Talisman Sabre and US strategy; new head of defence; Boris Johnson addresses Lowy Institute dinner. By Hamish McDonald.

John Kelly moves to White House chief of staff

President Donald Trump with his newly sworn-in chief of staff, John Kelly, at the White House this week.
President Donald Trump with his newly sworn-in chief of staff, John Kelly, at the White House this week.

After a few days in which Donald Trump had managed to turn the United States capital into Gotham City with the leering Joker in charge, some signs of pushback emerged in the Washington establishment – though no one is confident enough to see normal politics being resumed.

The spectacular flameout of White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci only 10 days into the job – and spokesman Sean Spicer and chief of staff Reince Priebus – came as John Kelly, the homeland security secretary and retired Marine Corps general, was brought in as chief of staff to impose military-style discipline on the fractious West Wing. It remains to be seen whether his writ will run over Steve Bannon, Trump’s alt-right “chief strategist”, or Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who also have direct and pre-eminent advisory roles.

Trump had meanwhile gone past his first six months in office without a major legislative achievement, aside from putting a conservative judge into the Supreme Court. As the bizarre antics went on at the White House, the Republicans failed to pass legislation abolishing their hated Obamacare. Republican senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins voted against the bill, defying threats from Trump, with John McCain delivering the coup de grace.

Congress also enacted heavier sanctions against Russia over its interference in last year’s elections. In response, Vladimir Putin ordered the US to cut back its staff in Russian missions by 755 from about 1200 and seized two US diplomatic properties. Trump’s hopes of a great new working relationship with Moscow are thus thwarted. China meanwhile told Trump to stop “venting” and not to expect Beijing to squeeze North Korea into surrender of its nukes.

Trump’s apparently growing panic at former FBI director Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian links to his campaign kept him needling Attorney-General Jeff Sessions for his “weakness” in not going after Hillary Clinton and for recusing himself from the Russian inquiries. The aim seemed to be Sessions’ resignation so he could be replaced with someone who’d sack Mueller. Republican senator Lindsey Graham said this could mean “the end of the Trump presidency”. More evidence emerged that Russian money is still pouring into the Trump Organisation’s real estate projects, and that Trump scripted Donny jnr’s account of the June 2016 meeting with Russians promising dirt on Clinton.

At the Pentagon, military chief Joe Dunford said he’d ignore Trump’s tweet avowing that transgender people could no longer serve in the US forces until he got orders down the regular chain of command. Defence Secretary James Mattis is taking his time to do that. At the State Department it’s chaos, with its secretary Rex Tillerson hiring management consultants to reorganise the cut-back diplomatic service. Branches not dealing with US military and economic objectives are being shut, and many top posts and ambassadorships left unfilled − though Kansas Governor Sam Brownback was made ambassador for religious freedom, which to him includes letting businesses refuse service to gay people on religious grounds.


Sabre prattling

While many US friends and allies are now working around Washington rather than with it, Canberra has doubled down on the American alliance with the huge Talisman Sabre military exercise in Queensland last month showing our defence chiefs see us inextricably integrated with US forces.

The exercise, involving amphibious landings and paratroops delivered direct from Alaska, brought the panoply of equipment ordered by the Howard government into full play, with the Australian Army configured as an expeditionary force, and the navy and air force in support, and all “interoperable” with the US. US Marine Corps lieutenant general David Berger suggested Australia contribute to a joint expeditionary force to combat Daesh [IS] groups in South-East Asia, as Australia’s neighbours would need help to “successfully stop the threat posed by IS-inspired militants”.

With Mattis, Dunford and Kelly all retired marine generals, the corps occupies Washington’s commanding heights. Trump has promised to add to its already excessive battalions. Now it’s setting strategy for the US and its allies.

Rodrigo Duterte’s forces are still struggling to defeat the Daesh-linked jihadists who seized the Mindanao city of Marawi on May 23, and Jakarta’s respected Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict warns this could be the start of many similar challenges across the region. But as former Manila ambassador Mack Williams writes in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations blog, a US–Australian taskforce is the last thing any regional government would want or see as helpful.

“Perhaps the most concerning aspect is the way this exercise has muddied the strategic waters for Australia by allowing the stretch of the ‘war on terrorism’ to South-East Asia,” Williams said, “to allow US military planners to point us down the slippery track into joint or combined military operations in a region where we have so much of our own national interests at stake and which may not always be consistent with those of the US.”


Moriarty’s defence

Maybe some counterpressure is intended by Malcolm Turnbull’s surprise choice of Greg Moriarty as the new secretary of the Defence Department, coming out of nowhere to beat a field of seasoned defence establishment types.

Moriarty did start out as an analyst with the Defence Intelligence Organisation, but soon moved out to operational roles in the first Gulf War and the Bougainville peacemaking operation and then to diplomacy, becoming ambassador in Iran and most notably in Indonesia, fielding the numerous snafus of the Gillard and Abbott era. Recently he’s been counterterrorism co-ordinator and chief of staff in the prime minister’s office.

The appointment suggests a return to focusing on the region, with the defeat of Daesh in Mosul and imminently in al-Raqqa the time to pull back forces from the Middle East. The emphasis may instead be on helping regional militaries to secure maritime resources and handle security threats such as Marawi.

Turnbull has also moved up another old Indonesia hand, with career diplomat Peter Woolcott replacing Moriarty as his chief of staff. In 2014, Julie Bishop promised Woolcott the Jakarta embassy, but Tony Abbott kyboshed that – no doubt to get back at Woolcott’s father, former DFAT head Dick Woolcott, for his public criticism of Abbott’s fixation with joining distant conflicts. Aged 90, the senior Woolcott is maintaining the attack.


Shill Crosby

Boris Johnson played it for laughs in his speech for the Lowy Institute’s $300-a-seat annual dinner on July 27. While the more sensible heads among the guests dismissed his idea of re-creating the old imperial bonds post-Brexit as nostalgic tosh, one who lapped it up was Richard Alston, Howard-era communications minister and later high commissioner in London.

“His enlightenment ethos and his unequivocal commitment to the Western alliance, and its key partners such as Australia, shine through,” Alston penned for Lowy’s The Interpreter blog the next day. “We have no doubt benefited from his formative gap year at Geelong Grammar and his solid grounding in practical politics while Mayor of London from the Wizard of Oz, Lynton Crosby.”

Actually, Sir Lynton’s wand has lost its magic of late. His guidance saw Britain’s Conservative Party lose the London mayoralty in 2016, and go from a workable majority into a minority position in this June’s general elections. In 2015, Canada’s Conservatives suffered a humiliating rout, after employing Crosby’s wedge and dog-whistling tactics including broadcasting an ad depicting a Muslim woman refusing to remove her niqab to swear the Canadian oath of citizenship.

No doubt Nick Greiner, Alston’s recent replacement as federal president of the Liberal Party, will be more up to date, and as the Budapest-born son of Hungarian migrants will find less to praise in identity politics.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2017 as "John Kelly joins West Wing musical chairs".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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