Why Is Trump Abandoning the Foreign Policy that Brought Him Victory?
The president appears to be heading in the opposite direction regarding China. How best to handle America’s one potential peer competitor is a matter of serious debate, but even before taking office President Trump launched what appeared to be confrontation on multiple fronts: Taiwan, trade, South China Sea, North Korea. Secretary Tillerson again took a highly adversarial position, suggesting in Senate testimony that the United States might blockade the PRC’s claimed Pacific possessions, a casus belli, and “compel,” whatever that means, compliance with sanctions against North Korea. Here the administration is playing with fire. Whether the administration will set priorities and take a more balanced approach as more seasoned Asia experts are appointed is yet to be seen.
Trump policy in the Middle East seems in confused flux. During the campaign he briefly pushed an “even-handed” approach to Israel and the Palestinians, before going all in backing the hardline Likud government’s practical repudiation of a two-state solution and expanded colonization of the West Bank. Since then, however, he, like other presidents before him, has backed away—though perhaps only temporarily—from the promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Moreover, President Trump has emphasized his desire to make a peace deal, which obviously would require concessions on both sides.
The president appears to be stepping into the Syrian and Iraq quagmires despite his election promises to the contrary. He sharply criticized previous policy in the Mideast: “Logic replaced with foolishness and arrogance, which led to one foreign policy disaster after another.” He explicitly denounced interventions in Iraq and Libya, promising to get out “of the nation-building business,” and emphasized the defeat of the Islamic State rather than overthrow of Bashar al-Assad.
Yet the administration just introduced a Marine Corps artillery battalion and other forces to assist in capturing the ISIS capital of Raqqa, Syria. Despite complaining about inadequate burden-sharing principle in the Middle East, President Trump risks encouraging the Gulf States and Turkey to reduce their efforts to defeat the Islamic State. As president he also proposed creating “safe zones” in Syria, which would require an extensive and potentially long-term U.S. military presence. There are reports that the administration is considering an extended military role in Iraq as well.
Finally, the president appears to have reversed himself on Afghanistan. Early in the campaign he said America should end its longest war, which has devolved into a forlorn attempt to create a centralized, liberal democratic state in Central Asia. More recently, however, he indicated he planned to keep U.S. forces there. In December he told Afghan president Ashraf Ghani that he “would certainly continue to support Afghanistan security.” There may be no conflict which less advances serious American interests than attempting to sustain an incompetent, corrupt and failing central government in Kabul.
Where the president stands on other issues is unclear. His support for Brexit has roiled relations with Europe, which also worries about his protectionist beliefs—highlighted by his attack on Germany’s alleged currency manipulation—and potentially softer approach to Russia. Despite being highly critical of the Iran nuclear accord, he has not yet challenged the pact. He appears to be restoring Washington’s uncritical embrace of Saudi Arabia, which will undermine his expressed desire for greater burden-sharing by allies and yield long-term problems in Yemen. The administrations seems to have dropped more bombs in Yemen in the past week than the Obama administration did in the past year. At the same time, Trump has barely noticed Africa and South America. China has been steadily expanding its economic influence in both regions. How does Trump propose to maintain American interests in those regions? So far, he has offered nothing but silence.
It remains early for the Trump administration, and there’s no there there in much of the State and Defense departments, as well as other agencies. The president still could move in a more pragmatic, realist direction. However, without allies in his administration that prospect seems small. What Hegel called the “cunning of history” appears to be at work once again. The American people, having voted against the promiscuous military intervention of Trump’s predecessors, may well end up with more of the same foreign policy.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
Image: Donald Trump at MacDill Air Force Base. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain