Turnbull’s Trump riff won’t please The Donald but it could be a hit at home



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Malcolm Turnbull’s Midwinter Ball speech parodying Donald Trump has received international attention.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

We can presume that even without the assistance of Nine’s Laurie Oakes, Washington officialdom would have heard soon enough about Malcolm Turnbull’s riff on Donald Trump at Wednesday’s Midwinter Ball.

After all, among the hundreds of guests in Parliament’s Great Hall was James Carouso, the US embassy’s charge d’affaires. Any diplomat doing their job properly would inform their government about a speech mentioning their country’s leader, regardless of it being “off the record”.

But there’s a world of difference between a discreet report filtered through the channels of bureaucrats and advisers (who may or may not tell the president) and a blaze of publicity in the media.

Trump is not known for humour when the joke’s on him, and Turnbull’s hilarious send-up is likely to go down poorly with him. Whether this matters remains to be seen.

It was a great speech; I’ll leave readers to hunt for the now readily available detail, as I was present on the off-the-record occasion. It was Malcolm unplugged in a witty, clever way, self-deprecating even when he was sending up Trump.

These ball nights see an informal contest between the prime minister of the day and the opposition leader as to who can perform best. The chatter among guests was that Turnbull’s speech clearly beat that of Bill Shorten.

But, as things turned out, it was a risk-laden exercise.

The leaders prepare their speeches for this night, especially because they have to strike a humorous tone and being seriously funny – as distinct from inserting the odd joke – is not their usual stock in trade.

So it is surprising that someone around Turnbull, if not Turnbull himself, didn’t hear a warning bell.

It is not for lack of precedent. There was that most spectacular “leak” from the press gallery’s 1990 dinner when treasurer Paul Keating’s “Placedo Domingo” speech, seen as an attack on prime minister Bob Hawke, which caused a crisis between the two.

This week’s incident has sparked questions and debate about journalists’ ethics and practices.

Should Oakes have put the speech to air? In my opinion, he had absolutely every right to do so – he wasn’t there and so had not consented to the “off-the-record” terms.

Is the leaker, whoever it was, to be condemned? Whether you think they should be, leaks happen. We journalists encourage them, so we shouldn’t be hypocritical about this one.

We should, incidentally, respond with a horse laugh to the attempt by Mathias Cormann to suggest the leak might be Shorten’s fault. That was quickly denied by Oakes.

Should the ball be off the record anyway? Surely this is an absurdity, given the number of people present, including lobbyists, business figures, politicians, staffers and diplomats, as well as journalists.

Obviously leaders would be blander if they were talking on the record. This is not a credible reason, however, for drawing a curtain over what is effectively a public dinner. It simply looks like excessively “insider” behaviour between media and politicians.

But the debate about ethics is less important at the moment than the consideration of possible consequences of Turnbull’s speech.

The latest incident comes against the background of the up-and-down start to the Turnbull-Trump relationship.

There was the fraught phone call early this year in which Trump denounced the deal the Obama administration did for the US to take some refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. At the other extreme came the over-the-top love-in during their press conference in New York when Turnbull, to his discredit, agreed with Trump that the account of the phone call had been fake news.

The government is pushing the point that Turnbull’s Trump references were all just a bit of fun, showing another side of him. The speech was “affectionately light-hearted”, Turnbull has said.

The US embassy played down the affair, saying “we take this with the good humour that was intended”, as did Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Joe Hockey, who quipped: “The administration hasn’t rung us up and I haven’t been hauled into the White House and sent back to Australia so far as I’m aware.”

But in view of the background and Trump’s prickly nature, the government will be holding its breath.

Trump might have so much on his plate that he doesn’t give Turnbull a second thought.

But if he got hissy, what is the worst he could do? The only immediate serious thing one can think of would be to go even more slowly on the refugee deal, already proceeding at a snail’s pace. That indeed would be a high price to pay for a joke or three.

He could be more difficult in future interactions with Turnbull. After Kevin Rudd leaked his disparaging remarks about George W Bush following a phone conversation the two had about the G20, their relationship became particularly frosty.

But the affair should be kept in perspective. Sometimes the Australian and US leaders of the day are joined at the hip – Lyndon Johnson and Harold Holt, John Howard and Bush. Historically, that can be seen as a good or a bad thing. Sometimes relations are tense – Gough Whitlam and Richard Nixon, Rudd and Bush after the G20 affair.

But as is often pointed out, the Australian-American relationship is based on shared interests. Thus Australia failing to forewarn the Americans that it was leasing the Port of Darwin to the Chinese was a much more serious offence than a bit of close-to-the-bone humour.

And, as a story in the Washington Post that reported Turnbull’s speech illustrated, when it comes to Trump Turnbull isn’t on his lonesome. It noted Trump has become “the butt of jokes in capitals around the world”.

The Conversation“Fellow world leaders appear emboldened to poke fun at him as a way to bolster their political standing,” the story said. Now that would be an upside for Turnbull.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As Trump ups the ante, executive powers should worry Australians too


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The executive government in Australia has more power than most people realise, especially when it comes to immigration.
Cody Austin/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Anna Boucher, University of Sydney and Daniel Ghezelbash, Macquarie University

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


The US president’s executive powers are a crucial way to fast-track immigration policies without congressional approval. But with Donald Trump’s executive orders barring entry to people from selected countries, these powers are taking on a new flavour.

While we like to think we live in a democracy with a strong separation of powers, in both Australia and the US the executive government has more power than most people realise – especially when it comes to immigration.

In some respects, executive powers are greater in Australia than in the US. In Australia, executive orders relating to immigration are not subject to the same checks and balances as they would be in the US. There are a few reasons for this.

Differences in transparency

In the US, all executive orders must be published in the federal register, the official journal of the federal government. This at least makes them visible to Congress and to the general public.

In Australia, there is no such obligation. A good example of this is the immigration minister’s 2013 order authorising “turn-back” operations against vessels carrying asylum seekers as part of Operation Sovereign Borders.

As immigration minister, Scott Morrison wouldn’t release his order authorising turn-backs of asylum-seeker boats.
DFAT, CC BY

The order was released only after a three-year Freedom of Information battle initiated by Guardian journalist Paul Farrell. Even then, the details of the turn-back operations were redacted or not released on public interest grounds.

