eyes on the U.S.

Trump Has Kept His Promise: Unprecedented Unpredictability

Mattis & Trump on Dec. 20
Mattis & Trump on Dec. 20
Dan Balz

-Analysis-

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pledged in his campaign that he would not be predictable. He's more than lived up to that promise this week, and along the way, he has made a hash out of the way business is being done in Washington.

Three times this week, Trump abruptly and unexpectedly changed course, lending credence to perceptions of a presidency in chaos. The biggest bombshell came Thursday afternoon, when Trump announced that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would leave the administration at the end of February, and Mattis's resignation letter explicitly stated that he and the president were not in alignment on major policy issues or on America's role in the world.

The Mattis news rattled nerves in Washington and no doubt in capitals around the world. It came at the end of another roller coaster day in the history of a presidency that has had many of them. The day began with Trump, for the second time in a week, reversing course on funding for a border wall. He demanded that Congress include funds for the wall, just as a compromise bill without the money he wants was making its way through Congress in an effort to avert a government shutdown this weekend.

He can change his mind at any moment.

Trump's allies were already reeling from the announcement via tweet on Wednesday that he was ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. On this announcement, there was no warning to U.S. allies or to members of Congress, including many in his party who opposed the move — no warning even to some in his administration.

Trump is, by his own words, a dealmaker without peer, but his volatility overwhelms his reliability. He demonstrated anew this week that he can change his mind at any moment. Those around him are left to adapt, to pick up the pieces, to explain as best they can — including those whose advice he has spurned or whose words have been shredded by his actions. In this case, it appeared to have cost him the services of his defense secretary.

Give the president some credit. His goals remain fixed. He wants a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, or at least he wants the issue of demanding one to use against Democrats, who oppose the wall.

He wants the most robust military in the world, but he doesn't seem to want to use it. He has been consistent in questioning the commitment of U.S. forces in trouble spots such as Syria and Afghanistan. On national security policy, he remains a rhetorically muscular noninterventionist. With the announcement on Syria, the focus quickly shifted to the question of whether he would order a rapid drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

However consistent he has been in enunciating goals, though, he has not shown much mastery of navigating the legislative process or of developing support from allies for his foreign policy objectives. He leads by impulse, by upending the status quo, leaving friends and adversaries to scramble.

U.S. soldiers in northern Syria in March 2017 — Photo: Lance Corporal Zachery Laning, U.S. Marine Corps

This is not an entirely unsuccessful approach. His trade policies, for example, have roiled relationships, but he has gotten the attention of China, whose policies have been criticized by past presidents and leaders in other nations for years. For that, other nations are no doubt grateful, even if no one is certain how the ongoing dispute will be resolved or when. On Thursday, he signed a new farm bill, and he will soon be able to sign a criminal justice reform bill that was approved with overwhelming, bipartisan support.

But the turmoil that goes along with those successes has badly strained the system, and these past few days have highlighted that reality once again. The path he has followed in pursuit of $5 billion in funding for a border wall in the latest spending bill is emblematic of his unorthodox — some would call it destructive — governing style.

He staged an Oval Office argument with House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. He was told he didn't have the votes for the $5 billion he wanted. He said he would take a shutdown rather than a walk back.

Alarmed Republican allies in Congress, who wanted no part of a shutdown if possible, began pressing for a way out, and earlier in the week, it appeared they had gotten the attention of the White House when the announcement came that it would look for other ways to fund the wall. Meanwhile, the president continued the fiction that taxpayers would not be paying for the wall. Not even the fuzziest of math could make that explanation credible.

Congressional leaders were put in a near-impossible position.

Trump's retreat early in the week was enough to get Congress to move toward an agreement on a short-term bill to keep the government open until after the new year, without the $5 billion Trump was demanding.

Few Republican members of Congress wanted to make this fight at this moment, against united Democratic opposition. But the storyline of the funding fight included the claim that Trump had once again caved on a central promise of his candidacy, that he had blustered and then backed down.

On Thursday morning, the dam broke at the White House, and congressional leaders were put in a near-impossible position to find a solution. Congress has until Friday night to find a new way to avoid a government shutdown. The president said he would shoulder the blame if the shutdown occurs. What lawmakers would probably appreciate more than that is for the president to become part of the solution, rather than adding to the problems they already have.

The president's explanation for the decision to withdraw troops from Syria went through a series of rewritings. Trump's initial tweet stated that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, had been defeated in Syria and that that was why the troops could come home. "We have won against ISIS," he said in a White House video. "We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land, and now it's time for our troops to come back home."

In doing so, he ignored statements over months from others in his administration that offered contrary analysis and commitments. While the Islamic State has suffered significant losses of territory in Syria, other administration officials say, it has not been defeated. Beyond that, administration officials had vowed to keep U.S. forces there as long as necessary, to counter Iranian influence and activity.

By Thursday, Trump had moved to a different explanation, one that no doubt comes closer to his true feelings. He asked, "Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East ... Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight."

He said — despite contrary evidence — that Russia, Iran and Syria were unhappy because they now would have to fight the Islamic State alone, which only a day earlier he had claimed had been defeated. Then, in one more burst, he added, "I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!"

Mattis made clear in his resignation letter that he and the president do not see eye to eye on rising threats from Russia and China or on the importance of maintaining "the solidarity of our alliances." His departure will leave a sizable void in the administration's national security apparatus and, more significantly, point to the potential for more chaos in the months ahead.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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