WHAT ABOUT the Middle East and Afghanistan? Didn’t Trump’s impetuous demands to withdraw from Syria alienate allies like the Kurds and enable adversaries such as Russia? Doesn’t the recent agreement with the Taliban throw the Kabul government under the bus?
Well, yes, his style can be abrasive. But he gets results in line with his objectives. As his national strategy document argued, the Middle East is no longer as important strategically as it was during the Cold War. Russia is not the Soviet Union; Syria is not as significant for the future of free governments as Ukraine; and Middle East oil—thanks to advances in fracking—no longer has a chokehold on the world economy. For Trump, U.S. objectives in the Middle East are quite lean—keep terrorism at bay, work with weak and divided Arab states to push back against Iranian hegemony, and remain a stalwart supporter of Israel. U.S. goals in Afghanistan are even leaner—prevent terrorism that might again strike the United States. Most importantly—and this is key—do all of this without putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground again in the fashion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Recall that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS ) was by no means wrapped up when Trump took office. He changed the rules of engagement by which Obama had micromanaged the conflict. In May 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis praised Trump’s decision: “No longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington, D.C. has to authorize tactical movements on the ground.” Under relentless assault thereafter, ISIS fell. Through targeted assassinations—ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his close adviser, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, and most recently Qassim Suleimani—Trump kept his focus on terrorists and refused to be diverted by Iranian strikes against a U.S. surveillance aircraft, Saudi Arabian oil fields, and Iraqi military bases. Yes, with the Suleimani strike, he raised the stakes to include state-sponsored terrorism. But Trump’s first tweet after the deed was an invitation to Tehran to negotiate: “Iran has never won a war but never lost a negotiation.”
Now the trick is to hold territory that ISIS once held and safeguard oil resources that might fund an ISIS resurgence without significant U.S. forces becoming involved. In that light, Trump opted to let Russia patrol the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey is a NATO ally, and the real disaster for the United States would have been to become involved in a fight with Turkey. The United States stands with the Kurds against ISIS but not against Turkey. And it stands with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Russia against ISIS but not with either in the civil war involving the Assad government. The alignments in the Middle East are crosscutting and confusing, not contiguous as in Europe or Asia.
The bottom line for the United States in the Middle East is the continued existence of Israel. That does not mean going to war on behalf of that country. But it does mean preventing Iran from gaining regional hegemony and fomenting a ring of terrorist fire surrounding Israel—Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen. Obama based his strategy on accommodating Iran’s regional power ambitions, asking the Saudis to share the region with the Iranians, and anticipating that Iran would moderate its support of terrorism in the region once the Western powers came to terms with Tehran’s nuclear program. By contrast, Trump pushed back against Iranian hegemony, withdrew from a nuclear agreement that did little to moderate Iran’s aggressiveness, and then sought to piece together a coalition of local Arab powers to prevent Iran from building land bridges to supply missiles (already supplied by air) and encircle Israel.
His first foreign visit was to Riyadh, where he urged Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to stop private Saudi funding of jihadists and work with other moderate Arab countries to stabilize eastern Syria and western Iraq. He rejected pressure to break with the Saudi regime over the murder of a Saudi journalist and resumed a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran to weaken, not overturn, the regime (a difference between him and his hawkish former National Security Adviser John Bolton). He armed his diplomacy, not expecting, like Obama, that diplomacy would moderate arms.
Most importantly, he reaffirmed support for Israel—a relationship that Obama had significantly weakened under the Netanyahu government. His second stop after Riyadh in 2017 was Jerusalem, to which he subsequently moved the U.S. embassy. He endorsed Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and unveiled a Palestinian peace plan focusing on economic development in the region. Predictably, in the current environment, the plan was a non-starter.
Terrorist problems in Afghanistan persist even after the recent agreement between the Taliban and the United States. That agreement calls for the Taliban to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghan territory as a base to strike against the United States or its allies. In return, the United States will withdraw U.S. forces, within fourteen months if all goes well. A smooth implementation of the agreement seems unlikely though. The Taliban and other groups on the Pakistani border (such as the Haqqani network) control roughly a third to one-half of the Afghan countryside. They remain a formidable force against the Kabul government. As of this writing, negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul have yet to begin. By excluding Kabul from early discussions, however, Trump signaled that the composition of the Afghan government is less important for U.S. interests than the prevention of terrorism. The days of nation-building are over; Trump instead relies on targeted strikes against individual terrorists and the threat of offshore intervention to ensure the Taliban keeps its promise. The strategy is fraught with peril, but Trump should be given some credit for trying a reasonably coherent alternative. Obama’s strategy was not working either.
In sum, Trump’s strategy in the Middle East and Afghanistan is offshore balancing. While U.S. troops remain forward deployed in priority areas such as Europe and Asia, they are no longer necessary in the Middle East. Small numbers may remain to facilitate intelligence and rapid reentry if necessary. But no trip wire alliances exist in the Middle East; and Israel, the only mature democracy in the region, is capable of putting up a formidable defense on its own without direct support of American forces.
FOR TRUMP, globalization of world affairs went too far too fast. Not only did America become the world’s policeman, but trade and immigration spun out of control. He returned the focus to the U.S. economy, expanding employment and growth beyond historical levels and exploiting the boom to drive hard bargains on trade and immigration.
China’s entry into the World Trade Organization was the major disrupter. In the late 1990s, China sent a negligible share of its exports to the United States. By 2018, that share burgeoned to $540 billion, or 20 percent of China’s total exports. This dramatic and sudden escalation of China’s presence in U.S. and global markets jackhammered America’s labor markets and created the impression that China was overtaking the United States.
Immigration added to trade shocks. From 1965 to 2015, the United States absorbed fifty-nine million immigrants, legal and illegal. In 2019, despite Trump’s crackdown, immigrant flows were on track to top two million legal and illegal immigrants. These include not only Central American economic migrants, but also some Middle Eastern refugees that fled to the Americas and attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.
Trump addressed these shocks. He dismissed new trade initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for which there was little popular support, and unleashed a cannonade of tariff bombshells to renegotiate existing trade agreements. By early 2020, he had rewritten the South Korean-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and signed a phase 1 trade deal with China. By most accounts, these agreements are helpful updates of their predecessors. Among other things, the new KORUS improves access for U.S. autos in South Korea, the USMCA requires 75 percent of a product’s components to be produced inside the three countries to qualify for zero tariffs (while also expanding U.S. access to dairy markets in Canada and strengthening labor laws in Mexico), and the phase 1 China deal massively increases U.S. exports to China ($200 billion over two years) while increasing transparency on forced technology contracts and dispute settlement procedures. Some provisions restrict rather than open markets (such as local content requirements), but overall Trump’s trade initiatives preserve—and do not destroy—the large markets created under earlier free trade pacts.
Trump has also attacked immigration with stubborn tenacity. “A nation without borders,” he blusters, “is not a nation at all.” He touts the wall (and some 250 miles of it is under construction), aggressively deports illegal immigrants, and reduces as well as reforms the legal immigration system. Despite vitriolic domestic divisions, Trump is making progress. He convinced Mexico, under threat of tariffs, to tighten control of its southern border with Guatemala. Similar agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador followed. Caravan traffic and border crossings have gone down substantially, and immigration authorities have accelerated deportation activities.