In Australia, the public and the courts may not even be aware of the orders being implemented. That means Australians are unable to scrutinise executive orders to the same extent as Americans can. This, in turn, limits the people’s ability to lodge effective legal actions against the government, as they lack the information to build a case.

Australia lacks a bill of rights

A second major difference is that Australia does not have a bill of rights, unlike the US. The US Bill of Rights is constitutionally entrenched as the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.

The success in striking down Trump’s recent executive orders relied upon two main provisions: the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause, which requires a fair trial and prohibits the government indefinitely detaining people, and the First Amendment Establishment Clause, which has been interpreted as prohibiting discrimination based on religion.

Australia’s lack of such protections (constitutional or otherwise) stymies similar legal actions. Still, the Australian government can’t do whatever it wants with immigration. In the absence of legislative authorisation, actions of the executive will only be authorised to the extent they fall under the executive power set out in Section 61 of the Australian Constitution.

However, the precise scope of this power remains a matter of contention. Judges have generally been highly deferential in terms of what immigration measures they uphold.

The Tampa affair in 2001 provides a good example. The MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, rescued 433 asylum seekers from a vessel in distress in international waters north of Australia.

When the captain attempted to bring them to Australia, the prime minister, John Howard, ordered special forces to storm the vessel. The asylum seekers were detained at sea for several weeks and later sent to Nauru and New Zealand.

While there was no legislative basis for this decision, the full bench of the Federal Court upheld the action. The decision was based on a broad interpretation of executive powers in the constitution. The High Court has avoided a clear judgment on this issue in subsequent decisions.

Trump tests limits of executive power

In contrast, consider the fate of a series of executive orders issued by President Trump. The most controversial include a 90-day travel ban on people from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan, and a 120-day suspension of the refugee resettlement program.

The original order, issued just seven days after Trump’s inauguration, caused panic and chaos at airports all over the world.

Both measures were claimed to be necessary for the purpose of designing “extreme vetting” procedures to identify and exclude Islamic extremists. No evidence was provided to show how countries were selected, or why existing procedures were inadequate. Nor were the relevant government departments and agencies consulted in advance.

After just one week, the order was suspended. A federal judge in Washington state issued a temporary nationwide restraining order.

The decision was based on two constitutional concerns. The first related to due process considerations arising from barring entry to US visa holders without providing them with notice or a hearing. The second was rooted in the prohibition of discrimination based on religion.

While the executive order did not specifically say it targeted Muslims, the court put two and two together, and found the measures discriminatory. The countries subject to the ban were all principally Muslim, and during his campaign Trump had promised a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.

The Trump administration responded by issuing a new executive order. This order provided more information justifying why nationals from the selected countries presented a heightened security risk.

The number of target countries was also reduced to six, with Iraq being removed, and permanent US residents were exempt. It was the inclusion of US residents in the original ban that had raised the most serious concerns about due process.

Despite these concessions, the courts also suspended the updated executive order. Appeals are pending. The outcome will depend on how the courts apply the long-standing “plenary power” doctrine that gives the political branches a broad and largely exclusive authority over immigration.

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In the past, the courts have used this doctrine to uphold discriminatory immigration laws, which would have been unconstitutional in other contexts. This applies particularly to laws targeting immigrants who are outside the US. However, recent decisions indicate that the scope of the plenary power may be narrowing.

Trump’s other executive orders on immigration have largely flown under the radar. The Executive Order on Border Security authorises construction of a wall on the Mexican border and expands the use of mandatory immigration detention.

The Executive Order on Interior Enforcement punishes “sanctuary cities”, or municipalities that are unco-operative with federal authorities in enforcing immigration laws. It also extends the list of non-citizens prioritised for deportation.

Other than court action, what protections are there?

In Australia, protections are provided first and foremost through parliamentary representation, an approach informed by Australia’s British constitutional history.

The government of the day sits in parliament with the assumption that an executive that fails to act in the interests of the public can be thrown out of office at the next general election. The Senate, which is not always dominated by the government of the day, can offer oversight as well.

Unfortunately, these protections don’t always work. New arrivals can’t vote. Even if they become citizens, refugees remain a minority and have little influence over election results. It’s also naive to assume that all waves of migrants operate as a cohesive voting bloc.

The immigration executive can also avoid Senate oversight. Operation Sovereign Borders again provides an instructive example. In 2013, citing national security concerns, the minister refused the Senate’s request for information.

Furthermore, as a result of the way that refugee politics has unfolded in Australia, there is bipartisan support for draconian policies. The executive is unco-operative and the Senate does not always punish non-compliance.

For instance, when the minister refused to provide information about Operation Sovereign Borders, a Senate committee recommended “political” and “procedural” penalties. None of these were carried out.

The parliament is also often willing to retrospectively authorise immigration-related actions once judicial proceedings have begun. This happened during the recent High Court challenge to the executive’s power to have asylum seekers detained on Nauru.

Once court proceedings were initiated, legislation was swiftly introduced with bipartisan support to retrospectively authorise the government’s action. A similar approach was taken to validate actions during the Tampa affair.

So, as the world reacts with shock each time Trump issues another far-reaching executive order, it is worth remembering that the use of executive power in Australia is, in many ways, more expansive and unchecked than in the US. This is not limited to immigration. Australian courts have been willing to take an expansive view of executive power in a whole host of policy areas.

The ConversationBoth the Australian and the US public need to remain vigilant. Tolerance of the executive’s attack on the rights of non-citizens threatens to pave the way for similar action against citizens.

Anna Boucher, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Political Science, University of Sydney and Daniel Ghezelbash, Lecturer, Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to escape the media’s obsession with Trump and filter him from the web



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Washington Post Making America Kittens Again.
Author/Washington Post

David Glance, University of Western Australia

The world’s media reached a new low last week with their incessant coverage of the US President Donald Trump and a tweet he sent out containing the word “covfefe” – a supposed mistyping of “coverage”.

This came on the heels of a report published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which analyses the media’s obsession with all things Trump.

