It is approaching 100 days since Donald Trump took office. He is getting applause in Washington for a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base responsible for launching a chemical attack, and I suppose he’ll get some tomorrow for using the biggest conventional bomb ever in Afghanistan, but he has yet to clarify his goals or enunciate strategy for achieving them in either country, or anywhere else.
Here is a summary of the incoherent foreign policy of a president who is playing golf more often than any in recent memory and spending more money on security and travel for himself and his family:
- Threats to do something about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles if China doesn’t, but it is clear what. Promised concessions on trade to China if it will and backed off his pledge to designate Beijing as a currency manipulator, which in any event hasn’t been true for a couple of years. The guy is one tough negotiator: carrots up front.
- Warm greetings to Egyptian autocrat Sisi, who continues to hold US citizens in prison on trumped up charges (pun half-intended) and has vastly increased repression over and above his predecessors’ already draconian measures, not to mention his cozying up to the Russians and making a peace settlement in Libya impossible by supporting a would-be strongman.
- A plea to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to pause settlements, which Netanyahu is pointedly ignoring with the authorization of the first brand-new settlement in many years.
- An unfriendly meeting with Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, during which Trump pointedly refused to shake the hand of Europe’s de facto leader and strong US ally.
- Increased air strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen that have caused a notable bump in civilian deaths, as well as increased (but now unannounced) US deployments to all three.
- Revelations of a web of contacts between the Trump campaign (and eventual appointees) and Russian businesspeople, spies, and government officials. If there is no fire beneath all this smoke, it will be a miracle.
- Delegation of major responsibilities to son-in-law real estate heir Jared Kushner, who at various times has appeared to be entrusted with Israel/Palestine negotiations, China, Iraq, reducing the Federal bureaucracy, and countering the opioid epidemic.
- Initial efforts to build a pointless wall on the Mexican border that would cost many billions the American taxpayer will need to pay, despite the years of decline in illegal immigration from Mexico. I’d guess no more than a few miles of this wasteful project will ever be completed, as Congress will not provide the funding required for more.
- A travel ban that courts are consistently finding violates the US constitution by singling out Muslim countries that have not in fact sent terrorists to the US.
- Decisions on coal that will make it impossible for the US to meet its commitments under the Paris climate change agreement.
I could go on, especially with respect to domestic policy: utter failure so far to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, a Supreme Court nominee so extreme his approval required the Senate to nuke the long-standing requirement for 60 votes in the Senate, and a budget proposal that cuts everything but Defense and Homeland Security, including crippling cuts to the State Department and USAID (not to mention the zeroing out of the UN Population Fund).
There is one reason to hope that things might improve on the international front. National Security Adviser McMaster, who is a serious expert himself, is hiring serious people with real expertise. He has already gotten Trump to reverse direction on NATO, which the President is now praising. But the State Department is still a wasteland, with no appointees to any of the sub-cabinet positions and a Secretary of State who seems not to understand or care for the public affairs part of his job. He was initially laconic to a fault. Now he talks but contradicts himself. I’m not sure which is worse.
Yes, I too would have thought Americans up in arms at this wholesale betrayal of their values, but I’m afraid it is no longer clear what those values are. Are we prepared to play a leadership role in moving the world towards liberal democracy, or are we content to cut deals with the worst autocrats on earth? Are we going to rely on real facts and knowledge, or are we going to try to scam the world, just as Trump has scammed his investors and contractors as well as the students at his “university”? Are we going to pursue a foreign policy that relies at least in part on diplomacy and international assistance, or are we going to use only the military?
Our current course is clear: towards a more militarized, less honest, and more illiberal foreign policy. I’m not seeing anything on the horizon that will turn us in a better direction.
For those who doubt that things are so bad, here is Trump’ April 12 interview with Fox Business, in which he remembered the cake he was eating when he ordered the missile strike but not the country targeted (at 27:30-29:30):
Never mind that he forgets that he opposed an attack on Syria while President Obama was in office and fails to credit his predecessor for the military technology used, not to mention that the meeting with Xi Jinping he claims went well the Chinese think went badly, especially with respect to Syria and North Korea.
It’s only a hundred days or so, but President Trump promised lots of things would happen within that time period. What has he actually accomplished? I’m not asking what he has done. I know full well he has signed many executive orders. But what difference has it all made, or will make in the foreseeable future?
