Analysis: Seven foreign policy goals for the Trump administration

Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among top issues facing incoming US president.

By
November 14, 2016 15:57
Donald Trump

Donald Trump. (photo credit: REUTERS/JOE RAEDLE/POOL)

 
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‘The world has been undergoing a huge change... it is compounded by the fact that for about a year now foreign policy has been on hold, in the sense that every country has been waiting for the result of the [US] election,” Henry Kissinger told BBC Newsnight last week. Kissinger, who is approaching 94 years old and has influenced policy with 10 US administrations, said that President elect Donald Trump deserves to be given a chance as he develops a foreign policy agenda.

For his part Trump spoke to The Wall Street Journal over the weekend about his agenda. “I’ve had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria,” he said.

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He echoed views put forward in debates with Hillary Clinton, suggesting that the US Syria policy was a mess. Iran was “becoming powerful” and America has no idea “who these people are,” referring to the Syrian rebels it has supported. He urged a climbdown from possible conflict with Russia. Trump suggested an “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians.
Donald Trump picks Reince Priebus for White House chief of staff

Kissinger is one of the few visible foreign policy advisors whose insights Trump sought out during the campaign. Visiting him in May, the Republican candidate obviously impressed Kissinger, who seems to be assured Trump is not the fire starter he came across as during the campaign.

“In public he speaks with great assurance, but some of the proposals he has made most emphatically will encounter obstacles to implementation,” Kissinger told The Atlantic. The former secretary of state laid out some ideas for the problems Trump will face. The US is close to sacrificing its “core national beliefs,” and its reputation as a “shining city on the hill” has been tarnished, he said. “A society has to have a vision of its future, and it cannot be based on guilt primarily.” In a chaotic world the US needed to formulate a coherent policy “based on agreed-upon principles that are necessary for the operation of the entire system.”

So, what is to be done? Let’s look at key policy issues.

Iran



Trump was widely expected to repudiate the Iran deal. However Walid Phares told the BBC that the new president would review the deal, not “rip it up.” This makes sense. While the deal is bad, if the US reneges on it that would provide Iran an excuse to do as it pleases. The Iran deal was never the central problem, but rather the stamp of approval it gave to Iran’s foreign policy and the constant image of Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Zarif laughing as the US and EU kowtowed to him. Iran was given the message that its regime-sponsored hatred for America and meddling throughout the region was acceptable. Criticism of its human rights record was toned down and Iranian groups that oppose the regime were made to feel their championing of democracy and women’s rights no longer mattered to America.

The US administration should work to roll back Iranian influence. From Beirut to Baghdad Iran has sought to degrade the region. It doesn’t build universities and wealth, but spreads chaos which benefits its view that the Arab world is its “near abroad” and that reducing the Arab world’s success benefits Tehran.

Kurds

The US should craft a policy that increases support for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and acknowledges the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria who are fighting Islamic State (ISIS). A member of Trump’s American Middle East Advisory Committee named Sam Yono told Kurdistan 24 that as long as Iraq agrees, the US would not stand in the way of independence. That doesn’t sound like a right to self-determination, it sounds like the French telling George Washington that they would recognize the US if George III accepted it. However, David Romano at Rudaw wrote that he thinks people close to Trump “seem favorable to Kurdish statehood.”

For a long time the US has been wedded to the state borders imposed by European colonialism on the Middle East. There is a compelling reason to support the right of local groups to seek the same independence that America or European countries have claimed a right to. The question is how to do that without encouraging more global chaos. The fact that the Kurds are surrounded on one side by Iran and on the other by the remnants of ISIS is more evidence that it’s time America stands with its own values and works with one of the few polities in the Middle East that has robust minority and women’s rights.

Syria

One issue Trump faces is that his advisor, General Michael T. Flynn has suggested the US prioritize its relations with Turkey. Flynn told The Hill that Turkey is a source of stability and that the US isn’t doing enough to work with it. This seems in contradiction to rolling back US support for Syrian rebels, since Turkey is a central backer of the rebels against Assad.

Turkey may appear a stable country, but it has a democracy deficit. Since the coup attempt tens of thousands have been arrested, including members of the opposition. Media have been closed and curfews imposed in the Kurdish region. If the US wants to encourage any sort of values-based diplomacy it should demand respect for freedom of the press. America’s policy of supporting the YPG against ISIS also runs counter to Turkey, which views the YPG as terrorists.

On Syria Trump is correct that the US policy supporting the rebels has not been consistent or based on correct assessments about those groups. But don’t the Syrian people, 11 million of whom have been forced from their homes by the war, deserve the right to decide their government just like Americans have? Assad’s policies have stoked chaos, helping to create a space for ISIS and also created millions of refugees that are destabilizing Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Europe. To work with Assad means abandoning those refugees.

The US administration should not allow Assad to come in from the cold – his regime should remain unpalatable and be undermined. It has been a conduit for Iranian influence and terrorism as well. Hezbollah, which it is allied with, has killed Americans.

Afghanistan

America’s Afghan war is in its fifteenth year; six Americans have been killed over the past 14 days. The latest attack penetrated Bagram air base, a key facility, and there are reports that the US has closed most of its embassy for security reasons. The Taliban have shown they can strike in the capital, Kabul, and are overrunning parts of the country.

It’s time for America to end its role in Afghanistan.

The war has shown the weakness of US policy – after 15 years of conflict the Taliban is as strong as ever. The US continues to work with countries such as Pakistan that allow terrorist infrastructure to grow on their territory and where minorities such as Shi’ite, Sufi and Ahmadi Muslims, Hindus and Christians are targeted weekly.

There is evidence Pakistan has played the Americans against themselves, encouraging hatred and extremism while sponging up US aid to “fight terrorism,” when in fact they export terrorism. With one hand the US fights the Taliban in Afghanistan, with another hand the US works with Pakistan whose intelligence services have a history of working with the Taliban.

Ending the US role in Afghanistan may embolden the Taliban in the short term but it is unclear what an unending war is accomplishing. It’s time to either work to exterminate the Taliban, which even the Afghan government doesn’t want to do, or make a new policy.

Refugees and migrants


The past decades have seen unprecedented movement of people and an inability of Europe and other Western states to grapple with migration. This affects the US as well where millions of undocumented migrants live. A new US administration should lead the way in a global consensus about migration. For years the refugee situation has been that “refugees” can country-shop, moving from one state to another until they find the one that is wealthiest and then apply for refugee status there. This process has led to chaos as one country pushes the migrants across its borders and shifts the burden to neighboring, wealthy states. But the wealthiest countries cannot be the dumping ground for all the world’s problems. A worldwide solution should be sought so that continued migration of masses of people by boats and other means does not continue to constitute an economic and security threat.

The West cannot solve all the world’s economic problems.

In the past decades many countries in the second and third world have not brought greater prosperity to their citizens. A cause of that may be globalization or other factors, but there is a continued supposition that all those problems can be outsourced to the wealthiest western states. The migrant crisis in Europe shows that this doesn’t work. Global chaos cannot shift all its burdens to the non-chaotic countries, or it will merely spread the problem. The US administration should take a lead in countering and discussing this issue.

To that end Trump was correct to encourage Europe and other countries to pay their share of groups like the UN and NATO . Parts of the world have abrogated responsibility under the notion that the US can both solve all problems and be blamed for all problems.

Europe is an extraordinarily wealthy continent but it has become used to values rhetoric over robust policies.

China

China has sought to undermine US allies in Asia by slowly flexing its muscles in places like the South China Sea. This affects the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and to a lesser extent South Korea. However US interests dovetail with China when it comes to global stability. The two countries are not natural enemies, as was made clear in Richard Nixon’s China policy.

China has a long-term policy that affects Africa and South America. But its agenda is economic and not militarily expansionist at the moment. It has its own internal demographic and economic problems associated with the growing pains of industrialization and urbanization. There is much evidence that the US-China détente is good for the region. That doesn’t mean abandoning regional allies, but recognizing China’s goals. In a chaotic world with rising levels of religious extremism, a stable China has more in common with America than do many parts of the world.

Israel-Palestine

The likelihood of a deal in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is remote. Both sides have become experts at obfuscation and talking about road maps and processes that bear little resemblance to reality on the ground. It would be a mistake for the US administration to invest in the peace process, given the fact every other US administration has tried this same cycle of inspiration and failure.

A new honest discussion is needed about this “process” and what will come of it. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is increasingly combating domestic opposition and rivals as he grows older and the split with Hamas-run Gaza deepens. There is a chance that in the next four years a round of violence could break out between Palestinian factions that inevitably involves them attacking Israel to score points against each other. Israel’s goals will be to reduce violence and encourage continued American support for the Palestinian security services and US AID involvement in infrastructure projects. The best the US can do is accept the status quo, absent a revolution in Israeli or Palestinian politics – the two sides have little that would bring them to the table for a “deal.”

Kissinger has said that Trump cannot reinvent history. However the US is living in the shadow of the end of the Cold War and the chaos unleashed by Islamist extremism that now targets almost every country in the world. The US role as global hegemon and “policeman” came to nought after George W. Bush’s democracy promotion program failed. There is a shining city, but the problem Trump has is identifying a youthful neo-Henry Kissinger that can find America’s footing in the years to come. First on his plate should be all the issues above.

Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman

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