Looking at the first 100 days of his presidency, the report detailed that 41% of all news stories were about Trump. This was three times the amount of coverage of any previous US president. Even though Trump himself was the featured voice in 65% of these articles, 80% were negative.

The coverage has come at the cost of real reporting about what he has actually done in that time and what else is going on in the US and the rest of the world. The economy has only been discussed in 4% of the news coverage, and health care, despite attempts to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, managed a not much greater 12%.

It would be tempting to think that the media, especially US journalists, have been obsessed with Trump because of his self-declared war on the press as the “enemy of the people”. But it is likely to be far more prosaic than that. Trump has simply tapped into mainstream media’s evolving role as another form of reality-based entertainment. Articles on Trump become clickbait for those who can’t resist his latest gaff, hoping that this will be the definitive misstep that finally ends his political career.

Ultimately, however, covering Trump is all about driving clicks, and sites like the New York Times and Washington Post, CNN and others have all fallen prey to the single-minded pursuit of revenue-generating clicks.

Unfortunately for the public, this has done them a disservice and reading the Trump-laden news and commentary has become increasingly like stumbling into someone else’s personal and bitter family argument.

Take control with Trump Filters

Fortunately, there is a way that readers can take control of the situation without avoiding all news sites.

For Google Chrome, there is an extension called Trump Filter, written by developer Rob Spectre, which will remove article headlines and paragraphs of text that reference Donald Trump. On Apple iOS there are several blockers, but one that works reasonably well with Safari is “Trump Trump

The New York Times with Trump Filter and Trump Blocker.
New York Times

These blockers will remove most text that has a reference to Donald Trump but won’t remove images. The image above is the New York Times with several stories about Donald Trump filtered out.

For Google Chrome, there is another extension called “Make America Kittens Again” that replaces images of Trump with cute kittens (see the example below). This app will also replace other people’s images with kittens and allows you to add your own key words. So photos of Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Pauline Hanson can also be replaced with kittens.

The New York Times with Make America Kittens Again.
New York Times

What does this mean for the news?

Switching these extensions on does a number of things that have important consequences for the future of digital news.

The first is that it highlights why people are increasingly turning to social media to read their news because of those platforms’ ability to deliver news that users want to see, while filtering out the things they are simply not interested in.

This may be seen as a negative in terms of being fed news that has a particular bias, but there is a positive side to it in enabling users to take control and avert a site’s particular agenda.

Of course, these technologies, along with ad blockers, are going to change how news organisations have to deliver news to their customers and are unlikely to be welcomed. Google itself is said to be building an ad blocker directly into Chrome that will be switched on by default.

News organisations have increasingly been battling between delivering content that they believe the public “should” read, and content that they know the public wants to read and so consequently will drive clicks and advertising revenue.

The ConversationIn the case of Donald Trump, it’s hard to justify the sheer volume of stories, including those that are based on every tweet he sends late at night. The media seems to have followed its own interests without considering those of the reader.

David Glance, Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Time for China and Europe to lead, as Trump dumps the Paris climate deal


Christian Downie, Australian National University

President Donald Trump’s announcement overnight that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement comes as no surprise. After all, this is the man who famously claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese.

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While it will take around four years for the US to withdraw, the prospect is complicated by Trump’s claim that he wants to renegotiate the agreement – a proposal that European leaders were quick to dismiss. But the question now is who will lead global climate action in the US’ absence?

As I have previously argued on The Conversation, there are good reasons for China and Europe to come together and form a powerful bloc to lead international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

China is now the world’s number-one energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter, and should it combine forces with Europe it has the potential to lead the world and prevent other nations from following the US down the path of inaction.

There are very early signs that this may be happening. Reports this week indicate that Beijing and Brussels have already agreed on measures to accelerate action on climate change, in line with Paris climate agreement.

According to a statement to be released today, China and Europe have agreed to forge ahead and lead a clean energy transition.

While it is too early to predict how Chinese and European leadership will manifest in practice, in the face of American obstruction they are arguably the world’s best hope, if not its only hope.

Decades of destruction

Trump’s announcement only reaffirms his antipathy towards climate action, and that of his Republican Party, which for decades has led attempts to scuttle efforts to reduce emissions at home and abroad. Let’s not forget that it was President George W. Bush who walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.

In just the few short months of his incumbency so far, Trump has halted a series of initiatives executed by President Barack Obama to address climate change. These include taking steps to:

  • Repeal the clean power plan

  • Lift the freeze on new coal leases on federal lands

  • End restrictions on oil drilling in Arctic waters

  • Reverse the previous decision against the Keystone XL pipeline

  • Review marine sanctuaries for possible oil and natural gas drilling.

And the list goes on.

This remains the real problem, regardless of whether the US is inside the Paris climate agreement or outside it. As the planet’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, what the US does domestically on climate change matters a great deal.

As a result, if China and Europe are to lead the world in the US’ absence, not only will they have to ensure that other nations, such as Australia, do not follow the US – and some members of the government hope they do – but they are also going to have to think creatively about measures that could force the US to act differently at home. For example, some leaders have already mooted introducing a carbon tax on US imports, though such proposals remain complicated.

In the meantime, while these political battles play out around the world, climate scientists are left to count the rising cost of inaction, be it the bleaching of coral reefs or increasing droughts, fires and floods.

The ConversationIf only it were all a hoax.

Christian Downie, Fellow and Higher Degree Research Convener, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

History can provide many lessons for Turnbull as he prepares for Trump meeting



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EPA/Pete Marovich

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Here’s some advice for Malcolm Turnbull as he prepares for his first face-to-face meeting with US President Donald Trump: reflect on how his predecessors as prime minister have performed in their interactions with a great and powerful friend. The Conversation

Turnbull can choose from various examples that have reflected well – or poorly, as the case may be – on Australia’s sovereignty and independence of thought and action.

There are too many examples of poor judgement to ignore. They are born, unfortunately, from the sort of clichéd definitions of the relationship that inevitably surface at times like these.

In that regard, Turnbull’s speechwriters might give the first world war’s Battle of Hamel – in which Australian troops under the command of Sir John Monash prevailed with the help of a small number of Americans – a rest.

