Ex-CIA chief says there is a White House battle for Trump's mind
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Ex-CIA chief says there is a White House battle for Trump's mind

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Just when you think dealing with a Trump White House couldn't get any more difficult, word from one who knows the Oval office well is that Australia, and indeed all of America's allies, might have to try a bit harder. Why? Well, peace in our time might depend upon it.

Michael Morell was a CIA man for 33 years. He rose to the rank of deputy director and was acting director twice. He served six presidents, was with George Bush during 9/11 and by Barack Obama's side when Osama Bin Laden was killed. And in more recent months, he has enjoyed speaking out.

Before the election, Morell declared Donald Trump unqualified to be president and endorsed Hillary Clinton. He later described then President-elect Trump's war of words with the CIA as a danger for the nation.

Clearly, Morell is not likely to be offered a position any time soon in the Trump administration. But, as a professional spook with career-advancing skills in decoding motives, he knows how decisions are made in Washington's inner sanctum. On Monday night, in a lively conversation event at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, he suggested those who hold the liberal international order dear should give thanks Michael Flynn had resigned as President Trump's national security adviser.

Morell told his audience he believed US foreign policy was now vacillating between two "poles" and a wild card. On one pole are the economic and cultural nationalists: chief strategist Steve Bannon and speechwriter and senior policy adviser Steve Miller who believe, Morell said, that America's "Judeo Christian heritage and Judeo Christian values are under threat from Islam – not Islamic extremism but Islam itself – and from China".

On the other pole are Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis, director of the CIA Mike Pompeo and director of national intelligence Dan Coats. This pole "is traditional US national security, lightly right-of-centre people, which sees Islamic extremism as the threat".

The wild card is the President, who can shift between the two sides because, in Morell's reckoning, Trump does not have deeply held policy views.

Nationalist pole weaker

The departure of Mike Flynn weakens the nationalist pole and "potentially helps pull policy toward a more traditional view".

The two poles differ over Russia. The nationalists see Russia as a Christian ally while the traditional security view is that Russia is an adversary, trying to undermine American influence in the world.

Morell was fascinating on the Putin/Trump nexus, seeing in Putin's stroking of Trump a skilled intelligence hand at work ("We saw Putin identifying Trump's narcissism and ego and playing to it"). Certainly Flynn's conversation with the Russian ambassador (and the subsequent cover-up) has deepened the sense there is a lot more iceberg to uncover when it comes to Russia's reach into Trump's circles. This is a geopolitical saga studded with personal foibles, a story stitched into the fabric of the Trump administration and it's hard to tear your eyes away.

But possibly of more pressing interest to Australia is Morell's view on the tug of war under way over China.

In one corner are the economic nationalists who are focused on the voters who believed Trump when he told them China had taken their jobs, and who see China as an enemy. The more traditional pole, according to Morell, is "focused on China as a strategic power and on managing the US relationship with China in a way that leads to more stability rather than less stability. That relationship is the critical issue facing US foreign policy for the next 25 years. The Tillersons, the Mattises and the Pompeos understand that."

How the struggle between these two camps will play out – and where the wild card will land – is anybody's guess. But Morell had some advice on how we could help. Step one is to put regional threats high on the agenda.

"Our allies can be an influence, they can pull the US in the right direction and I strongly encourage them to do that. In Australia's case, that would mean not only talking about the immense value of the relationship but also the threats that both of us face here in east Asia."

We are still only in week four of the Trump White House and clearly everyone is still struggling to work out the best approach to working with this administration. No doubt Australian ministers and officials are hoping the views of traditionalists such as Tillerson and Mattis will hold sway with the President. But as Prime Minister Turnbull discovered on the phone recently, you never know when the wild card will be dealt.