America Can Still Be a Positive Force in the World

The election of Donald Trump as US president was a big moment. His victory in November reflected a steep change in the way the United States is run and the way it per­ceives other countries.

Trump has little good to say about many international norms that underpin the liberal world order. He disdains NATO. He has no intention of supporting America’s allies among the Syrian opposition. Trump is notably well-disposed towards Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.

All of this is distinct and different and this divergence matters.

For some, indeed for many, this outcome does not seem at all surprising. Trump’s bellicosity and vulgarity and lack of strategic judgment do not appear different from what came before. They lump presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in with their successor. For them, Trump does not represent a sea change at all but rather the logical conclusion of American culture and policy.

They accuse the United States of warmongering, of being interested only in stealing the natural resources of the Middle East — something, of course, that Trump has actively suggested.

These accusations, however, do not begin and end with Trump. For such people, it seems all American policy is suspect, tainted by original sin. It has never been good. See for example the ghost of the 2003 deposition of Saddam Hussein.

This description of American policy at large is incorrect. The United States was not a nefarious actor. Even now, it is not a malevolent force in international affairs. To say so risks buying into all manner of propaganda from hostile foreign states, Russia and Iran most obviously, and giving domestic succour to the language of Islamist terrorist groups of all stripes.

This is not an idle concern. When Russia and Iran are said to be actively committing war crimes in Syria on a scale that shocks the world, and when the Islamic State (ISIS) and other groups of that sort are engaged in acts of almost competitive barbarism, this is no time to seek petty vindication in denigrating the world’s greatest democracy.

Such proclamations are also distinctly myopic. Reality is all too often masked by partisanship or dogma. There are good, decent people in the United States, just as there is still good to be found and to be done in America.

Too many overlook the fact that the United States is self-critical, with a great deal of the opposition to Trump coming from inside the country — and indeed from within his own party. Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and John McCain present honourable examples. They will pick their battles — they cannot oppose the administration on every issue or blunt the effectiveness of that opposition — but they will stick up for America’s allies and for the world order that brought peace and prosperity that are now under threat.

The president himself is not immutable. He is not uniquely, unchangingly malign. Trump may well be steered into making the right decisions.

People such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and federal employees, as well as generals, could alter the fundamental shape of his government. They could outweigh the influence of Steve Bannon, who has been presented as a veritable prince of darkness. Even figures of his character can be circumvented, their plans misdirected.

The United States retains the potential to do good and it remains possible that it will, regardless of who is in power.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.