The Skeptics

Will Trump Push a Real 'America First' Doctrine in 2018?

The Bible tells us that not even a sparrow “will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Washington officials long have considered themselves the equivalent of God, at least in this regard. Nothing on earth, in any other country, at any moment, is supposed to happen without America’s consent.

That’s how U.S. foreign policy looks, anyway.

Candidate Donald Trump talked like he would change that. Unfortunately, the officials with whom he has surrounded himself as president have done their best to stifle his natural impulses. Indeed, the National Security Strategy obviously was written by someone different than the president who gave the talk announcing the NSS’s release. Even so, lately he has been taking some of the right steps, such as cutting aid to Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority, though sometimes for the wrong reasons.

With a new year dawning the president has an opportunity to toss off establishment shackles, so to speak, and push his own approach. In many cases all he needs do is pick up policies which he once advanced, before his appointees neutered him, ignoring him with his tweets while draining “America First” of meaning.

Consider a few possibilities.

Talk to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un

The president once said that he would be “honored” to meet the North’s Supreme Leader. A meeting (with or without honor) is less important that engaging the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The reasons are many. War would be catastrophic. Talking would lower the temperature and reduce Kim’s fear that the United States was ready to strike. There is no evidence that Kim is suicidal, but if he believed America was preparing to attack, it would be in his interest to strike first, preempting U.S. action.

Moreover, negotiation might reveal intermediate positions that both are achievable and better than the status quo, meaning the DPRK’s unrestrained expansion of its nuclear arsenal. For instance, a freeze at current levels backed by intrusive inspections. Better for America and the world to face North Korea with twenty or thirty nukes than an expanding arsenal of, say, 100. Would Pyongyang ever agree and comply? It’s impossible to know without trying.

Abandon Attempts to Micromanage Syria

The civil war which engulfed Syria was tragic but never warranted American involvement. Damascus was a Soviet ally throughout the Cold War, always hostile to the U.S. and Israel. But it posed no security threat to America. The probability of Washington creating a democratic, moderate, pro-American state was even lower than that of doing so in Iraq.

Indeed, during the campaign President Trump appeared to recognize the foolishness of the Obama administration’s attempt to micromanage the multisided struggle. Washington simultaneously sought to oust Bashar al-Assad, who was fighting ISIS; empower the supposed “moderates,” who usually lost and surrendered to more radical insurgents; defeat ISIS, which ultimately grew out of the insurgency spawned by America’s invasion of Iraq; aid jihadist groups, including ones linked to Al Qaeda; work with Kurdish groups as well as Turkey, which feared them far more than ISIS; minimize the influence of neighboring Iran, ally of Assad and enemy of ISIS; and counteract Russian intervention, focused on the single goal of bolstering Assad. Implementing this policy were officials who had been bungling U.S. foreign policy for years.

At least Washington succeeded in the essential task of destroying the Islamic State’s “caliphate.” The rest should be left up to the Syrians and their neighbors. Not even the winners have won much: Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies have weak control over only part of a nation which has been wrecked and, like Humpty Dumpty, probably cannot be put back together. In any case, it will take years for Syria to recover. Let the Saudis spend a bit of the money fleeced from imprisoned billionaires to help rebuild the homes of brother Arabs instead of purchase more chalets and yachts.

Exit the Yemen War

By pressing Riyadh to end its blockade, President Trump appeared to recognize that intervention in Yemen’s endless civil war has been a humanitarian horror. It also is a practical disaster. By attacking a rebel alliance to reinstate a puppet regime Saudi Arabia turned a local conflict into a sectarian struggle and gave Iran a low-cost means of bleeding the Saudi royals.

No doubt, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (and his “coalition” partners, mostly the United Arab Emirates) expected a quick victory in Yemen. Instead, he ended up demonstrating the Saudi military’s inadequacy, exposing his militaristic ambitions, trashing his nation’s already poor reputation abroad, and giving Tehran an easy target. It will be difficult for Riyadh to withdraw, but Washington should leave that problem to the man who would be king—literally. The United States should end refueling and targeting assistance and cut off sale of munitions used to kill Yemeni civilians. Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s war.

Negotiate a Better Relationship with Russia

President Trump’s well-founded desire to improve relations with Russia has been overshadowed by charges that Moscow meddled in America’s election (just like Washington has done in numerous other nations’ contests.) Most Americans have noticed that Vladimir Putin is not a nice fellow. But there’s no evidence that he’s suicidal. He doesn’t want war with America. Nor is there any evidence that he’s planning an improbable attack on Europe, which has around ten times the economic strength and three times the population of Russia.

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