I have often wandered what may be the reasoning behind President Trump's foreign policy decisions, as they don't seem to follow a consistent pattern. Some seem purely transactional, while others are wholly unilateral; some appear very short-sighted, others potentially far-reaching; some look reckless, immature or extremely biased, others considerably more balanced. I'm not saying at all that these come in equal proportions! In my book most of his actions in international affairs are short-sighted, reckless, immature and biased. But the proportion is not the question here.
One can assume that, with his limited attention span, what counts most is who among his entourage gets his ear last before a decision is made - and the chaotic working methods and the frequent personnel changes at the White House might explain some of the inconsistencies. There were also reports that he gets easily triggered by certain TV talk-shows.
This is quite unsettling, as it leaves it unclear what this president is exactly standing for, what is the common thread in his foreign policy and how easily he can be influenced from random sources. If America's moves on the world scene are erratic and unpredictable, for allies as for adversaries, the consequences can be very serious.
But it's possible that Trump may have evolved to the next level: from being influenced by talk-shows, to being influenced by TV series.
I have been a fan of Homeland, an espionage and political series currently running its 8th (and last) season on TV (seasons 1-7 are available on Netflix). It depicts mostly fictional, but somewhat plausible versions of recent (post-9/11) history.
Not only is Homeland good entertainment, but its particular blend of political fiction occasionally appears to somehow anticipate actual events. Season 8, which is showing now but was shot last year, is about an attempt by the US to make peace with the Taliban and eventually pull out from Afghanistan. Does it ring any bell?
Plus, in both fiction and reality, one key obstacle to peace is the fate of Taliban prisoners. In the TV series, a public statement by the Afghan vice-President vowing to never release the Taliban prisoners (whom he calls terrorists) temporarily derails the negotiations, until he is forced (by the CIA) to walk back his statement. And, sure enough, the same issue becomes a potential deal breaker in real life.
And now comes the creepy part...
A few days ago, I was watching a press conference by President Trump, Vice-President Pence and their coordination team on the coronavirus outbreak. Have a look at it here, the action starts at 17:00 minutes. I was watching it live without even thinking about Afghanistan, I was simply curious to see what they have to say about the new epidemic.
But then Trump started the press conference not with its announced topic, but by referring to the agreement reached in Afghanistan. And as he was speaking, I couldn't repress a feeling that he was trying to channel President Ralph Warner, the Homeland character that shows courage and vision pursuing an improbable peace agreement with the Taliban.
And at the 19:09 mark, this happens: Trump pays tribute to the Americans who have spent "blood and treasure" in Afghanistan. And he adds, after a moment's hesitation: "and treasury".
This wording ("blood and treasure") clearly cannot be Trump's own, it's not only unusual (well, there is another TV series with that name, but that's about it), but he is visibly not at ease saying it - hence he finds it necessary to also refer to "treasury". The context is also somewhat odd, with reference to the war in Afghanistan. Not least, such language sounds too sophisticated compared to the usual Trump speak, of which that very same press conference is an otherwise perfect illustration.
But those words made me jump immediately.
Because in the 2nd episode of Homeland's season 8, shown a few days earlier on TV, the same language had appeared in a letter sent by the CIA man Saul Berenson to the Taliban commander Haissam Haqqani, with a peace / negotiation offer. It had already struck me as rather unusual, so it stuck in my mind and I immediately made the connection when hearing Trump later.
The actual text of that letter is transcribed here and includes the below fragment (my underline).
"Now we fight as enemies using every weapon we have — drones, suicide bombers — to kill or maim families and children. We’re like two mad men, hands around each other’s throats, unable to let go, spilling each other’s blood for treasure. For 18 years. No one can win such a war."
In view of the above, I may be forgiven if I have a very strong suspicion that President Trump is watching Homeland and getting inspiration from it.
The upside is that we can hope to see more coherence in Trump's policies going forward. Indeed, being influenced by a TV series has to be better than being driven by a talk-show. Unlike the latter, a series develops a longer-term plot and is bound to maintain some coherence between episodes.
The downside is that I discovered that I may have one thing in common with Trump: we both like Homeland.
Still, I cannot help looking forward to the next episodes to find out what may happen in the future in real life Afghanistan.