive public response on social media and across the ‘MSM’ to the president’s dignified response to the shooting incident involving GOP congressmen that left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise hospitalised with a serious gunshot wound. (It earned Trump a 46% approval in the CBS poll,
Equally, there was general support for the president’s angry response to North Korea over the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, returned to the US in a coma after being sentenced to 15 years hard labour for removing a propaganda poster as a prank. Even if there were some raised eyebrows when Trump gushingly tweeted, ‘While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi&China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!’.
On a couple of important domestic fronts, the CBS poll was better news for the beleaguered president with 44% approval on terrorism and 42% on the economy, even if his disapproval ratings were still slightly higher. What will concern GOP strategists, with the mid-term elections heavily in mind, is how that will play into the White House’s determination to press ahead with its controversial tax reform and Obamacare replacement health care policies. Some GOP analysts believe voters’ health care concerns were key factors in the reduced majorities in both Georgia and South Carolina this week.
Simultaneously, however, another issue is now preoccupying those same Republican strategists: Syria. Last Sunday’s shooting down of a Syrian warplane by a US jet near the IS capital Raqqa in north-east Syria was the first since the 2011 start of the civil war. It triggered the immediate warning from President Assad’s ally Russia that it would now shoot down any US (or UK) warplanes flying west of the Euphrates.
Apart from presenting a dangerous escalation in the Syrian conflict, it poses a dangerous domestic conflict for POTUS and his core support base, flying in the opposite direction to his populist campaign pledge not to ‘squander’ American blood and treasure abroad and his portrayal of Hillary Clinton as a ‘hawk’ hellbent on heavy Syrian intervention.
Writing in the National Review, the distinguished US commentator David French warned: ‘In many ways, current American policy is a lighter-footed, less ambitious version of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We’re using local allies, but our own boots are on the ground, and we’re directly defending our forces and allies from threats from Syria’s own government… the key warring parties increasingly face a stark choice – agree to a de facto partition of Syria or inch toward a great-power conflict.’
French added: ‘We’re inching towards an outright invasion and extended occupation of northern Syria. All without congressional approval. All without meaningful public debate.’
And all, presumably, without the approval not just of Trump’s core support base but that of the wider electorate, with all polls showing substantial majorities opposed to increased US involvement in Syria.
With growing signs that Trump’s unpredictable Syrian policy stance is the subject of a fierce power struggle in his administration between anti-Iran hawks favouring greater involvement to thwart Tehran’s regional ambitions and please their Saudi Arabian allies, and more cautious opponents (said to include Defence Secretary, General Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis).
Last word goes to my arriving Washington friend, who works in Capitol Hill politics. ‘If there’s one positive about the big mess you’re in and the big mess we’re in, it’s that Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK looks even more of a non-starter. Even if Theresa May, the woman who rushed to invite him with indecent haste, manages to cling to office… but I figure even President Trump’s already written her off as a loser.’
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and former Sunday Mirror editor