Precious little would be my guess. Obamacare is here to stay, unless Trump and his minions manage to undermine it with smack talk. Yesterday’s effort to undo Obama’s climate change actions will be challenged in the bureaucracy, in court, in Congress, and by economic reality. Coal isn’t coming back. Everyone but the coal miners knows it. The border wall is looking doubtful, and the Mexicans are certainly not going to pay for it. Manufacturing jobs are not returning to the US, despite the President’s frequent misuse of company announcements. NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal are still in place, even if the Trans Pacific Partnership is not.
This is a dismal record relative to his promises, but it doesn’t mean Trump has had no impact. More than one hundred people died in an American bombing in Mosul, and other bombings in Syria and Yemen are causing more collateral damage than in the past. The Administration denies loosening the rules of engagement (those govern where you can bomb based on what information), but it’s like border enforcement: tell the operators that you won’t hold them accountable for abuses and you can be pretty sure some will abuse.
When I spoke in Rome last week at the Italian Institute for International Affairs, no one objected to my identifying Trump as an enemy to those who have benefited from the post-World War II Pax Americana. Trump’s popularity is not only low in the U.S., it is dismally low abroad as well. Even the Russians no longer like him, as it has become all too clear that he will be unable to deliver America into their hands. Today the Senate voted overwhelmingly to ratify the accession of tiny Montenegro to NATO. Moscow will be disappointed, as it tried last October to block Podgorica from joining the Alliance by sponsoring a coup against its president. I needn’t mention how little Chancellor Merkel thinks of Trump, never mind the Australian prime minister and many other (formerly) close allies.
There are of course Trump fans around the world. Brexiteers like him, but he won’t be able to visit the UK any time soon because the protests would be massive. The Saudis are anticipating his wholehearted support for their war in Yemen, but you can bet most Yemenis won’t be so enthusiastic. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu used to like Trump, but his ardor cooled after the President tried to restrain settlement-building in the West Bank. The Chinese are developing a taste for Trump because he is so easy to buy off: a quick decision on a trademark issue for one of his companies seems to have bought them a reversal of Trump’s resistance to the One China policy.
I know lots of people who did not like President Obama. Some thought him hostile to private enterprise. Others thought him irresolute in foreign policy and national security. Still others resented his failure to push harder on human rights issues abroad or to protect civil liberties at home. All these folks would happily trade in Trump for a third Obama term, which is what Hillary Clinton promised to serve.
But being president is not a popularity contest. A president can remain in office for his full four years no matter how unpopular he is. Trump is not going away anytime soon, unless the Republicans in Congress come to believe that he represents a threat to their re-election or to the election of a Republican president in 2020. The investigation of his campaign’s link to the Russians is the best bet for convincing Republicans to betray him. Let’s hope it can be wrested from Devin Nunes’ grasp and put in the hands of someone more independent and responsible.
After more than seven years of promising to repeal and replace Obamacare, the Republicans last week couldn’t find enough votes in the House of Representatives they control to pass a watered down version of what they had promised to do. That’s the good news. Obamacare will remain in place. Millions will not be deprived of coverage that meets minimal standards and provides reasonable benefits. The taxes required to sustain the system, which are collected from the very wealthy, will remain in place, at least for now, as will the Medicaid expansion.
The bad news is that President Trump and the Congressional Republicans will now heap opprobrium on Obamacare and hinder its effectiveness, in order to prove that it still needs to be repealed and replaced rather than fixed and expanded. It’s failing, they say, so let’s discourage companies from offering the health insurance it made available to many millions of people. And let’s kick as many people off Medicaid, the state-based system that provides health care to poor, as possible. The worse it gets, the better.
Trump has made a lifetime “success” of failure. Look at what we know of his tax returns, which admittedly isn’t much. But it is enough to know that he used losses over many years to offset his income to pay far less tax than would otherwise be required. A lot less in percentage terms than people making a small fraction of his income.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is a technique that can be used in foreign policy as well. Islamic extremism is our greatest threat, Trump says, so let’s go after it with the full force of the US military, neglecting any efforts to make extremism a less attractive proposition and intensifying military attacks, with predictable consequences for collateral damage. The result is predictable after 16 years of already aggressive military efforts: there will be more radical Islamic extremists in more countries four years from now than there are today, just as there are more than four years ago. Failure will become its own reward, justifying yet another ratcheting up of the military effort.
But you don’t have to wait. You can see this happening today with Yemen, where Trump is contemplating more support for a war that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already demonstrated to be fruitless. Up the ante, as in Vietnam.
So what will stop this pattern of building on failure? Only a solid and definitive “no” from the American people. The resistance to repealing Obamacare was a good rehearsal, but far more is needed. Trump is still telling more lies than anyone can keep track of with a scorecard, which the Washington Post is helpfully maintaining. He is also sending more troops to Iraq and Syria, without revealing their numbers. Without a stronger civilian effort to shore up decent civilian governance they are destined to become part of Trump’s consistent record of building his personal success on other people’s failures. Unless we all stop that from happening this time around.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the United States Institute of Peace on Monday to discuss the future of security and government in Iraq as well as the prospects of US-Iraqi relations during the Trump administration.
Al-Abadi praised the work of the Iraqi Security Forces in not only liberating Iraq from ISIS but also winning back the trust of the people. He highlighted the security forces’ accomplishments, including the return of over one million people to their homes, the military partnership with the Kurdish peshmerga, and the imminent recapture of Mosul. However, al-Abadi stressed that military force alone would not defeat threats like ISIS and a more comprehensive approach, incorporating a successful hearts and minds campaign, would be necessary.
Al-Abadi also addressed future challenges to security in the aftermath of Mosul and ISIS. He said religious minorities, who have suffered severely at the hands of ISIS, are part of Iraqi society and have the same rights as all Iraqis. But there is uncertainty over whether they will return to Iraq due to increasing delays in reconstruction efforts. He also said that the government intends on investigating and punishing ISIS crimes. Militia fighters would also be subject to the law and their demobilization and reintegration into society monitored. Elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces would not be involved in politics while continuing to carry arms, which is at odds with the political process.
Turning to government challenges, al-Abadi discussed the balance between federal and regional authority and how best to reform and improve the Iraqi political situation. He stressed the importance of keeping politicians accountable and placing citizens’ trust in strong political institutions. Calling it a new day for democracy, al-Abadi said that while change is difficult, it is essential for people to believe in the government’s ability to reconstruct liberated territories, eliminate the ISIS threat, and make politics inclusive and representative of all Iraqis.
However, developing good governance is not easy and Iraq must proceed with caution. Al-Abadi cited the need to maintain peace and not antagonize or polarize people early on, especially in plans to govern newly liberated territories such as Mosul. He was hopeful that the provincial elections, scheduled for late 2017, will return new politicians who want to move the country forward towards democracy, building bridges for cooperation rather than walls of provincial and sectarian division.
Coming directly from the White House and a conversation with President Trump, al-Abadi was satisfied with the level of support from the new administration and the prospects for a better relationship with the United States. Trump wants to be more engaged and face terrorism head-on, a move al-Abadi welcomes in the continued fight against ISIS.
As for regional and international partners, al-Abadi saw positive elements as well as areas for improvement in the fighting terrorism. The region could work more vigorously against ISIS and its recruiting efforts, an oversight that enabled the group to build its capacities in the first place. The international community has pledged support to stabilizing Mosul, and the recent visit of the Saudi foreign minister to Baghdad was welcome. Iraq is eager to deliver the aid and assistance desperately needed to rebuild the country and to stop regional conflicts.
1. Addressing the North Korean Threat: A Discussion with Congressman Joe Wilson | Monday, March 20th | 11:30-1:00PM | The Hudson Institute | Register Here |
Hudson Institute will host a timely conversation on the growing threat of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs to the Unites States and our East Asian allies. U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Readiness Subcommittee, will join Hudson missile defense and East Asia security experts Rebeccah Heinrichs and Arthur Herman for an in-depth discussion on the status of Pyongyang’s weapons development activities and how the U.S. and our regional allies should respond to bolster their security.
2. From Scarcity to Security: Water as a Resource for Middle East Peacebuilding | Monday, March 20th | 12:00-2:00 PM | The Elliot School | Register Here |
In the Middle East, water has often constituted a source of tension between Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring states. In recent years, however, regional leaders have increasingly identified water security as a shared interest that transcends borders – and even a potential avenue for peacebuilding. Join Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director, EcoPeace Middle East and Marina Djernaes, Director, EcoPeace Center for Water Security for a discussion on this resource.
For two decades, the EcoPeace Middle East organization has engaged Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians in the joint promotion of practical solutions to transboundary problems of scarcity and pollution. In the process, they have fostered regional alliances, built environmental infrastructure, altered allocation policies, and shined spotlights on the environmental crises facing sacred sites such as the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. This panel will draw on decades of civil society and intergovernmental experience to highlight the potential of water security as a catalyst for peace building in the Middle East and beyond.
