JPost Editorial: Trump’s endgame

From South Korea and Japan to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, America’s allies are wondering whether Trump’s recent actions are a sign of his commitment to defend them.

April 17, 2017 22:26
3 minute read.
Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump delivers an statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, US, April 6, 2017. . (photo credit: REUTERS)


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President Donald Trump might have gotten elected with the promise of “America First,” but three months into his presidency, America under Trump’s leadership has exhibited a surprisingly interventionist foreign policy.

Keeping promises might be overrated, but where precisely is Trump headed with his recent flurry of action on the international stage, and what are the implications for Israel? The firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in response to the Assad regime’s use of sarin gas was the first clear deviation from what many US conservatives hoped would be a refocusing on domestic issues. It was quickly followed by the use of the so-called Motherof- All-Bombs against an ISIS-affiliated terrorist group in Afghanistan.

Now, Trump is enmeshed in a confrontation with North Korea. He has deployed the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula, and the US and South Korea are conducting joint military operations.

The two moves coincide with North Korea’s most important holiday of the year, the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim II Sung, the country’s founder and current leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, a date that many believed Pyongyang would celebrate with a sixth nuclear bomb test.

There is reason for cautious optimism that Trump’s break with Barack Obama’s “light footprint” approach to foreign policy will restore America’s leadership role in maintaining world order. Obama’s decision not to enforce his own redline on chemical weapons in Syria in 2013 against Bashar Assad was a major blow to the US’s world influence. It sent out a dangerous message to the leaders of Iran, Russia and China that the US would not seriously confront them.

Iran could meddle in Syria and Iraq while building up its ballistic capabilities and could humiliate the US Navy in the Persian Gulf. China could continue to assert its control over the trading channels in the South China Sea, bully Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, and maintain commercial ties with North Korea. Russia could remain in the Crimea Peninsula and strengthen its control of eastern Ukraine while propping up the Assad regime in Syria.

And this had negative ramifications for Israel. Iran would increase its threat to the Jewish state as it strengthened its foothold in Syria. With the signing of the nuclear arms deal, the economic sanctions against Tehran melted away. And Iran could continue to develop its ballistic capabilities. It was also clear that any breach of the agreement by Iran would not be met with a decisive American response.

But now Trump seems to be attempting to reverse America’s retreat from the international stage. The question is whether the recent whirlwind of action represents a coherent pivot in foreign policy, or a series of impulsive reactions to events that have no real thinking behind them. It is unclear whether the Trump administration has articulated for itself the endgame. Vladimir Putin, the mullahs in Iran, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un will need to think hard about how to deal with a US president who flaunts his unpredictability and seems not to be considering his next step.

From South Korea and Japan to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, America’s allies are wondering whether Trump’s recent actions are a sign of his commitment to defend them against the belligerence of Iran, Russia and China, or a short-lived fit of bravado.

A case can be made for the importance of reasserting America’s leadership role in the world. But this is not the campaign message that Trump ran on. A hasty, unplanned foreign policy pivot is dangerous. The situation in North Korea could quickly deteriorate and Washington would be faced with the tough choice of backing up Trump’s tough talk with action or backing down, which would undermine the US’s credibility.

China and Russia, which both share a border with North Korea, could be dragged into the fray. And this could have implications for the Middle East and Israel.

While the return of a more robust US leadership on the international stage is welcome, many doubts remain about the extent to which the Trump has thought out its policy goals. And this gives cause for concern.

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