All the talk of special prosecutors, and the like, will not bring the man to book. The soap opera will continue and no amount of dysfunction in the White House will make it stop until early 2019 at best—even though a great deal of damage will have been done by then.
Some of the damage will only affect the United States. Donald Trump doesn’t often violate the Constitution, but he breaks all the unwritten rules that regulate the behaviour of public officials: don’t use your office to enrich yourself, don’t give plum jobs to your relatives, don’t fire the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation because he’s leading an investigation into possibly treasonous behaviour among your close associates, etc.
However, these are domestic American problems, and the American republic will survive them. In four years, or at most eight, Trump will be gone, and more-or-less normal service will resume. But the same recklessness, brought to bear on foreign affairs, may have far bigger consequences.
Most of the concern at the moment is focused on Northeast Asia, where Trump’s scarcely veiled threat to “do something” about North Korea could escalate a long-standing problem into a “major, major conflict.” However, most other major players in the Northeast Asian game are grown-ups who do not want a nuclear war in their region, so the risk of a calamity there is much smaller than it looks.
The Middle East is more frightening than Northeast Asia in this context, for half the countries of the regions are already at war, in one way or another, and none of the regimes really feels secure—and Trump has already launched a missile strike against the Syrian regime.
He justified it as retaliation for the alleged use of poison gas by the Assad regime—an allegation that has not been conclusively proved—but most people in the region take it as a sign that he is joining the Sunni side of a region-wide Sunni-Shia war.
This alignment didn’t start with Trump, of course. For more than half a century the United States has seen Saudi Arabia, the effective leader of the Sunni bloc, as its most important ally in the Middle East, and for the past 40 years it has regarded Iran as the root of all evil in the region.
Iran is the leader of the Shia bloc. In fact, it is the only big and powerful Shia country. Trump has already expressed hostility towards Iran, and his intentions to abandon the treaty that President Obama signed to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions for the next 10 years. On Friday, Trump is making his first foreign visit to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defacto ruler of Saudi Arabia and leader of the Sunni bloc.
Although Prince Mohammed is almost 40 years younger than Donald Trump, the two men share several striking characteristics. The Saudi Arabian leader (his father, King Salman, is 81 and not fully functional) is not as ignorant as Trump, but the two men are almost twins in temperament. The Prince is just as vain as Trump, just as impulsive, and just as likely to start a fight he can’t finish.
Prince Mohammed’s escalation of Saudi Arabian support for the al Qaeda-linked faction in the Syrian civil war two years ago was the direct cause for the Russian intervention that ultimately saved the Assad regime. His military intervention in Yemen, trying to put the Saudi Arabian-imposed president back into power has led only to an unwinnable war and a looming famine in the country. And he’s up for fighting Iran too.
In an interview broadcast this month on Saudi TV he said: “we will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia. We will work so the battle is in Iran.” Why? Because, according to the Prince, Iran’s leaders are planning to seize Islam’s most sacred city, Mecca, in the heart of Saudi Arabia, and establish their rule over the world’s billion and a half Muslims.
This is paranoid nonsense. Only one tenth of the world’s Muslims are Shia. The only three Muslim countries (out of 50) where they are the majority are Iran, Iraq and tiny Bahrein.
Iran sends troops to help the beleaguered, Shia-dominated Assad regime in Syria, and money and weapons to the (Shia) Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. But in the 38 years since the current regime came to power in Tehran, it has never invaded anybody and the notion that it could or would invade Saudi Arabia is simply laughable.
Nevertheless, what matters here are not the facts but what Trump and Prince Mohammed may believe to be the facts. So the prospect of the two men getting together in Riyadh will arouse dread in Iran, and in some other quarters as well.
It’s preposterous to imagine that Saudi Arabia would attack Iran directly or that the United States would encourage Saudi Arabia or pursue such a strategy—or that Russia would let itself be drawn in on the other side. But we do live in preposterous times.
There is no chance that the Republican majority in the US Congress would impeach Donald Trump before the mid-term elections in late 2018, no matter what he does. Unless there is a complete collapse in the Republican vote then, they won’t impeach him either. It’s going to be a long four years.