President Trump’s 100-day test

At the end of the administration’s first hundred days, is it possible to identify a pattern of behavior that could clarify the new American policies?

April 27, 2017 21:25
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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The common grace period that every new government gets is the 100-day test. At the end of this period, the difficult questions begin to be asked, among them: are the elected decision-makers actually working to keep the promises they made to their voters?

Regarding the Trump administration, one of the first questions that arise is: What are the new administration’s foreign and security policies? At the end of the administration’s first hundred days, is it possible to identify a pattern of behavior that could clarify the new American policies?

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In order to answer this question, we need to analyze four decisions that have been made by the Trump administration in four key locales – Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey and North Korea. These are: the bombing of a Syrian Air Force base using 59 Tomahawk missiles, following a poison gas attack by Assad’s planes; the use of the “mother of all bombs” against Islamic State targets on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; Trump’s greetings to Turkish President Erdogan after his victory in the referendum; and the administration’s harsh reaction to North Korea’s continued ballistic experiments.

On the face of it, these steps taken by the administration are in dramatic contrast with the policy of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. However, in order to identify patterns of behavior, it is helpful to classify the new American foreign and defense policies into three categories, based on Trump’s declarations during his election campaign.

The first category includes foreign affairs and security goals that can be attributed to Trump’s assertion of “America first.” This slogan has different interpretations and dimensions in different spheres of policies: economic, immigration, domestic and international affairs.

In relation to US foreign and defense policies, “America first” might include all threats and challenges that could endanger the security of the United States. Under this concept, the administration would choose to take steps that it views as essential to the security and the foreign interests of the US, even if their possible costs might be high.

Moreover, “America first” considerations would push aside other considerations, such as the interests of its allies or the positions of the UN Security Council or international public opinion.

The second category includes foreign affairs and security goals aimed at implementing Trump’s declaration of a “Great America” or strengthening America’s image as a military and political superpower while deterring its enemies. In this framework, the Trump administration would act to promote American interests in an attempt to expand America’s geopolitical, military and economic hegemony.

However, the costs that the administration would be ready to pay are smaller than the previous category and it would also take into account the interests and goals of its allies.

The third category may include foreign affairs and security goals of marginal importance to the US, which can be labeled as “America doesn’t care.” These will include internal, regional and international conflicts that do not seem to have any direct or indirect impact on the US. Even if these conflicts involve war crimes or if they contravene the moral values and democratic spirit of the United States, the administration would prefer to stay uninvolved, refrain from investing any efforts or money in them, and would certainly not take any risks for them.

Against the backdrop of the proposed classification into these three categories, it can be assumed that the US decision to bomb the Syrian Air Force base was made based on “Great America” considerations. The Assad regime is not directly, or even indirectly, endangering the security of the US. Nor is the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Army against Syrian civilians and rebels. However, Assad’s behavior provided Trump with a pretext for sending a loud and clear message in an attempt to restore the image of the US as a superpower.

As for the bombing in Afghanistan, there was an operative reason behind the unprecedented use of the “mother of all bombs” against Islamic State targets in Afghanistan – the need to neutralize ISIS and al-Qaida terrorists taking shelter in their underground mountain compounds.

The use of the bomb in such an area is very effective and the collateral damage is limited, due to the fact that the area is sparsely populated. But above all, using this specific bomb sends a clear deterrent message to all the enemies of the United. Since the operation was carried out against an immediate enemy of the US, Islamic State, it meets the criterion of “America first.” As such, all objections to the use of the bomb (such as that by a former US ally, the former Afghan leader Karzai) fell on deaf ears.

The crisis in North Korea clearly falls into the category of “America first.”

The leader of North Korea repeatedly threatens the US and is trying to develop conventional and unconventional weapons that will threaten US security. In this regard it seems that for the time being Trump is choosing the “businessman strategy” in an attempt to resolve the conflict with North Korea with the lowest possible cost for the US.

Trump is trying to achieve the goal of stopping North Korea’s ballistic missile program, using for this purpose a third party, China. The statements made by the White House, according to which the president believes that China can control Kim Jong Un’s moves, indicate that this is Trump’s preferred strategy.

However, if North Korea does not bend to Chinese discipline and decides to continue with its nuclear and ballistic missiles tests, it is possible that Trump would decide to carry out a selective military operation against North Korean targets or even an all-out war.

The placement of the North Korean threat in the “America first” category is bad news for US allies in the region – South Korea and Japan – as the interests of these countries in this scenario will, at most, be secondary in weighing US costs and benefits.

And what about “America doesn’t care,” the third category? In this context, it is possible to understand Trump’s haste to congratulate Turkish President Erdogan after his narrow victory in the latest Turkish referendum, a referendum that severely damaged the democratic character of the country and pushed Turkey away from European and Western liberal values.

Will these three categories constitute explanatory variables of US foreign affairs and security policies in future? Wait and see.

The writer is dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy and the founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter- Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

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