Who, exactly, is running U.S. foreign policy?
Not a day goes by in the Netherlands without President Donald Trump making news. If you're an American traveling overseas, you have likely been buttonholed by locals asking you to explain what is going on with the new administration.
The local news carries clips of Trump attacking the media, disparaging NATO or falsely suggesting a terrorist attack just occurred in Sweden. At the same time, top Cabinet officials are making the rounds in Europe, appearing to contradict the President on the most basic matters of foreign policy.
This is precisely the type of situation into which the U.S. Department of State -- America's foreign ministry -- would normally step in and allay confusion, make sense of the mixed signals and explain to the world precisely where the United States stands.
Oddly, the State Department has gone mum.
The last time the State Department held its “daily briefing” was January 19. That might as well have been another century.
Remember the days not so long ago? Barack Obama was President. Washington was a strong backer of the European Union; its commitment to NATO was rock-solid, beyond question, and everyone knew that the United States supported the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the convoluted organizational chart of the Trump administration, the President's chief strategist, Steve Bannon -- another official with practically no government experience -- may well be the man directing the country's foreign policy.In those days, the thought that U.S. forces should have seized Iraq's oil were being dismissed as the rantings of a political candidate who defied all norms, supporting torture, proposing a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States and claiming he would build a giant wall to block immigration from the south.
That candidate, of course, was Donald Trump. He is now President, and his policies are in question; his State Department is not speaking, and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is barely letting his voice be heard. By one count, Tillerson has uttered a grand total of 50 words in response to questions from the media. But never before has there been a greater need for an official translator of U.S. policies to the world -- and to the American people.
Waves of policy contradictions
Consider the endless waves of policy contradictions from the administration. The day after Trump appeared to walk away from the two-state solution during a joint appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters at the UN, “Anybody that wants to say the United States does not support the two-state solution -- that would be an error.”
Days later, at a series of meetings in Europe, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis all but pleaded with America's European allies to ignore Trump's criticism of NATO and equivocation about whether he would come to the aid of European allies. The United States, he told them, remains committed to NATO and to its “enduring trans-Atlantic bond.”
Mattis then traveled to Baghdad, where he had to reassure Iraqis that, contrary to Trump's statements, “We're not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil.” A few weeks earlier, Trump had stood at CIA headquarters and made exactly the opposite case. “We should have kept the oil,” he said, referring to the earlier U.S. military presence in Iraq, and adding, “Maybe you'll have another chance.” That, incidentally, would be a direct violation of international law.
Under normal circumstances, America's center of diplomatic activity -- the State Department -- would do its traditional job, attempting to portray U.S. government policies as a coherent whole, consistent with U.S. values and laws, committed to upholding the country's obligations, determined to maintain America's role in the world.
The problem is that all of that is a cacophony of confusion right now. Nobody knows precisely what the Trump administration's policies are, beyond a hazy “America First” slogan and antipathy to immigration and multilateral trade deals.
Sure, it's early. And both Trump and his top advisers, in addition to Tillerson, have little if any government experience. The administration is off to a slow start on a number of fronts, including staffing.
But inexperience is only one of the reasons why America's interlocutors to the world have gone quiet.
Indeed, worry over the murkiness surrounding the Trump administration's views extends all the way to Washington. Among the questions that loom large is: Who, exactly, is running U.S. foreign policy?
A key policy maker
Normally, the secretary of state is the top diplomat and a key policy maker. But Tillerson, who spent his career until now working at Exxon, reportedly wanted a man with government experience to become his top deputy. He chose Elliott Abrams, a political insider with considerable foreign policy experience. Abrams said he met with the President and everything looked set for him to take the job. Bannon was the only White House staffer opposed to his appointment, according to Abrams, so that's who he thinks blocked him.
Bannon, who has taken a key post in the National Security Council and is building his own parallel NSC, may want to keep the State Department's influence low. After all, his goals for the country and the world are a sharp departure from America's traditional role as an advocate of democracy, human rights, freedom and open markets.
The longer the State Department remains quiet, the more likely it is that its voice will not be heard on policy-making within the administration; the more it signifies that the United States will abandon its role as global advocate of liberal democracy.
One recent poll in 15 Asian and European countries shows that since Trump's election views of the United States have grown more negative. Normally, this would underscore how important it is for America to better explain itself to the world. But the so-far-silent State Department is as confused about U.S. policies as is the rest of the world. And probably just as worried.