Last bastion falls; Donor cabals; Trump credit chaos; Erdoğan angles; ABC pulls Pacific short-wave plug By Hamish McDonald.

Putin pal Tillerson to steer foreign policy

Syrian pro-regime fighters drive past residents fleeing violence in Aleppo on Tuesday, after retaking the area from rebel fighters.
Syrian pro-regime fighters drive past residents fleeing violence in Aleppo on Tuesday, after retaking the area from rebel fighters.
Credit: AFP / Getty Images

When they come to make a movie about the presidency of Donald Trump, it may have to be titled All the President’s Men like the one about Richard Nixon and Watergate. But the difference seems to be that the president in question is the one running Russia, Vladimir Putin.

The prize job in Trump’s cabinet, secretary of state, goes to Rex Tillerson, chief of the oil giant ExxonMobil, who has been pictured wearing the Order of Friendship conferred by Putin in 2013 after signing a multibillion-dollar deal for Arctic oil projects in 2011.

And instead of clumsy burglars jemmying open filing cabinets in the office of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex, hackers connected to Russian intelligence services got into DNC and other Democrat computer systems to pull out embarrassing emails and notes that were later used to embarrass the party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton. Any adverse discoveries in the Republican camp were withheld, United States intelligence agencies are reported to have concluded.

Trump dismisses this. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” his transition team said. The neo-con superhawk angling to be deputy secretary of state, John Bolton, suggested the hacking might have been a “false flag” operation, implying it was the Obama administration or Democratic Party trying to taint Trump with Russian influence.

No need. Aside from his frequent expressions of admiration for Putin during and since the campaign – indeed, his exhortation for Moscow to keep on hacking against Clinton – Trump wants to install as America’s top diplomat a business chief who opposed the Crimea-related sanctions against Russia that halted ExxonMobil’s Arctic projects and hobbled Russia’s economy.

Tillerson may be an upright all-American patriot, former head of the US Boy Scouts, who wears a cowboy hat and rides a horse in his time off, but he’s going to have a difficult time in his senate confirmation hearings explaining how he can push US interests beyond securing resources and work with a State Department that, according to Steve Coll, author of a book on ExxonMobil, is held in contempt by Tillerson’s executives.

1 . Last bastion falls

The fall of Aleppo on Tuesday, after four years of resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, shows up the contradictions in Trump’s notion of working with Putin. The city is destroyed and tens of thousands killed and maimed as the cost of his intervention, while the regional power of Iran is enhanced by keeping Syria in its Shiite crescent.

Putin showed himself unable or unwilling to control the forces he is supporting. Government troops and Shiite militias harried desperate columns of residents trying to leave the eastern part of Aleppo for safe areas under promises of ceasefire quickly abused. About 6000 young men among them were conscripted into government forces. The United Nations said 82 summary killings were reported, including at least 11 women and 13 children, some shot in the streets as they tried to escape and others cowering in buildings. How will Tillerson go taking on his friend Putin about things like that?

2 . Donor cabals

The saving benefit might be that Tillerson brought ExxonMobil around to accepting that man-made climate change was real, after years of supporting the denialists, and backs the Paris climate change agreement.

He got the Boy Scouts to include gay leaders and members, and ExxonMobil donated to Planned Parenthood. Along with the “warrior-monk”, former marine general James Mattis, nominated for defence secretary, Tillerson might therefore be a voice of sanity in the circus that Trump’s cabinet looks like becoming.

What a crew: fast-food tycoon Andy Puzder for labour secretary, government schooling critic Betsy DeVos for education secretary, vulture capitalist Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary, former Texas governor Rick Perry to run the Department of Energy he has wanted to abolish, the wrestling pantomime entrepreneur Linda McMahon to run the Small Business Administration, and anti-regulation figure Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Several were big donors to Trump’s campaign.

We’re yet to find out who’ll be the Dr Goebbels of the Trump administration. Tucked in a recent defence bill is a provision to abolish the current bipartisan board, chaired by the secretary of state, that runs the government radio networks Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks. Instead, they will be controlled by a chief executive appointed by the president. Previous legislation also removes a bar against broadcasting to domestic audiences. The Politico website suggests it’s a job cut out for Trump adviser Steve Bannon, late of the alt-right Breitbart News.

3 . Trump credit chaos

Trump’s finances remain a tangle of mysteries and signs of serious compromise, with at least one loan from a Chinese state bank, another line of credit from troubled Deutsche Bank, and an apartment scheme on the go in Mumbai, not to mention his hotel and resort chain in the US and still-undisclosed tax returns.

Supposing he can disconnect himself from all these personal interests (his idea of a “blind trust”, letting his kids run the business, suggests the blindness should be on the part of the public), his tendency to see the world in terms of “deals” is a huge worry. Digging himself in deeper on Taiwan, he’s now suggested adherence to the “One China” policy, followed since Nixon’s 1972 Shanghai statement, is a bargaining ploy against Beijing.

China has so far been playing Trump’s bouncers with a straight bat, and acting the good global citizen. Beijing announced it was suspending coal imports from North Korea for three weeks from last Sunday, in line with a United Nations Security Council resolution on November 30 to cut North Korean coal exports next year to 7.5 million tonnes because of its nuclear tests. China will, of course, have to do a lot more for that to be achieved. Between March and October this year it imported 25 million tonnes of coal from North Korea.

4 . Erdoğan angles

One foreign leader eager to test Trump’s readiness to deal is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He was quick to make a congratulatory phone call, in which Trump spoke favourably of his local partner, Doğan Holding, in a Trump twin tower building in Istanbul.

According to Newsweek, Erdoğan soon saw potential for leverage and on December 1 had his police arrest founder Aydin Doğan and another executive for alleged involvement in the July military coup attempt. The price of their freedom may be extradition of the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, living in self-exile in Pennsylvania. Erdoğan blamed him for the coup and has been purging Gülenists ever since.

5 . ABC pulls Pacific short-wave plug

When Pacific islands get hit with earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones, Australia spends millions in relief efforts. It’s likely to be the main task for the two giant amphibious landing ships the Howard government ordered for the navy, the Adelaide and the Canberra.

As the recent earthquakes in the Solomon Islands showed, forewarnings can help minimise casualties among local populations. Building sturdier housing also helps reduce damage, and remittances from seasonal work and other jobs in Australia and New Zealand often go towards that, along with education and starting up small businesses. We discussed last week how Canberra is at sixes and sevens in this area, promoting Western backpackers over Pacific Islanders for farm work. Now another counterproductive policy emerges in the region.

From the end of January, the ABC will be stopping short-wave broadcasts to the Pacific, on which many of the more remote people rely for disaster warnings. It seems the bean-counters can’t conceive that there are still places where the internet, local FM radio and even reliable electricity don’t reach, and where a radio running off batteries or solar panels might be the only way to get news.

“The ABC is seeking efficiencies and will instead service this audience through modern technology,” claims Michael Mason, the ABC’s director of radio. Long before that happens, this decision will probably cost lives and add millions of dollars to Canberra’s relief spending. And servicing them with what? The ABC is already cutting down on Asian-language broadcasts – Khmer, Burmese and Vietnamese have just gone, and French for the Francophone islands in the Pacific is soon to follow.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2016 as "Putin pal Tillerson to steer foreign policy".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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