U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question as he speaks to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., March 29, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS)
On Friday, the US administration raised tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese exports. At the same time, the US is still using strong rhetoric to condemn the Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro, has seized a North Korean ship and sent B-52s to Qatar to intimidate Iran.
The Trump administration is currently confronting a half-dozen major foreign policy challenges, several of which are major crises, and seems to think that the more challenges the better. The latest iteration of the Trump doctrine, insofar as the US policy can be seen to be coherent, is to kindle so many crises that at least one of them is expected to turn out in Washington’s favor.
Since its inauguration and early domestic policy setbacks, including Congressional loses in the 2018 elections, the Trump administration has instinctively understood that it has carte blanche to act with discretion and unilateralism. It is almost totally unrestrained in which realm, the only challenge being Congressional attempts to stop US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
In a speech on May 8, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the “challenges of our time,” which he said included “China, Russia, Iran, the Middle East.” The initial two years of the Trump administration saw several major foreign policy initiatives that can be categorized as the initial steps toward a doctrine. This included the US decision to leave the Iran deal, move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, end support for UNRWA, quit UNESCO, leave the INF nuclear treaty, end support for Syrian rebels, sanction Turkey and Iran, and end the Syrian and Afghan conflicts. As we now know, some of those bold decisions have actually been reversed, including the decision to leave eastern Syria.
The first two years of the doctrine sketched out a reduced US role in the world, one that continued the Obama administration’s sense that the US could not be the global policeman. This accelerated the world’s trend toward being a multi-polar world almost 30 years after the US became the sole global hegemonic power with the end of the Cold War. Trump’s sense was that the US should ask more often “What are we doing here, and why are we doing it,” and demand foreign powers to start paying their own way.
Now, in 2019, the doctrine has shifted a bit from global retreat to dealing with numerous crises. For instance, at the end of April, the US supported Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido’s “Operation Libertad,” in which Nicolás Maduro was supposed to leave power. The US then claimed that Maduro reneged on a promise to leave due to Russian prodding. Washington also blamed Cuba and others. Either way, the US appeared to miscalculate in Venezuela.
In addition, the US has poured efforts into a US “peace” plan for Israel and the Palestinians that is supposed to be presented in June. But it is unclear what the plan will offer or how it will work with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah unwilling to speak to the US about it. Jordan, a key player in any peace issue, seems to have been left in the dark.
In Afghanistan, the US has been trying to extricate itself from a war that is almost two decades old. The Trump administration has telegraphed its desire to leave these kinds of “forever wars” and the Taliban understands the US wants a kind of Vietnam-like “peace with honor.” So the Taliban has stepped up attacks even as the US claims that talks with the Taliban are making steady but slow progress. Talks are now in their sixth round in Qatar.
On Iran, the Trump administration has also upped the rhetoric with a full-court press that includes both sanctions and threats that if Iran’s proxies strike at the US in Iraq or elsewhere, the US will respond. B-52s were dispatched to Qatar as a warning. Pompeo says that Iran is engaged in an escalating series of threatening actions.
Then there is US policy in Syria. The US said it was leaving Syria last December. Then it decided to stay. It has reduced its long-term plans for stabilization in favor of a smaller footprint. But it wants to find a way to extricate itself through a deal with Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF are the main US allies against ISIS. They are hard-pressed now to deal with ISIS sleeper cells and tens of thousands of ISIS detainees, many of them families of extremists, who fled the fighting that ended in March. There are more than 1,000 foreign ISIS members being held from more than 40 countries. The US has no clear plan on what to do with the detainees. Meanwhile, US Special Representative for Syrian Engagement, James Jeffrey, is still trying to discuss a “safe zone” with Turkey along the Syrian border, which the SDF opposes. And the US is trying to stop escalating clashes in Idlib between the Syrian regime and Syrian rebels who are protected by Turkey.
As if the Syrian issue wasn’t complex enough, the US is also facing a Turkey that is increasingly becoming an ally of Russia. Turkey is acquiring the S-400 air defense system from Russia but Washington wants to find a way to salvage the Turkish alliance. Trump doesn’t appear to have a real game plan on how to do that except to offer Turkey something in return to stop Ankara’s drift towards Moscow.
That leaves Russia and also countries like North Korea. Trump thought he might be able to come to terms with Russia, but that relationship frayed immediately for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections. Nevertheless, Pompeo will meet Lavrov and Putin on a trip to Moscow and Sochi. This could be an important trip, but Russia likely understands that the US is juggling so many foreign policy balls that it may not be able to follow through on whatever it discusses in Moscow.
On North Korea, the belief that Trump’s personal diplomacy could cajole Kim Jong Un appears to have come to naught. North Korea is firing missiles, and the US seized one of its ships.
Trump doctrine 2.0 consists of pushing so many crises that the administration thinks one or several will turn out in its favor. It is a bit like a gambler playing several hands at once. The problem is that there are so many balls in the air, that it is unclear if the administration’s team can continue to juggle them all successfully. The current US team that includes Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton is more coordinated than the previous Trump administration’s team of H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both of whom left in March 2018. But when it comes to policy decisions in places like Syria, the administration still appears to speak with several different voices. This leaves foreign countries guessing, but it also erodes their confidence in the US approach and their willingness to take threats seriously.
The major challenges of the remaining time in Trump’s first term will be to see if the White House can actually make real progress in Venezuela, Syria, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, North Korea and Israel-Palestine.
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