The Hamel connection – American involvement was scaled back by its commander – is exaggerated for reasons that have less to do with its importance in the scheme of things than it does with an Australian desire to remind the US of its ongoing security obligations.

Let’s go back to John Curtin in 1942, when he requested American assistance in waters to Australia’s immediate north in defence of what is now Papua New Guinea. This came after Winston Churchill – under enormous pressure at home – could not answer the call. Bear in mind the might of the British Navy in the Pacific had been decimated when, on December 10, 1941 – three days after Pearl Harbour – the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were sunk in a few short hours.

The US responded without delay to Curtin’s pleas, and joined the Battle of the Coral Sea. Australian and US naval forces combined to defeat a Japanese naval armada. Australia’s security policy was redefined in the process.

From that moment, Australia would look not to Britain – which no longer ruled the waves – but across the Pacific to the US as its principal security guarantor. The ANZUS Treaty giving effect to that alliance was signed in 1951.

The Battle of the Coral Sea between May 4 and May 8, 1942 – whose 75th anniversary will be marked on board the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid in New York this week – is an event in Australian diplomatic and security history whose importance cannot be overstated.

Curtin died in office prematurely. His Labor successor, Ben Chifley, presided over a continued strengthening of security ties as the allies pushed the Japanese from their Pacific strongholds until the war ended in 1945.

Robert Menzies built on these security foundations during his long reign as prime minister from 1949 to 1966 – even though his heart remained in Westminster.

Here begin the teaching moments for Turnbull.

Menzies mistakenly aligned Australian policy with the US on recognition of the reality in China after the Nationalists were expelled to Taiwan in 1949. Here he might have been better off following the UK’s example. Britain under a Clement Attlee-led Labour government was one of the first to recognise the People’s Republic of China.

Australia would not do so until the Whitlam government of 1972, 23 years after Mao Zedong prevailed.

Australia persisted in the fiction that the Nationalists on Taiwan were China’s legitimate government, and thus entitled to its seat on the Security Council – even as US President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were reaching out secretly to the communists in Beijing.

When this secret diplomacy was revealed, Gough Whitlam – who had visited China as opposition leader in 1971 for a meeting with Mao amid a welter of criticism from government ministers – was handed a propaganda windfall.

But back to Menzies as an example of risk and reward in the US relationship. This has relevance today, as pressures on Australia will surely ebb and flow to support US initiatives that will have a military component.

In 1965, Menzies committed Australian troops to Vietnam against Labor opposition. Labor leader Arthur Calwell’s speech in the House of Representatives opposing the commitment was almost certainly his finest hour. Seven years later, 500 Australian troops had been killed, as had many thousands more Americans. Saigon was subsequently renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Argument will persist as to whether US engagement in Indochina gave nascent states in a post-colonial era in Asia breathing space to resist China’s attempts to spread its revolution. But proponents of this point of view are hard put to justify material losses and the Vietnam debacle’s impact on US self-confidence.

From an Australian perspective, Vietnam produced some of the more dispiriting moments in our diplomatic history – from Harold Holt’s “all the way with LBJ” to describe Australia’s fealty to the alliance, to John Gorton’s “we’ll go a Waltzing Matilda with you”.

Then came Whitlam. His relations with Nixon were so bad that speculation has persisted to this day – without credible evidence, it must be said – that the CIA played a role in his downfall.

Prime ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating maintained what might be regarded as fairly conventional relationships with the US during the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush presidencies. This included Australia’s naval support for the US in the first Gulf War.

Then came John Howard, and the fateful events of September 11, 2001. But even before 9/11 Howard had reverted – if we can put it that way – to some of the clichés that had bedevilled ties with the US in earlier years.

His description of Australia’s relations with the US as that of a “deputy sheriff” in Asia was unfortunate. And it was compounded, it might be said, by him joining George W. Bush’s other amigos – Britain’s Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar – building the case for the rush to war in Iraq.

If there is a recent indelible teaching moment for Turnbull it is the rushed invasion of Iraq, which has cost the US in excess of US$2 trillion and counting, and helped destabilise the Middle East. Turnbull would be wise to resist pressure to commit Australian ground troops to combat in the Middle East under present circumstances.

Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard avoided, for the most part, mistakes of some of their predecessors – although Gillard’s cloying speech to the US Congress in 2011 might have been avoided. This ended with a lachrymose prime minister talking about her belief the US could “do anything” after viewing the moon landing.

Rudd should be given credit for his efforts in pushing for the establishment of the G20, and then its important role in combating a global financial crisis in 2007-08.

Tony Abbott made no secret of his belief that a Barack Obama presidency was not sufficiently forward-leaning in its efforts to contain Islamic State, and its reluctance to exercise a more muscular approach to its security obligations more generally.

This brings us back to Turnbull and his meeting with Trump.

Turnbull has not been short of advice from former ambassadors, commentators and virtually anyone else with access to a media megaphone. But he should disregard the sort of advice that suggests he might seek to pander to a US president like no other in recent memory.

What Turnbull needs to do in his private meetings with Trump and his advisers is assert Australia’s belief in the need for a continued – possibly expanded – US presence in the Indo-Pacific, and the absolute requirement for the administration to manage its relationship with China effectively.

Concerns about North Korean adventurism might be an immediate preoccupation. But, in the longer term, nothing is more important from an Australian perspective than continued US engagement in Asia, and thus its ability to manage a relationship with a rising power.

History confers on Turnbull an obligation to get the balance right between Australia’s economic and security interests.

He should also be mindful of a shift in Australian domestic opinion regarding the US relationship, and take it upon himself to acknowledge it is better if alliance policy rests on a bipartisan consensus.

Calls by prominent Labor figures, including former prime minister Paul Keating and former foreign minister Gareth Evans, for Australia to be less “reflexive” in its dealings with the US – as Evans put it – represent significant viewpoints in the centre and on the left of Australian politics. But Turnbull should resist the temptation of his predecessors – notably Howard in particular – to deploy differences that might exist in Australia about the alliance as a wedge issue.

Most of all, Turnbull needs to define Australia’s relationship with the US as partner not supplicant.

Whatever judgements might be made about Trump – good, bad and indifferent – what is clear is he is above all else a transactional player. In other words, what value might he place on the US relationship with Australia and his own personal relations with Turnbull?

