Blogs: Paul Pillar

Trump Falls for Sisi

In Bahrain, Confrontation for the Sake of Confrontation

The Party of No, and now an Administration of No

Paul Pillar

In many other areas of foreign policy, in which circumstances and problems are imposed on policymakers at least as much as they tend to be with domestic policies, it is difficult to come up with approaches that look new and different, as well as being prudent and effective.  There are only so many things the United States can do with good effect, and chances are that the relevant options have already been thoroughly considered.  Thus, key attributes of many policies look very similar from one administration to another.  This has been the case so far with some of the major foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration, such as the fight against ISIS.  Although candidate Trump had berated Obama for not taking more effective action against the group, when Trump’s secretary of state presented to a gathering last week the administration’s plans for dealing with ISIS, those plans, in the words of the New York Times report on the meeting, “closely parroted Mr. Obama’s strategy.”  Consistent with that resemblance, so far the Trump administration has followed the general lines of Obama's policies regarding military activity in Syria.  Similarly with the problem of North Korea and its nuclear weapons: even though Secretary Tillerson spoke earlier this month about a “new approach” toward North Korea, as Jeffrey Lewis observes, the supposedly new approach is “in fact, the old approach”, with even many of the same exact words that the Obama administration had used.

For any administration that thinks more in terms of what it wants rather than what it opposes, such similarities are not necessarily a problem.  The continuities are accepted, while asserting responsible stewardship of the nation’s interests and openness to adjustments and improvements in existing polices where appropriate.  But for an administration of No, the similarities are a problem.  With its coming to power based overwhelmingly on rejection of what came before, how can it defend continuation of what it rejected?

A resulting hazard is temptation on the part of such an administration to go out of its way to pursue policies that look new and different even though they are not prudent or effective.  Such a hazard may be materializing with moves to become more deeply immersed in the Yemeni civil war on the side favored by the Saudis and Emiratis, whose intervention in the conflict has multiplied the human suffering without bringing the war any closer to a conclusion.  Other motivations probably are also at play, including an itch to be assertive anywhere there is a possible Iran angle (an itch exhibited by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whose department has forwarded a proposal for escalation of the U.S. involvement in Yemen).  But an escalation that can be portrayed, as this one is, as a removing of “Obama-era restrictions” will be attractive to the Trump White House because it can be described as contrary to something Obama did.  Trump’s setback on health care and his sliding poll numbers will tend to make the temptation all the greater. 

Damage that results from succumbing to this sort of temptation is likely to continue until and unless this administration can decide, more than it has so far, what it stands for—in the sense of workable policies, not just slogans or promises—and not just what it is against.

Image: President-elect Donald Trump arrives with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Capitol for the 58th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, DC. Creative Commons / U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos

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Has Afghanistan Become America's Afghanistan?

Paul Pillar

In many other areas of foreign policy, in which circumstances and problems are imposed on policymakers at least as much as they tend to be with domestic policies, it is difficult to come up with approaches that look new and different, as well as being prudent and effective.  There are only so many things the United States can do with good effect, and chances are that the relevant options have already been thoroughly considered.  Thus, key attributes of many policies look very similar from one administration to another.  This has been the case so far with some of the major foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration, such as the fight against ISIS.  Although candidate Trump had berated Obama for not taking more effective action against the group, when Trump’s secretary of state presented to a gathering last week the administration’s plans for dealing with ISIS, those plans, in the words of the New York Times report on the meeting, “closely parroted Mr. Obama’s strategy.”  Consistent with that resemblance, so far the Trump administration has followed the general lines of Obama's policies regarding military activity in Syria.  Similarly with the problem of North Korea and its nuclear weapons: even though Secretary Tillerson spoke earlier this month about a “new approach” toward North Korea, as Jeffrey Lewis observes, the supposedly new approach is “in fact, the old approach”, with even many of the same exact words that the Obama administration had used.

