Leo Kelly

Beijing is looking worse by the day, Gov. Branstad.

Terry Branstad's appointment to ambassador to China isn't some cushy hand-out, diplomats told us. President Donald Trump isn't sending him to some off-the-radar beach paradise to swill exotic cocktails at black-tie parties. 

No, Iowa's venerable Republican governor is getting shipped to one of the world's most important and challenging assignments. And he'll be working for an administration that, almost 100 days in, has done nothing but flip its positions in real-time and escalate international tensions.

Much has been made about Branstad's friendly relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

But longtime ambassadors and State Department officials said that Branstad's friendship with Xi either won't count for much or could even work against him as Chinese officials look to back-door regular diplomatic protocols. Especially so when the president gets annoyed and fires off a reckless tweet or two. 

"... The central point of this ambassadorial assignment, like any other one, is not really about ensuring smooth relations with another country or further strengthening a prior friendship," said Jonathan Addleton, a former U.S. ambassador to Mongolia and visiting professor at Mercer University in Georgia. "Rather, it is about engaging with another country in ways that advance the long-term interests of one's own country." 

The U.S. ambassador to China will be tasked day-to-day with messaging the Trump Administration's policy toward in an increasingly tense geopolitical atmosphere. Only China holds real sway over North Korea, diplomats said. The U.S. and China seem destined to clash on trade during Trump's administration. Washington and Beijing are at odds over Taiwan and land rights in South China Sea.

Enter Terry Branstad, a long-time politician, but a man without international or even federal experience. 

"Being an ambassador to London is one thing," said Dennis Jett, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru and now teaches at Penn State University. "We don't disagree on very much."

Trump's incessant saber rattling is bound to raise Chinese hackles, Jett said. The country's analysts have noted Trump's "hard power" budget, which would slash State Department funding by 30 percent and boost military spending 10 percent. Such a drastic shift in funding priorities sends a message.

Add to that the Trump administration's unprecedented lack of clarity on much of anything and its many freelancers claiming to speak for the White House at any moment. Shortly before November's election, scores of former diplomats and security officials -- Republican and Democrat -- signed letters castigating Trump's inability to lead on the world stage. 

"How it works in reality will to a significant extent depend on how our foreign policy formulation and implementations works with respect to this particular White House," Addleton said. 

One day, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is that country's rightful ruler. The next, he's a despot and U.S. missiles are raining down. In one breath, NATO is obsolete. In the next, it's relevant. 

And, in one moment, China is a currency manipulator gaming international markets. In the next, it's a fair trading partner, at least until the situation in North Korea doesn't improve.

Such amateurish erraticism is untenable and dangerous. And it dooms Branstad, a man with no official diplomatic experience, to years of rhetorical gymnastics in the hopes of explaining away Washington's constant inconsistency.

"He's going to try to represent the policy the best he can and hope it doesn't change the next day," Jett said.

His family's unshakable support for Trump has landed Branstad one of the toughest assignments in the world. He'll be a slave to Trump's unpredictable Twitter rants. He'll be trapped by opaque, listless foreign policy. He'll be the face left trying to make sense of Trump's impulsiveness in one of the most complicated diplomatic environments on the planet. He'll serve an administration that's struggling to fill key posts because so many expect it to end badly. 

"My question is, 'why would he want the job?'" Jett said. "Iowa's going to look pretty good when he's getting whipped by Washington every day."


Local editorials represent the opinion of the Quad-City Times editorial board, which consists of Publisher Deb Anselm, Executive Editor Autumn Phillips, Editorial Page Editor Jon Alexander, City Editor Dan Bowerman, Associate Editor Bill Wundram and community representative John Wetzel.