Turnbull might look to Canada’s Justin Trudeau for guidance in getting the tone right – not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too mushy.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The US, Russia and China: a twisted tale of personal ego, profound mistrust and foolish nationalism



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In Russia and China, Donald Trump now faces two centres of power that are no longer willing or feel the need to comply with America’s interests and priorities.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University

Alarm bells are ringing a mere three months into Donald Trump’s presidency. The two global flashpoints, Syria and North Korea, are worrying enough. The Conversation

More troubling still are America’s relations with Russia and China. These are now mired in angst, uncertainty and mutual suspicion. They underlie the failure to create a viable system of crisis prevention and crisis management.

Global power shift

Trump’s first 100 days as president have dramatically demonstrated this failure. For all the rhetoric about “making America great again”, Trump is rapidly discovering that the US has limited capacity to impose its will on the rest of world.

The trend is visible everywhere – in international trade and finance, diplomacy, and numerous conflicts around the world.

In Russia and China, the US now faces two centres of power that are no longer willing to comply with America’s interests and priorities.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been busy reasserting its influence after years of humiliation following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Starting from a low base, China has sustained over the last three decades the most remarkable rate of economic growth in modern history. Now it is seeking to exert the political influence commensurate with its new economic status.

America’s relative political decline goes back to its military defeat in Vietnam. Temporarily obscured by the end of the Cold War, it became fully apparent during the Bush and Obama years. But Trump is the first president to have run on a platform openly stating that the US is in decline and promising to reverse the trend.

Militarism not isolationism

In his inauguration speech, studded by more references to “America” than any inauguration speech in US history, Trump vowed:

We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.

The nationalist card – the one unifying plank of his otherwise chaotic discourse before and since his election – is meant to strike a chord with the many disenchanted Americans hankering for a “golden age” that has long since passed. Trump now faces the immense challenge of delivering on this pledge despite intractable problems at home and abroad.

On the international stage, he has chosen to rely on showing off America’s unmatched military might. This position is supported by some of the most powerful voices in the US military and political establishment.

Soon after taking office, Trump gave the military expanded authority in the conduct of operations against Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. In support of the Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, the US carried out 70 airstrikes in March alone. This is more than twice the number for all of 2016.

In the first two weeks of April, the Trump administration:

Yet the utility of military power is diminishing. As one centre of power declines and another rises, new faultlines and tensions emerge, and with them new uncertainties. This helps explain why the US finds it so difficult to set a clear policy direction for relations with Russia and China.

The Russia conundrum

In the case of Russia, Trump’s task has been greatly complicated by the findings of the US intelligence community that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 US election.

Hoping to deflect attention from his campaign’s links with Russia, Trump has allowed relations with Russia to continue on their downward slide. Perhaps it was never his intention to reset the US-Russia relationship.

In any case, he is under considerable pressure from his most senior security advisers to act tough with Russia. Almost certainly, he failed to appreciate that his actions and statements on Syria would provoke Putin’s fury.

The end result is clear. In Trump’s words, US relations with Russia have reached “an all-time low”. Not surprisingly, he has now reversed his previous position on NATO, and announced the alliance is “no longer obsolete”.

Russia, for its part, remains unbending in its support of the Assad government in Syria. It has mercilessly denounced the illegality of the US missile attack, and used its veto power to block a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons.

And now Russia has forced the US to accept a significant watering down of the UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s latest missile launch.

Russia has been busy reasserting its global influence under the leadership of Vladimir Putin (left).
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

China’s rise

During his election campaign, Trump repeatedly lambasted China for its currency manipulation and threatened to apply tough restrictions on Chinese exports. Before and immediately after his election he flaunted America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security, and challenged China’s military build-up in the South China Sea.

Yet the tone has since changed markedly. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US became an occasion to discuss differences on trade and agree to a 100-day plan for reducing the current US trade deficit with China.

At least in public, Xi stuck to his script about the virtues of bilateral co-operation. Trump presented the talks as forming the basis for “an outstanding relationship”.

The North Korea crisis has exposed the limits of US power. Neither increased US economic sanctions nor the threat of military action are likely to force the North Korean regime into submission.

The US needs China’s help to have any chance of reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. China’s response has been to increase pressure on North Korea while issuing a stern warning to both parties.

And so, the relationship remains at best unpredictable. As much as China and the US need each other, the hawks in the Trump administration – and there are many – will not easily abandon their plans to contain China, challenge its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, and maintain the US military’s pre-eminence in the region.

However, none of this will halt China’s rise.

What does the future hold?

The months ahead are less than promising. The use and threat of force will do nothing to resolve any of the longstanding conflicts in the Middle East or east Asia.

The projection of military muscle and modernisation of nuclear arsenals are far more likely to produce greater local and regional instability, and heighten the risk of miscalculation from any of the three major centres of power.

Trump and Putin lead countries that hold some 14,000 nuclear weapons, or close to 95% of global stockpiles. These arsenals cast a shadow over US-Russian security, which seems likely to darken with the advent of new technologies and rising levels of mistrust and suspicion.

Pursuing “America First” or “Russia First” policies in conditions of such mutual vulnerability is an exercise in futility.

A more profitable course for these three centres of power is to recognise each other’s legitimate interests, expand the opportunities for economic and diplomatic co-operation, and develop a co-ordinated approach in the management of actual and potential flashpoints.

To bear fruit, such efforts need to have solid foundations – in particular decisive steps to eliminate nuclear weapons, enhance the effectiveness of international law, and strengthen the UN’s capacity for conflict management and peace-building.


Professor Camilleri will explore these issues in depth at a keynote lecture to be delivered at St Michael’s on Collins, Melbourne, on May 9 and 16.

Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Turnbull expects to meet Trump next week


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull has flagged he expects to meet US President Donald Trump in New York next week, although late Tuesday his office said the government was still waiting for the formal invitation. The Conversation

The occasion is the 75th anniversary of the Coral Sea battle.

Speaking at the Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates during an Anzac commemoration trip that included Iraq and Afghanistan, Turnbull said he looked forward to discussions with Trump “at an early opportunity”. “We’ll be making announcements very shortly about that,” he said.