3. Rebuilding Syria: Reconstruction and Legitimacy | Tuesday, March 21st | 12:30 | The Atlantic Council | Register Here |
The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East is launching a new initiative, Rebuilding Syria: Reconstruction and Legitimacy. Over the next two years, the Hariri Center will pool expertise from multiple specialists to cover the many challenges of rebuilding Syria including in: economics, finance, development, infrastructure, political economy, civil society, food security, energy, law, and employment. More than just a cursory overview, the initiative will produce a strategic roadmap to reconstruction with the participation of Syrians and the support of the international community.
The Hariri Center invites you to a discussion on the technical and political challenges ahead for rebuilding Syria with country and development experts on March 21, 2017 from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. at the Atlantic Council headquarters in Washington, D.C. Our panelists will include Dr. Osama Kadi, president of the Syrian Economic Task Force, Mr. Todd Diamond, Middle East director for Chemonics International, Mona Yacoubian, former deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East at the US Agency for International Development, and Bassam Barabandi, former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of People Demand Change. The conversation will be moderated by Hariri Center Senior Fellow Faysal Itani. Mr. Omar Shawaf, chairman and founder of BINAA, will give introductory remarks.
4. A Conversation with His Excellency Gebran Bassil, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, The Republic of Lebanon| Tuesday, March 21st | 3:00-4:00 PM | The Wilson Center | Register Here |
The Lebanon Ideas Forum is an assemblage of scholars, journalists, policymakers, and diplomats who will discuss issues concerning Lebanon, its wider region, and relations with the United States and Europe. This event is the inaugural event in the Lebanon Ideas Forum series. The Lebanon Ideas Forum is part of a greater strategic partnership between the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and Safadi Foundation USA, which was established in 2017. Join the Wilson Center this Tuesday for a discussion with Lara Alameh, President of the Board and CEO, Safadi Foundation USA, and Gebran Bassil, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, The Republic of Lebanon.
5. Securing Southeastern Europe: A New Model for Progress in the Balkans? | Tuesday, March 21st | 4:00 PM | The Atlantic Council | Register Here
Please join the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative on Tuesday, March 21 at 4:00 p.m. for a conversation with the foreign ministers of Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro, as they discuss security cooperation in the Western Balkans.
At this public event, Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic, and Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier will jointly discuss their perspective on the security challenges facing Southeastern Europe, as well as their insights on addressing issues ranging from Islamic radicalization and terrorist threats to the completion of Montenegro’s NATO accession process.
6. The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein and US policy in Iraq | Wednesday, March 22nd | 10:00-11:30 | Brookings | Register Here |
On March 22, the Brookings Intelligence Project will host former CIA analyst John Nixon to outline his findings from his interrogation of Hussein, and what lessons he believes can be learned. Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project, will provide introductory remarks and moderate the discussion. Following their remarks, Riedel and Nixon will take questions from the audience.
7. U.S.- Iran Relations: Opportunities for the New Administration | Wednesday, March 22nd | 11:30-12:30 | The Wilson Center | Register Here |
Ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage situation, Iran-US relations have been characterized by mutual misperceptions. The nuclear deal of June 2015 between Iran and the “P5+1” came to fruition against this backdrop, in large part due to the efforts of The Right Honourable Catherine Ashton, Baroness of Upholland, Former Vice President of the European Commission and former High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, Senior Counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
The July 2015 deal was an unprecedented step towards rebuilding that trust, though tensions are being fueled by military cooperation with Russia in Syria and new sanctions announced by the Trump administration. The new administration faces familiar challenges in relations with Iran, but also some key strategic and economic opportunities. Rob Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies, will moderate a discussion between Baroness Ashton and Ambassador Sherman who well know these challenges and opportunities, and can speak to how the U.S. can be appealing to their strategic interests using diplomacy and negotiations.
8. The Impact of Gender Norms on Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia | Wednesday, March 22nd | 12:00-1:00 | The Elliot School | Register Here |
Dr. Hala Aldosari will lead a discussion on the impact of gender norms on the construction of women’s roles and identity in Saudi Arabia. Analysis of key limitations of personal status laws, planning of women’s health services and the concepts of legislation on violence against women will be presented. The talk will also delve into the role of state and non-state agents in shaping the discourse on gender norms and roles, in light of the recent economic and political trends.
Hala Aldosari received her PhD and postdoctoral training in health services research and the social determinants of women’s health. Her research and publications are focused on the intersection of gender, laws, health and political identity in Saudi Arabia. She works on different projects to promote women’s rights and prevention from violence against women and girls. In 2016, she won the Freedom award for her leading role to promote human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia.
