FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - December 25, 2018 - 12:00am

Several hundred thousand employees of the US government will not be getting paid during this holiday season. For the third time this year, the US government is in partial shutdown.

In the first two instances, the shutdown just lasted days. This time, because of the holidays, the shutdown will likely be longer.

The shutdown, like the two others before, is the result of an impasse between the US Congress and the Trump presidency. Donald Trump is putting pressure on the US Congress to get about $5 billion in funding to build a wall on the long border with Mexico.

The Democrats think building such a wall is an insane idea. The majority of Americans agree with this view. But Trump wants to please his core political base that elected him on the promise of building a wall to stem the tide of immigrants from Central America. He needs to pander to this base as he prepares to campaign for reelection.

By the first week of January, the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives. That will make funding for this pet project all the more unlikely. Trump has to make his move now, using the unhealthy prospect of partially closing down government as bargaining chip. This desperate move will likely backfire on a president who seems hell bent on breaking every rule of his nation’s politics.

If the Democrats do not budge, or if Trump agrees to some token sum for his wall, it will be a defeat for the most erratic leader the US ever had.

The shutdown over the wall was not the only thing happening the past few days. In what one news organization called a “head-spinning week”, Trump earlier announced he was withdrawing all US forces in Syria. He made that announcement almost on impulse, without consulting the military and foreign affairs establishment.

The day after that announcement, Defense Secretary James Mattis tendered his resignation. That came as a shock for all of America’s allies who saw the Trump presidency careening out of control. Mattis, a retired four-star general, was widely respected and seen as one of the last “adults” in the Trump administration.

By pulling out the small but effective Special Forces unit deployed to Syria, Trump opens a Pandora’s Box in a highly volatile region. The Kurds, who have been doing most of the fighting against both the ISIS and the brutal Assad regime, have been assured of American support. Now they stand dangerously exposed not only to Assad’s forces and the remnants of the ISIS, but also to Turkish forces.

Ankara fears an empowered Kurdish force will enhance separatist movements within her own borders.  The only thing that kept Turkish military forces from reaching across the border and crushing the Kurdish militia has been the presence of US troops albeit in a largely advisory capacity.

Iran alone praised Trump’s decision. That is understandable. The withdrawal of US troops improves the prospect for the Assad regime and their Hezbollah allies to finally win hegemony after a long and bloody civil war. Both are dominated by Shiites, the Islamic religious sect that dominates Iran as well.

Saudi Arabia and her Sunni allies in the Gulf states are obviously appalled by Trump’s impetuous decision. Not only does it strengthen Iran’s position in the region, it also opens the door to a larger Russian role in the Middle East.

Not only did Trump announce the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, he also ordered the drawdown of the US expeditionary force in Afghanistan. Despite all the military efforts of the US and her allies, the Taliban has been gaining strength in this tough, war-torn country.

The timing of Trump’s announcement could not have been worse. Diplomats are conducting direct talks with the Taliban. With Trump’s abrupt announcement, the diplomats lose their, well, trump card in the negotiations. Now all the Taliban has to do is to sit out the talks and wait for US military forces to go home.

Sensing the drift of things, Russia has opened its own diplomatic channels to the Taliban, the same force that dealt it a crushing defeat years ago. Clearly, Moscow is betting the Taliban will be the force to deal with in this region in the future. That is not at all encouraging for the US military and diplomatic establishment. The Taliban returning to power can only be a clear defeat for American strategy.

It is not only US diplomacy and military strategy that has been thrown into chaos. With someone like Trump in the White House, there is no reason for the rest of the world to trust American commitments and assurance.

That includes us. We rely on US commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty to exercise some modicum of leverage on the South China Sea dispute. With the way Trump has behaved the past few days, the Philippines loses leverage in dealing with China. Beijing must be very happy – the same way Vladimir Putin is happy over his strategic prospects in the Middle East. 

While the sky might seem to be falling on US diplomatic and military strategy, the New York Stock Exchange is in full retreat. Last week, stocks fell the most in over a decade. More and more expect a recession to happen next year.

Many technical factors explain the retreat. But the chaos Trump has created at the very least leaves little room for optimism.

If it feels someone stole Christmas, Trump will have to be the Grinch.

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