Turnbull would only make the visit for the Coral Sea anniversary if it provided an opportunity for his first face-to-face meeting with Trump. Even though it would be brief, the timing is awkward – he would be overseas only days before the crucial May 9 budget.

Turnbull, who has had talks with senior administration figures in the past few days, is anxious to get a first-hand feel for Trump.

During his visit to Australia at the weekend, US Vice-President Mike Pence briefed Turnbull on the new administration’s defence and foreign policy assessments, as tensions ramp up with North Korea.

Pence also reaffirmed the US would honour the deal to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru, while again making clear Trump’s dislike of the agreement the Australian government forged with the Obama administration. Trump expressed this displeasure forcefully in his now-notorious phone conversation with Turnbull earlier this year.

While in Kabul, Turnbull had the opportunity for talks with US Defence Secretary James Mattis.

Asked at his news conference whether Australia needed to do more in the Middle East region, Turnbull said that in both the Afghan and Iraq theatres “there is going to need to be a long-term commitment”.

“But it is one of supporting, above all of training, the Afghan and Iraqi security forces, both military and police, to ensure that they have the ability to defend their own country, to push back the terrorists where they’ve made gains, and to secure the territory that the government is holding.”

He said that as the situation evolved “we’ll consider requests for further support”.

The government on Tuesday announced humanitarian and stabilisation help for Iraq worth an extra A$110 million over three years. This brings to more than $530 million Australia’s humanitarian help for Iraq and Syria since 2014.

During his trip Turnbull met both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump and North Korea: military action will be a disaster, so a more patient, thoughtful solution is required



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North Koreans react as they march past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a military parade.
Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

Pundits often cite the North Korean regime’s crimes against its citizens as proof of Kim Jong-un’s irrationality as a leader. These crimes, as exhaustively documented by former High Court justice Michael Kirby for the UN Human Rights Council, are monstrous and inexcusable. The Conversation

Grave as they are, they do follow a discernible logic from the perspective of Kim’s efforts to consolidate his regime’s hold on power. Perversely, US President Donald Trump’s sabre-rattling plays into Kim’s logic of domestic power that positions the US as a dire threat, justifying the regime’s political repression.

William Perry, US under secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has contended that Trump’s military brinkmanship increases the likelihood of coercing North Korea back to denuclearisation negotiations. This is the ground that a heightened threat of American attack will prompt Kim to recalculate the benefits of continued nuclear proliferation.

But this scenario is only credible if Trump intends following through on the threat. This now appears more questionable given the controversy over the exact location of the USS Carl Vinson.

Having established the foolishness of attacking North Korea in my previous article, I’d now like to prompt discussion on a couple of points.

The first is how the “irrational Kim” rhetoric limits our ability to understand the complexity of the crisis in North Korea. This creates risks that perversely would compromise human rights and humanitarian goals.

The second is to explore other options for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for North Koreans beyond the threat and application of military force.

There is much emotion in debates over North Korea, and rightly so. Many North Korenas have experienced much suffering and trauma, as well as the lingering anguish of the Korean War and the separation of families by the partition of Korea.

This is precisely why analysts need to carefully weigh up the risks and rewards of policy choices: to do justice to that suffering, and to ensure we do not recommend misadventures that could add further misery to the North Korean people.

First, don’t make things worse

Considering the risks to civilians posed by a war of regime change, it is difficult to mount a case for war as a vehicle for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for the North Korean people.

The discourse on human rights in North Korea has long been framed through the lens of national security. Policy issues become “securitised” when proponents of an issue area frame it as an existential security threat, of high priority, that requires extraordinary measures and rapid action to tackle.

Because such issues become framed in the language of security, military-based solutions often come to dominate policy prescriptions. The “crazy Kim” argument has been central to the security rhetoric around human rights in North Korea. This locks possible solutions into a narrow spectrum focused on military force and coercion.

Just as doctors undertake to “first do no harm”, so too should foreign-policy-makers be wary of strategic choices that carry a high risk of making things worse.

Many Korea analysts have pointed to Seoul’s vulnerability, and the risk to millions of South Koreans, posed by a cascading escalation of US military action into full-scale war. That risk also applies to people living in population centres north of the demilitarised zone.

As the Iraq example again illustrates, removing a dictator in a war of regime change is not a guarantee that human rights and humanitarian outcomes will improve.

According to the Iraq Body Count project, 119,915 Iraqi deaths were verifiably attributed to the conflict in that country from 2003 to 2011. Another study published in PLOS Medicine journal put the death toll at half-a-million Iraqi civilians.

Either way, this death toll and suffering escalated well beyond the scale of human rights abuses and deaths that occurred under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is not to downplay the suffering of those persecuted under Hussein, but to recognise that the invasion of Iraq made a bad situation worse.

Could we see similar casualty numbers in a war in North Korea?

North Korea is an urbanised country. Approximately 60% of people are concentrated in larger urban centres. In the event of full-scale escalation, air strikes are likely to target critical infrastructure in an effort to weaken the fighting and logistical capacity of the Kim regime. Many of these targets will be in urban centres, exposing civilians to attack.

We should be mindful of the humanitarian cost of the damage of war to the North Korean economy, industry, agriculture and key infrastructure. Targeting of critical energy, transportation and sanitation infrastructure will no doubt weaken North Korea’s fighting capacity, but also eliminate those critical services for civilians. Food production and distribution networks are likely to be disrupted.

For a country that is already chronically food insecure, any damage to food production and distribution systems will have immediate impacts on increasing malnutrition and starvation. Consider that estimates of deaths from North Korea’s “Arduous March” famine in the mid-1990s sit at approximately 600,000 after the collapse of the country’s food production and distribution system.

The elimination of services for civilians is likely to increase the risk of non-combat casualties from malnutrition, disease, and the elements – particularly during North Korea’s harsh winter.

If such a war ends quickly and an occupation force arrives in North Korea to restore security, casualty figures will be still be high. However, some of the longer-term impacts of human insecurity might be avoided.

However, in the event the post-regime environment is unstable, then casualty figures for North Koreans on a scale similar to Iraq become more likely.