9. Reaffirming the U.S.-Taiwan Security Relationship | Friday, March 24th | 12:00-2:00 PM | The Hudson Institute | Register Here |
As President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping next month, one subject that is likely to be discussed is Taiwan. President Trump has inherited a clear and long-established diplomatic and security structure pledged to defend Taiwan, its democratic political institutions, and the freedoms its people enjoy. The keystones of U.S. relations with Taiwan are the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances which established guidelines for U.S. policy toward Taiwan over the last four decades. The Six Assurances addressed U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, set a fixed stance on sovereignty issues, and guaranteed that previous agreements calling for U.S. assistance to defend Taiwan would remain firmly in effect.
On March 24, Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower will host a distinguished panel of experts to examine the Trump administration’s stance on Taiwan and the outlook for existing agreements to protect Taiwan. Hudson senior fellows Seth Cropsey and William Schneider will be joined by Dennis Wilder, a professor at Georgetown University, and Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute. The panel will assess what is needed to fulfill and fortify the existing agreements with Taiwan and assure not only this partnership, but the U.S.’s entire network of regional and global alliances.
Donald Trump’s first budget proposal is like his tweets: intentionally exaggerated to attract attention. There is no way this budget will pass Congress, where it gores as many Republicans as it does Democrats. The boost in Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs–three of the more amply funded and least efficient US government agencies–aims to please those terrified of the threat from what Trump wants to call violent Islamic extremism, which kills fewer Americans than lightening strikes.
Trump is also preparing for the negotiation with Congress by anchoring his budget on the extreme right, knowing the outcome will be somewhere in the middle. This is classic Trump negotiating behavior, and has potential to gain him support from the Tea Party Republicans. They are none too happy with Ryancare, which amends but does not repeal or replace Obamacare, no matter how often Republicans repeat that phrase.
At the State Department, a 29% cut in a single year will pretty much devastate normal diplomacy, even if the Secretary of State will never find his wings clipped. State has a lot of fixed costs in embassies where the heat, air conditioning, and guard forces need to be fully funded. It also has salaries that need to be paid, as well as routine allowances, moving costs, tuition for kids whose parents are stationed abroad, and the costs of services to other US government agencies resident in our embassies.
I had 36 of those when I was Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge’ d’Affaires in Rome. Ninety per cent of the personnel there were either from other agencies or servicing them, including a large contingent from the Defense Department. They would scream loudly if their services were cut by 29%, never mind the 50% or more that is likely because of the fixed costs.
Yesterday in Japan Secretary Tillerson justified the State Department cuts this way:
…as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the US will be directly engaged in. And second, that as we become more effective in our aid programs, that we will also be attracting resources from other countries, allies, and other sources as well to contribute in our development aid and our disaster assistance.
This is a ridiculous way to justify a first-year cut, especially as Trump has just deployed another 1000 troops to Syria and Tillerson himself is threatening war against North Korea. We face at least another decade of war and post-war transition in the Middle East (not only Syria but also Yemen, Iraq, and Libya). We can expect South Korea to handle most of the post-war requirements on the Korean Peninsula, but the notion that no burdens will fall to the US is not credible. Besides, other countries follow those who lead, not those who cut back.
In one sense, we shouldn’t worry too much: it isn’t all going to happen. Congress won’t let Meals on Wheels and other social welfare programs die, though it may well allow the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars to go under or get starvation budgets. State and USAID should do better than that, as they have stronger constituencies in Congress.
But even if State gets back much of its money, our diplomatic corps and foreign assistance workers will suffer demoralization. They already weren’t in high spirits during the last of the Obama years, as the President let Syria go to hell, the pivot to the Asia Pacific faltered, and whole continents were ignored (especially Africa and Latin America). For good reasons, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development believe they are in the front lines of defending American interests globally: they issue visas, try to get foreign governments on board with whatever the President wants, and ensure that America participates in efforts to reduce poverty and discourage extremism worldwide.
Besides the cuts to State and AID, many domestic cuts will affect America’s role in the world. The 31% cut to EPA is intended in part to hamstring its efforts on global warming. The 6% cut at the Department of Energy will likely have that impact too. The Treasury cut (4%) apparently includes its important foreign assistance, which is vital to helping other countries set up Finance Ministries that can conduct serious growth-promoting macroeconomic policies and cooperate with the US in law enforcement, including economic sanctions.
The net effect is this: even if corrected in Congress, the Trump Administration budget announced yesterday will have a devastating impact on America’s influence in the world, over and above the disrespect in which the President himself is held in many countries. It should be taken seriously but not literally. America is not going to be great again on the global stage under this administration.