Alon Ben-Meir: Trump’s dreadful foreign policy
Recently, I met with a group of officials from different countries who came to the US to learn about our political system and the decision-making process regarding US foreign policy under the Trump administration. Had I been asked this question while Presidents Obama or Bush were in office, I could have answered with some specificity about certain US policies toward our allies and adversaries. However, Trump has no coherent foreign policy doctrine, no understanding of historical perspective, and no knowledge of the intricacies of various regional conflicts. He is dismissive of alliances, unbound by international agreements; he is erratic, unfettered, and issues policy directives based on “gut feelings.” Here I provide a synopsis of Trump’s foreign “policy” and the global disorder he has and continues to sow.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict became more intractable than ever before, as Trump torpedoed the prospect of a two-state solution even before he unveiled his so-called “deal of the century.” By moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017 and recognizing it as Israel’s capital, declaring all settlements legal, giving the green light to annex the Jordan Valley, and freezing financial aid to the Palestinians, he deliberately left no room for the Palestinians to negotiate on the very issues that he granted to the Israelis. The Israeli right-wing celebration will be short lived, as sooner than later this “deal” will explode in their faces. There is little prospect for peace left, and violence will be the order of the day.
Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of US forces from Syria was nothing short of a disaster. He abandoned our most trusted ally in the fight against ISIS—the Syrian Kurds—to the mercy of Turkey’s ruthless dictator Erdogan. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands became refugees. Turkey has now established a foothold in Syria, and Russia became the sole power broker in the country. Iran became more determined than ever before to augment its military presence in Syria, which poses a constant threat to Israel and will make Syria the battleground between Israel and Iran. ISIS once again is on the rise along with other jihadist groups, and violence between the conflicting parties will continue unabated. The US is left with no say about the country’s future.
After three years of vacillation and uncertainty, a new US-Iraq crisis ensued immediately after the assassination of Iran’s General Soleimani on Iraqi soil, ordered by Trump. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets demanding the ouster of American troops, forcing the parliament to pass legislation to that effect. Trump’s ill-fated decision further strained the already tense relations with Iraq, allowing Iran to further solidify its power and political influence in Iraq and severely undermine the US’s geostrategic interest in the country and the region. Although some US troops will remain in Iraq, as long as Iran dominates the Iraqi body politic, the US will increasingly be marginalized, which will adversely affect our allies in the Middle East.
The conflict with Iran is 40 years old, and has considerably worsened with Trump’s hostile policy—first by withdrawing from the Iran deal, then imposing crippling sanctions, threatening regime change, and most recently, assassinating General Soleimani. Instead of building on the nuclear deal, Trump destroyed any prospect of constructive relations with Iran, which has presently all but abandoned the deal. By all accounts, Iran can now produce any quantity and quality of uranium it chooses. Trump’s misguided approach to Iran only increased the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons and encouraged Iran to continue its nefarious activities in the Middle East. The new US-Iran conflict will destabilize the region, as the two countries remain at the precipice of war.
The effort to denuclearize North Korea was nothing but an illusion. Trump thought he could use his ‘unrivaled negotiating skills’ to persuade Kim Jong Un to dismantle his nuclear weapons before the US lifts any sanctions. After three face-to-face meetings, Trump failed because he never understood that Kim will not denuclearize without an explicit, long-term plan. Furthermore, following Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, he gave Kim no reason to trust him. A plan to be implemented in stages over a period of 7-10 years while sanctions are gradually lifted, corresponding to denuclearization in stages, which would lead to normalization of relations, might have appealed to Kim. As a result of Trump’s dismal failure, the tension in the Korean Peninsula has only risen as Kim resumed testing new ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
Since Trump came to power, Turkey has become increasingly more nationalist with a strong Islamist agenda. Under Erdogan, Turkey is willing to challenge Western values and is prepared to assert itself politically and militarily, and do so with impunity. Even though Erdogan cozied up to US’ staunchest foes (Russia and Iran), defied NATO by buying Russia’s S-400 air defense system, and threatened to prohibit the US from using the Incirlik Air Base, Trump conceded by giving Erdogan the green light to intervene in Syria and ravage the Syrian Kurds. Trump refrained from taking any punitive measures against Erdogan, even though he is terrorizing his own people and dismantling what’s left of Turkey’s democracy. Trump’s accommodation of Erdogan’s authoritarian conduct further emboldened Erdogan to interfere in the domestic affairs in Middle Eastern, Western Balkan, and North African countries while marginalizing the US.
The continuing disastrous war in Yemen will be remembered as one of Trump’s most horrific failures, as he continues to directly contribute to the devastation by supplying Saudi Arabia with killing machines. Trump has made hardly any effort to end the war in Yemen. Tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed, millions are starving, and as many as one million children are infected with cholera. Although Iran and the Houthis are to blame just as much, Trump has said nothing and done less to bring this catastrophic war to an end. He puts his personal financial interest in Saudi Arabia first while ditching our moral responsibility, as he makes the US complicit in the Saudis’ crimes against humanity under his watch.
Trump’s failure to end the Afghanistan war is a continuation of Bush’s and Obama’s failures to realize that the Afghanistan war is unwinnable. While Trump criticized his predecessors for not ending the war, he followed their path while ignoring what has long been acknowledged—that the Taliban will ultimately wrest power. Trump’s effort to reach an agreement was torpedoed just before it was finalized because of a suicide bomber who killed an American soldier. Instead of pausing the agreement temporarily, he scuttled it completely. The way to end the nearly two decades-old war is by requiring the Taliban to commit to two vital provisions: preventing terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS from using Afghanistan as a staging ground, and fully adhering to human rights. Violating these commitments would trigger specific crippling sanctions.
Trump’s policy toward the Libyan civil war hovered between neglect and indifference, leaving the country’s fate to Russia and Turkey. Trump, who initially supported the UN-recognized Sarraj government, reversed course in support of Khalifa Haftar, who is determined to control the entire country. Secretary of State Pompeo, who attended the Berlin conference hoping to shape the deliberation about Libya’s future, bore no fruit. Russia and Turkey, who have huge vested interests in Libya, have already established themselves as the powerbrokers. Trump’s ill-advised choice to steeply reduce the US military presence in West Africa will only further weaken the US’s influence not only in Libya but in the region, which has enormous geostrategic consequences for European allies in particular.
Trump has alienated our European allies to a degree that raises serious questions about his commitment to our trans-Atlantic ties. His embrace of Russia’s Putin, and conversely his intense criticism of our allies, played directly into the hand of Putin, who is determined to weaken our alliances, especially NATO, which has provided for European collective security since World War II. Trump never understood the critically important bond between Europe and the US, treating them as business partners who must pay an equitable share on defense—failing to grasp that their security is pivotal to our own and serves our most vital geostrategic interests. His strong-arm tactics have increasingly alienated and antagonized both our friends and adversaries, making the US increasingly isolated which inadvertently lessens American influence globally.
This is the plight of our foreign policy under Trump. Sadly, nothing is likely to change as long as he remains in power. Our only salvation is that even though Trump undermined America’s image in the eyes of the international community, the US remains the singular superpower. It may take some time, but under new and enlightened leaders, America will regain its global leadership role and live up to its political and social values and moral principles.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.