Creating an environment for positive human rights outcomes

Removing Kim Jong-un as the head of the regime does not automatically translate into a win for human rights. A lot of post-conflict nation-building has to take place if a war scenario is to transcend the immediate humanitarian disaster and create an environment in which human rights for the North Korean people can be improved.

Human rights are best guaranteed by stable governance, strong political institutions, legal protections, active civil society, and broad material wellbeing. A post-conflict North Korea in which the Kim regime has been removed would effectively be a failed state. None of these facilitating conditions for human rights guarantees would yet exist.

It takes time and resources to cultivate the institutions of a stable state. It requires many years of patient networking, conversation and compromise to develop a social movement that could evolve into an active civil society. It takes even longer to cultivate a political culture in which the citizenry respects the integrity of the political system even when their faction is not in power.

Without this social infrastructure, Kim Jong-un’s removal is likely to lead to the disintegration of North Korea into a failed state, paving the way for the emergence of another authoritarian strongman.

In South Korea, it took more than 40 years after the conclusion of the Korean War, an ongoing American military occupation, and the development of a broad-based pro-democracy movement, for an imperfect democratic political system to evolve.

To suggest this process could be circumvented in North Korea does not accord with the findings of research into democratisation and social movements. These norms, rules and institutions should ideally be developed by the North Korean people over time, not impatiently imposed from outside by other powers.

It is doubtful that Trump – and, more importantly, his core political support base – has the stomach for the massive long-term, high-cost commitment that nation-building in a post-Kim North Korea would entail.

Where to from here?

One could be forgiven for observing the current US-North Korea standoff as a game played by privileged men in suits on either side, gambling with the lives of ordinary citizens. Millions of lives on both sides of the demilitarised zone and beyond are placed at unnecessary risk through such high-stakes brinkmanship.

It is easy for leaders to talk tough on non-proliferation and human rights enforcement. But it is quite another to bring about international norms in these fields in such a tricky strategic context as the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, Trump’s penchant for military posturing does little to increase the likelihood of denuclearising North Korea, or improving human rights outcomes for its citizens.

Instead, the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric inadvertently legitimises North Korea’s justifications for its nuclear weapons program, along with the domestic coercive apparatus that persecutes North Korean citizens.

Guaranteeing human rights in North Korea will ultimately require new institutions, new laws, a domestic civil society, cultural change, and a process of justice for past abuses.

This is a project far beyond the scope of military action, requiring patience, innovative thinking and disciplined strategic restraint on the part of policymakers. And they must recognise the unique strategic circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Anti-Trump backlash at US by-elections


Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

Today, a by-election was held in Kansas’ fourth Congressional District (CD) for election to the US House. This CD is very conservative, and voted for Donald Trump by 60-33 against Hillary Clinton at the 2016 election. At this by-election, the Republican prevailed by 53-46, a net improvement of 20 points for the Democrats from Trump’s margin in 2016. The Conversation

The Kansas result is not the only poor outcome for Republicans. A by-election was held in California’s 34th CD last Tuesday. This is a Democratic fortress, which Clinton won by 84-11. This by-election used a “jungle primary”, where candidates from the same party, and those from other parties, run on the one ballot paper. Unless one candidate wins a vote majority, the top two, regardless of party, proceed to a runoff.

As California’s 34th CD is a Democratic bastion, about 20 Democrats and only one Republican ran, and the top six vote winners were Democrats. The sole Republican won a risible 3.2% of the votes, well down from Trump’s 11%. The top two candidates, both Democrats, will proceed to a 6 June runoff.

While party control did not change in either by-election, the swing from Trump to the Democratic candidates is encouraging for the Democrats, and indicates that the November 2018 midterm elections could be good for the Democrats.

Next Tuesday (results Wednesday morning Melbourne time), a “jungle primary” by-election will be held in Georgia’s Republican-held sixth CD. The lead Democrat, Jon Ossoff, has a chance to win a vote majority, and thus avoid a runoff against a single Republican. This CD voted for Trump by a 48.3-46.8 margin.

Trump’s ratings in FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker are currently 52.5% disapprove, 41.5% approve for a net of -11. After dropping briefly below 40% following the health care debacle, his ratings have recovered a point or two after the Syrian missile strike.

Daily Kos elections has calculated the Presidential results for all 435 CDs. Presidential results by CD are not generally published by election boards, and need to be calculated from each county’s precinct information.

Republicans change rules to get Gorsuch confirmed to US Supreme Court

On Friday, staunch conservative judge Neil Gorsuch won a confirmation vote in the US Senate, 54-45, and will now be a Supreme Court Justice. Gorsuch replaces Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016, restoring a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch is aged 49, so he could be on the Court for the next 30 years, delivering conservative verdicts.

Barack Obama had nominated Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, but the Republicans, who controlled the Senate, had refused to even grant Garland a hearing, arguing that Obama’s successor should select the next Supreme Court nominee. When Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, this strategy was vindicated.

Under Senate rules, Democrats could have filibustered Gorsuch’s confirmation. For a filibuster to be defeated, 3/5 of the Senate (60 Senators) are required to vote for cloture. With Republicans only holding a 52-48 Senate majority, a Democratic filibuster of Gorsuch would have succeeded.

However, the filibuster rule has never been part of the US Constitution, and a Senate majority can change the Senate’s rules. On Thursday, Republicans used the “nuclear” option, removing the ability of a minority to filibuster Supreme Court confirmations in a 52-48 party-line vote.

Democrats themselves had used the nuclear option to remove the ability of a minority to filibuster lower court and Cabinet confirmations in 2013. The filibuster now only exists for legislation, and that filibuster is likely to be abolished in the near future.

French Presidential election: hard left Melenchon surges

The French Presidential election will be held in two rounds. The first round is on 23 April, and the top two vote winners proceed to the second round on 7 May.

Current polls have the centrist Emmanuel Macron and far right Marine Le Pen tied at 23%, followed by conservative Francois Fillon on 19% and the hard left Jean-Luc Melenchon on 18%. A few weeks ago, Melenchon had just 10% support. His gains have come mainly at the expense of Socialist Benoit Hamon, who has fallen into single digits.

