Mexico Accedes to U.S. Demands — Again

Foreign policy by temper tantrum with irrational definitions of victory characterize the presidency of Donald Trump. The chaotic manner with which Trump conducts international relations was on display last week with the threat to impose tariffs on Mexico, the hasty bilateral negotiations that followed, and the announcement of an agreement between the United States and Mexico.

Three important points about President Donald Trump’s immigration deal with Mexico demonstrate the slapdash manner with which he conducts foreign policy. First, Trump created the crisis and defined success, on his terms. Second, success entailed Mexico agreeing to do what it already had agreed to do. Third, an emboldened president, who claims victory following his threat to impose punitive tariffs on Mexico, may use this tool again, either against Mexico or another adversary. Already, Trump is threatening to impose more tariffs on imports from China. 

Immigrant chicken locked in cages at the border

Trump’s threatened tariff war with Mexico was a drama of his own making. His inhumane policies on the border have created a crisis where none existed, undermining the nation’s long commitment to aid asylum seekers. Seemingly out of the blue, Trump staked out a maximalist position and issued a broad ultimatum to impose a series of ever more damaging tariffs on Mexican goods entering the United States. What Trump passed off to his followers as serious policymaking was little more than smoke and mirrors, a way of emphasizing a crisis and appearing to make progress without solving the crisis that he created in the first place.

Trump has used this tactic before — most obviously with North Korea, first threatening havoc on that country, then professing to fall “in love” with its thuggish leader. But, with Mexico, Trump achieved a new level of deception. “This is a pattern we’ve seen since the first days of his administration,” says Ned Price, a former CIA official who was on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council staff. “The president manufactures a crisis, galvanizes his base around the challenge, leaves the definition of success undefined, pretends to play hardball and, lo and behold, finds a solution that entails little more than window-dressing, if that.” For Trump, it amounts to a win, but, Price adds, “the loser tends to be the American people, oftentimes Trump’s base first and foremost.” Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas representative, put it even more bluntly on Twitter: “The damage of Trump’s reckless trade policies and tariffs has already been done. What we see is yet another example of him trying to be both the arsonist who created this problem in the first place and the firefighter who wants credit for addressing it.” 

Mexican National Guard

Much of the deal consists of reiterations of promises Mexico made previously. One part says Mexico agrees to deploy its National Guard throughout the country, especially along its southern border to prevent migrants from Central America transiting Mexico. But, the Mexican government consented to do just that in March during talks with Kirstjen Nielsen, former secretary of homeland security. Similarly, the deal includes a clause allowing asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated. However, Mexican and American diplomats agreed to that arrangement during talks last December. As O’Rourke says, “These are agreements that Mexico had already made, in some cases months ago. They might have accelerated the timetable, but by and large the president achieved nothing except to jeopardize the most important trading relationship that the United States of America has.” An indication that O’Rourke and other critics are correct is the vehemence with which the president denounced them on Twitter. In one tweet, Trump claimed “The Failing @nytimes, & ratings challenged @CNN” promulgated the story that the agreement simply repeated earlier Mexican promises because they “will do anything possible to see our Country fail! They are truly The Enemy of the People!”

Central American asylum-seekers

The agreement is not likely to have much impact on the flow of asylum-seekers, even though Trump promises, “There is going to be great cooperation between Mexico & the USA, something that didn’t exist for decades.” But, if not, the president says, “we can always go back to our previous, very profitable, position of  Tariffs – But I don’t believe that will be necessary.” Since Trump created the crisis in the first place and defined success, he always can define failure. He might be reluctant to do so, since Trump can never admit a mistake or acknowledge a failed policy. And, the tariffs were a mistake, unpopular among many Republicans and within the business community, especially as the stock market declined and a poor jobs report came out. Clearly, Trump had reasons to make a quick deal. Still, if there is a surge in migrants appearing at the U.S.-Mexican border close to the 2020 election, Trump might be tempted to threaten tariffs again to appease his base and encourage Trumpistas to vote for him.

Immigration is likely to be a major theme in the coming election, especially for Republicans, and Trump may be tempted to threaten Mexico again to demonstrate to his base that he actively is working to prevent Central American migrants from reaching the United States. Any threat to impose tariffs — or take other punitive action against Mexico — would represent the next installment in what is the equivalent of a shell game of repeated threats and, then, declarations of victory. It is all empty rhetoric, but Trump, after all, is a reality TV star, and he runs U.S. foreign policy — indeed, all policy — as if they are installments of the “Celebrity Apprentice.”

If he could, he simply would say to his opponents, “You’re fired.”

Posted June 11, 2019

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