For any administration that thinks more in terms of what it wants rather than what it opposes, such similarities are not necessarily a problem.  The continuities are accepted, while asserting responsible stewardship of the nation’s interests and openness to adjustments and improvements in existing polices where appropriate.  But for an administration of No, the similarities are a problem.  With its coming to power based overwhelmingly on rejection of what came before, how can it defend continuation of what it rejected?

A resulting hazard is temptation on the part of such an administration to go out of its way to pursue policies that look new and different even though they are not prudent or effective.  Such a hazard may be materializing with moves to become more deeply immersed in the Yemeni civil war on the side favored by the Saudis and Emiratis, whose intervention in the conflict has multiplied the human suffering without bringing the war any closer to a conclusion.  Other motivations probably are also at play, including an itch to be assertive anywhere there is a possible Iran angle (an itch exhibited by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whose department has forwarded a proposal for escalation of the U.S. involvement in Yemen).  But an escalation that can be portrayed, as this one is, as a removing of “Obama-era restrictions” will be attractive to the Trump White House because it can be described as contrary to something Obama did.  Trump’s setback on health care and his sliding poll numbers will tend to make the temptation all the greater. 

Damage that results from succumbing to this sort of temptation is likely to continue until and unless this administration can decide, more than it has so far, what it stands for—in the sense of workable policies, not just slogans or promises—and not just what it is against.

Image: President-elect Donald Trump arrives with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Capitol for the 58th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, DC. Creative Commons / U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos

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Political Discipline and a Strategic Void

Paul Pillar

In many other areas of foreign policy, in which circumstances and problems are imposed on policymakers at least as much as they tend to be with domestic policies, it is difficult to come up with approaches that look new and different, as well as being prudent and effective.  There are only so many things the United States can do with good effect, and chances are that the relevant options have already been thoroughly considered.  Thus, key attributes of many policies look very similar from one administration to another.  This has been the case so far with some of the major foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration, such as the fight against ISIS.  Although candidate Trump had berated Obama for not taking more effective action against the group, when Trump’s secretary of state presented to a gathering last week the administration’s plans for dealing with ISIS, those plans, in the words of the New York Times report on the meeting, “closely parroted Mr. Obama’s strategy.”  Consistent with that resemblance, so far the Trump administration has followed the general lines of Obama's policies regarding military activity in Syria.  Similarly with the problem of North Korea and its nuclear weapons: even though Secretary Tillerson spoke earlier this month about a “new approach” toward North Korea, as Jeffrey Lewis observes, the supposedly new approach is “in fact, the old approach”, with even many of the same exact words that the Obama administration had used.

For any administration that thinks more in terms of what it wants rather than what it opposes, such similarities are not necessarily a problem.  The continuities are accepted, while asserting responsible stewardship of the nation’s interests and openness to adjustments and improvements in existing polices where appropriate.  But for an administration of No, the similarities are a problem.  With its coming to power based overwhelmingly on rejection of what came before, how can it defend continuation of what it rejected?

A resulting hazard is temptation on the part of such an administration to go out of its way to pursue policies that look new and different even though they are not prudent or effective.  Such a hazard may be materializing with moves to become more deeply immersed in the Yemeni civil war on the side favored by the Saudis and Emiratis, whose intervention in the conflict has multiplied the human suffering without bringing the war any closer to a conclusion.  Other motivations probably are also at play, including an itch to be assertive anywhere there is a possible Iran angle (an itch exhibited by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whose department has forwarded a proposal for escalation of the U.S. involvement in Yemen).  But an escalation that can be portrayed, as this one is, as a removing of “Obama-era restrictions” will be attractive to the Trump White House because it can be described as contrary to something Obama did.  Trump’s setback on health care and his sliding poll numbers will tend to make the temptation all the greater. 

Damage that results from succumbing to this sort of temptation is likely to continue until and unless this administration can decide, more than it has so far, what it stands for—in the sense of workable policies, not just slogans or promises—and not just what it is against.

Image: President-elect Donald Trump arrives with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Capitol for the 58th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, DC. Creative Commons / U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos

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