TANGIER, Morocco -- As current and former presidents, ministers and members of various government administrations from all over the world gathered here last week for an annual conference near Africa's northernmost point, attendees repeatedly circled back to one individual in their comments and questions: U.S. President Donald Trump.
While speaking on a panel alongside a former longtime State Department official, I said that Trump believes he's in the driver's seat, but someone else is controlling the gas pedal, and yet another guy is pumping the breaks -- and those guys represent the unelected Washington bureaucracy.
I was stunned and saddened by how many of the young Moroccans in the audience nodded in agreement. I'm not sure if the Washington establishment understands what it conveys to citizens of monarchies such as Morocco, or to people in other countries ruled by leaders with absolute power, when it undermines a president who was chosen by the American people. The message is that American democracy isn't much different than a monarchy or a dictatorship, since there's an unelected bureaucracy capable of undermining the people's chosen representative and thus ignoring the will of the people.
Of course, every president faces partisan opposition. That's how democracy works. Trump, on the other hand, has faced a nonstop onslaught of obstruction from every angle, most problematically from within the institutions of government tasked with carrying out his agenda on behalf of those who elected him.
The former State Department official hit the double whammy, saying that Trump lacks a stable base of support despite having won the election, and claiming electoral interference by the Russian bogeyman. I replied that the constant whining about Russia is just an attempt to delegitimize Trump's presidency, and that he still won the election regardless of how the establishment feels about the strength of his "base."
Another American panelist expressed the desire to see America engaged everywhere in the world, since the U.S. appears to be ceding ground to Russia and China in the Middle East. He lamented that Trump was taking America in a more isolationist direction.
First off, why should we be concerned that Russia and China would be more engaged in the Middle East than America is? That's their neighborhood: Asia. If Chinese and Russian officials expressed concern that the U.S. was more politically engaged in Canada than they were, wouldn't we be indignant that they would question American involvement in North American affairs?
Yes, it's possible for America to stay engaged in the world in a way that's welcome. Unfortunately for the establishment, such a way would largely exclude them. If members of the establishment want to make themselves useful, how about lifting some politically motivated sanctions and not filtering every solution through a purely political prism?
America is the birthplace of capitalism and is full of capitalists capable of being its best global ambassadors. I'm not talking about the corporate welfare recipients on Wall Street, but rather the self-made entrepreneurs, who could venture across the globe in the interests of improving the American economy, relations with other countries and their own bottom line. But instead, these American businesspeople are hamstrung by politically motivated sanctions against the very countries with which America could stand to have more engagement in the interests of detente. One could argue that the establishment is taking a protectionist stance in order to justify its own existence, rather than ceding some of the diplomacy and engagement to American businesspeople.
There's no doubt that Trump's foreign policy strategy has strayed from the path favored by his predecessors. As Saudi Arabia and Iran vie for regional supremacy, Trump seems content to let them sort it out for themselves rather than jump into the fray. Likewise, he terminated the CIA's covert "rebel" train-and-equip operations in Syria, allowing Russian, Syrian and American-allied forces to get on with the business of exterminating the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
Trump's actions suggest an attempt to take power away from unelected establishment "elites" who previously had been permitted to pratfall around the world, implementing policies as they saw fit rather than carrying out the plan of a president elected by the citizens of America. It's possible that a Trump foreign policy doctrine is already taking shape, characterized by a shift from political engagement to economic engagement, and a reduction in the unelected Washington establishment's influence.