Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Decoding Team Trump

How good, Bad or neutral will a Trump presidency be for India? New Delhi’s main fear revolves around Trump’s intent to cut H-IB visas

President-elect Donald Trump will formally take office on January 20, 2017. He brings with him the whitest, oldest, richest Cabinet in decades.

There are token women (Betsy deVos as Education Secretary) and token Blacks (Ben Carson as Housing and Urban Development Secretary). But the overwhelming majority of Trump’s Cabinet is cast in his image: old, white, wealthy private sector bosses and tough-talking retired army generals.

There are two former Goldman Sachs senior executives (Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn), a billionaire investor (Wilbur Ross) and one of the world’s highest paid CEOs (Rex Tillerson). This collection of alpha males includes three army generals (John “Mad Dog” Mattis, John Kelly and Michael Flynn). It dovetails with Trump’s stated policy priorities: trade and terrorism.

Trump has largely ignored establishment technocrats that his predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, inducted. There are no lawyers, academics, think-tankers or career bureaucrats in the Trump Cabinet.

The most intriguing choice is the man who will hold the top-ranking Cabinet post of secretary of state: Rex Tillerson. As boss of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest energy company (and the third largest firm in the world), with an annual turnover of over $280 billion (Rs 19 lakh crore) and a market cap of $390 billion (Rs 26 lakh crore), Tillerson is a hard-charging boss. He is personally close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. ExxonMobil has major interests in Russian oil and gas.
Could this cause a geopolitical conflict of interest? When Tillerson is negotiating with Moscow on Syria and Iraq, will US foreign policy be compromised? Under President Obama’s two secretaries of state – Hillary Clinton in 2009-13 and John Kerry in 2013-17 – US Middle East policy had a single-minded objective: oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) suffered as a consequence. The CIA armed, funded and trained a rag-tag group of Syrian rebels fighting to depose Assad.

Under a Trump presidency the focus will shift decisively to defeating ISIS. The new defence secretary, General John “Mad Dog” Mattis, has a reputation for being a no-nonsense advocate of proportionate force. A former head of US Central Command overseeing US military operations in the Middle East, Northeast Africa and Central Asia, General Mattis calls President Obama’s policy on ISIS “strategy-free”. Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US needs to “come out from our reactive crouch and take a firm, strategic stance in defence of our values.”

General Michael Flynn, nominated as national security advisor (NSA), is if anything even more hawkish than General Mattis. He has called radical Islamic terrorism a threat to America. General Flynn served combat missions in Afghanistan and has a strong intelligence background. Obama promoted him as director of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). As Trump’s NSA, Flynn will be a vital cog in America’s war against Islamist terrorism.

Clues to Trump’s economic policies were scattered all over the long presidential campaign: reduce outsourcing, protect American jobs, retaliate against China’s high trade tariffs on US goods, bring manufacturing industry back to America, and rebuild the country’s “crumbling” infrastructure.

Trump’s pick as treasury secretary is an old Wall Street hand, Steve Mnuchin. A former Goldman Sachs partner, Mnuchin will be expected to deliver on Trump’s campaign promises on the economy. He will also have to wrestle with a national debt of $20 trillion and soaring budget deficits.

Trump wants to increase military spending (which has declined during the Obama years) to preserve America’s global footprint. Mnuchin will have to balance that objective with the tax cuts Trump has also promised. He’ll need all the ingenuity he acquired at Goldman Sachs and later as a hedge fund investor.

Trump’s choice as interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, has drawn sharp criticism. Zinke is a pro-coal advocate. Trump himself is a climate change-denier. While he has moderated his rhetoric (he frequently called global warming a “hoax” during the election campaign), there’s little doubt that Trump will revive America’s fossil fuel industry to the dismay of environmentalists.

Trump’s critics are worried that with oilman Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and a global warming sceptic like Ryan Zinke as interior secretary, America will turn its back on its commitments to reduce carbon emissions. That’s unlikely. The Paris climate deal has been ratified by most countries, including the US, China and India. But Trump will back a surge in investment in fracking now that oil prices are climbing. (Fracking is profitable at prices of $50-plus per barrel.)

Trump has also promised coal miners in Pennsylvania and other industrial states that he will protect their mining jobs – jobs that Hillary Clinton during the election campaign had pledged to eliminate. That alone could have cost her the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (with their 46 Electoral College votes), all of which Trump won by narrow margins. Had Hillary won those traditionally Democratic states, she would have been US president-elect today with 278 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 260 rather than the 306-232 margin by which Trump won.

How good, bad or neutral will a Trump presidency be for India? New Delhi’s main fear revolves around Trump’s intent to cut H-IB visas. However, Trump is a pragmatist. He is unlikely to make drastic cuts in a scheme that has served both India and the US well for decades.

On Pakistan and China, India will welcome Trump’s overall strategy. Despite the faintly ridiculous telephone conversation with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in which he allegedly called Pakistanis “fantastic people”, Trump has a deep antipathy for Islamabad’s duplicitous policy on terrorism of chasing with the hounds and running with the hares. The India-US strategic partnership, with Trump-friendly Russia and Japan on board, will be an effective counter to the toxic China-Pakistan axis.

The involvement of Trump’s family (Donald Jr, Eric, Ivanka and Jared) in the administration though, is worrying. Trump says he will dissociate himself from the Trump Organisation, his holding company. But with his family so closely entwined in business and politics, conflict of interest is inevitable. For the moment, Trump is enjoying an extended honeymoon with voters. Too many Trumps though, may spoil the broth.

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