Many on the French left have been frustrated with the current Socialist government’s pro-business agenda, which Macron would continue. In contrast, Melenchon’s policies include a 100% tax on the part of any income over 360,000 Euros a year (about $AU 500,000).

If Macron makes the runoff against any of the other three contenders, he should win easily. While still unlikely, it is possible that Macron could be knocked out of the runoff. If this happens, there would be two candidates that most voters would probably object to, and the runoff would not be predictable.

NSW by-elections: Liberals suffer large swings, but hold their seats

On Saturday, by-elections occurred in the Liberal-held seats of Manly and North Shore, and the Labor-held seat of Gosford. Manly and North Shore became vacant following the retirements of former Premier Mike Baird and Health Minister Jillian Skinner, while Gosford’s vacancy was caused by a cancer diagnosis for its former member, Kathy Smith.

Labor easily held Gosford by 62.5-37.5 vs the Liberals, a 12.3 point swing to Labor from the 2015 election. The Liberals suffered a 24 point primary vote swing against them in Manly and a 15 point swing in North Shore, which Labor did not contest, but held both seats against Independent challengers. Vote shares in both these seats were 43-44% for the Liberals, 22-24% for the main Independent challenger and 16-18% for the Greens.

A Liberal vs Independent two candidate count in North Shore and Manly is not yet available, but Antony Green expects comfortable Liberal wins, especially given NSW’s optional preferential voting. Update Thursday afternoon: The Liberals won North Shore by 54.7-45.3 and Manly by 60.5-39.5

A NSW Newspoll, taken from February to March from a sample of 1580, had the Coalition leading by 51-49, unchanged from November to December 2016. Primary votes were Coalition 40% (down 1), Labor 34% (down 2), Greens 10% (down 1) and One Nation 8%. Premier Gladys Berejiklian had initial ratings of 44% satisfied and 21% dissatisfied, while Opposition Leader Luke Foley’s net approval was up 2 points to -4.

The 2015 NSW election result was 54.4-45.6 to the Coalition, so Newspoll implies a 3 point swing against the Coalition. The by-election results suggest a larger swing, but by-elections are not good guides to general elections. Governments usually do badly at by-elections because people are inclined to vote against the government, knowing that such a vote will not change the government.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

With Syria missile strikes, Trump turns from non-intervention to waging war



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Military strikes against a Syrian airforce base mark Donald Trump’s first big foreign policy test as president.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Ben Rich, Curtin University

The United States’ unilateral missile strikes against a Syrian airforce base are a dramatic escalation of its participation in that country’s civil war. The US government has attacked a Syrian government asset for the first time. The Conversation

The attack also marks Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy test as US president. It represents a 180-degree shift from his previous position of opposing intervention in Syria. And the sudden about-face sends a worrying signal for how his administration may handle future crises in international relations.

The operation

On Thursday, the US unilaterally launched strikes against the al-Shayrat airforce base in Homs. This base primarily houses Mig-23 and SU-22 strike craft and Mig-25 interceptors.

The attack consisted of 59 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, which targeted airframes and supporting infrastructure. It reportedly led to casualties among Syrian military personnel.

Unlike the actions of his predecessor, Barack Obama, prior to the 2012 Libya intervention, Trump sought no international legal sanction for the strike.

The attack has been justified as a punitive response to the Syrian military’s likely use of sarin chemical nerve agents against civilians in Idlib province. This led to at least 70 deaths and drew worldwide condemnation.

The Idlib incident was a much smaller repeat of a major sarin deployment in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013. That attack led to hundreds of civilian deaths – many of them children.

The Ghouta atrocity led the US to the brink of war with Syria; the Syrian government was alleged to have crossed Obama’s infamous “red line”. Ultimately, however, diplomatic manoeuvring by senior US, Russian and Syrian officials de-escalated the situation. They were able to negotiate the apparent dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Recent events, however, suggest this dismantling was not as extensive as previously thought.

The strikes were launched from the USS Porter.
Reuters

Trump’s humanitarian intervention?

What’s concerning is how the strikes have been rationalised. Trump has described the strikes as aimed at protecting a “vital national security interest”. However, this appears to contradict one of the fundamental themes that buoyed Trump’s rise to power.

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump emphasised the need to embrace a transactional approach to foreign relations that placed little value on human rights.

The then-presidential candidate was criticised for appearing to be open to accommodating the anti-human-rights predilections of authoritarian rulers provided they served US economic and security interests.

Trump condemned the Obama administration’s response to the Ghouta attacks when strikes were under consideration. He explicitly and repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would adopt a non-interventionist position in Syria in spite of the humanitarian crisis.

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However, the strikes clearly contradict this position. Trump now claims intervention was a matter of “vital national security interest”.

Given the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons threatened no US citizens – nor allies – one is left to conclude that preventing further use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is now seen as vital to US national security.

This view is itself dubious and inconsistent with a conflict where the US has largely turned a blind eye to half-a-million dead Syrian civilians over the past six years. The US has increasingly contributed to this toll in recent weeks.

A worrying precedent

A point of concern for some has been Trump’s inability to fully grasp the consequences of his actions and his general reflexiveness to the conditions he confronts. As with many of his domestic policy promises on the campaign trail, Trump’s Syria stance appears to be a flip-flop.

Shifts in domestic and foreign policy are generally to be expected and afforded some latitude as a candidate transitions to the presidency. But the degree and speed of Trump’s foreign policy switches are of serious concern.

Unpredictability in international relations has particularly high stakes. It can lead to rapid escalations, collapse of long-term relationships and partnerships, and even war.

This is of particular concern in Syria, given the close proximity of Russian forces actively fighting to defend the Assad regime.

The US apparently ultimately alerted (telling, not asking) Russia to the strikes against the Syrian regime. Yet the speed with which such an operation was organised, along with its unilateral and non-consultative nature, does little to dispel the fears of foreign policy realists about the Trump administration’s inconsistent and chaotic approach to world affairs.

The US military’s strikes only intensify that debate. Will the system ultimately force Trump to fall in line with a more consistent and predictable approach to foreign relations? Or will the policy bedlam ultimately prove sustainable, and make unpredictability the new norm in the international system?

Ben Rich, Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.