Sondland, