If there is a good thing about a military strike, it is its ability to cut through the confusion about policy direction that emanates from mere statements of officials and leaders. US President Donald Trump’s decision last week to hit a Syrian airfield with 59 cruise missiles doesn’t exactly mean that his path ahead in Middle East is settled without doubt. However, this much can certainly be said: Trump’s Syria policy is now much closer to what Republican foreign policy hawks would prefer than to his own campaign rhetoric which oscillated between non-interventionism to neo-isolationism.
Just days before the airstrikes, both Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, and Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, had more than indicated that they were not averse to Bashar al-Assad remaining in power in Syria. Throughout his presidential campaign Trump had made defeating Islamic State (IS) a top priority. His praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin was another indication that Trump would pursue the elimination of IS in concert with Russia even if that meant Assad ending up stronger in his burrow. But the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad against civilians has changed all of that overnight. It is true that the Trump administration took care to inform the Russians in advance about the airstrikes. It is also true that the damage done to the Syrian airbase is far less than what the initial reports suggested. But the remarks of top US officials, including that of Tillerson, Haley and even Trump, give ample evidence of a shift in foreign policy stance. Whether it is a complete about-turn or much less than that, time will tell. However, these changes hold immense importance for India and it is crucial to identify the people driving them.
The shift has come amid several reports of discord in the White House between two big players: Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and former Breitbart executive, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a key adviser. As per the reports, Bannon was against the decision to hit the Syrian airbase while Kushner was for it. The decline in Bannon’s influence can probably be attributed to the judicial veto over Trump’s executive orders on immigration ban from a handful of pre-dominantly Muslim countries—it was widely understood that Bannon and his ethno-nationalist worldview were behind the drafting of those orders.
Kushner’s trip to Iraq, on the other hand, has earned him the title of “shadow secretary of state" among people who follow the palace intrigue closely. His advice of going ahead with the airstrikes in Syria has worked for Trump as the latter has earned plaudits within the country and outside. The fall in Trump’s approval ratings are also expected to be stanched. Moreover, the arrival of serving lieutenant general H.R. McMaster as the national security adviser in place of retired lieutenant general Mike Flynn has further bolstered the Kushner faction within the White House. McMaster has been gradually phasing out people appointed by Flynn and has even managed to persuade Trump to remove Bannon from the cabinet-level principals committee of the National Security Council.
India should closely keep track of the change in Trump’s foreign policy and the revised influence levels of factions within the White House. When India’s relationship with the US reached its peak with Narendra Modi and Barack Obama at the helm in the two countries, a lot of that had to do with strategic congruence in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. The two leaders had also released a joint strategic vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region wherein, much to the chagrin of Beijing, they had talked about respecting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the South China Sea. While this was indeed welcomed, a lot of observers in India don’t feel such a joint statement carries the kind of oomph as it would carry if it were focused on the Af-Pak region. While things started to change and the US began to appreciate a greater Indian role in Afghanistan, perhaps it came too late in Obama’s tenure.
With the arrival of people like Flynn (if not Bannon, who has previously expressed his unease over the number of South Asian [read Indian] tech executives in Silicon Valley), who had written on Pakistan’s duplicity on terror, there was a hope that India would be given a position of privilege in shaping the affairs to its west as well. Even if Trump’s non-interventionist rhetoric put countries such as Japan and South Korea in a dilemma, it did not matter to many in India who aren’t riled up by violation of freedom of navigation in South China Sea as much as by terror emanating from Pakistan and for justifiable reasons. Moreover, Shalabh Kumar, whose Twitter profile describes him as, among other things, a “bridge between Trump and Modi" has also at different points claimed his intimacy to Bannon, Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway—the graphs of each has seen a fall in recent times.
While India’s top officials such as foreign secretary S. Jaishankar and national security adviser Ajit Doval have already met McMaster, who is supposed to be in the Kushner faction, India should learn from China and explore the opportunities of opening a line with Kushner himself. Apparently, it was Kushner’s meetings with top-level contacts in China which got Trump to reaffirm America’s “one-China policy" and got Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US scheduled early enough in Trump’s tenure.
If the US can draw redlines in the Middle East and enforce them under Trump and Kushner, there is speculation about what message this would send to countries such as Iran and North Korea. India should be thinking of the implications in Afghanistan where Moscow, under Rawalpindi’s influence, has been hobnobbing with the Taliban. With McMaster getting Russia hawks back into the establishment and the latest air strikes in Syria, New Delhi’s hope of the Trump-Tillerson duo driving a wedge between Russia and China may have to take a backseat. But why not explore the opportunities that the Trump-McMaster-Kushner trio may provide in Afghanistan? South China Sea can indeed wait. And on Indian Ocean, New Delhi can begin to build a forum of middle level powers involving Japan and Australia, as C. Raja Mohan and Rory Medcalf have already suggested.
The whole idea of negotiating with the Trump regime is to be nimble on one’s feet and keep up with the scoreline of the White House derby. Can South Block do it?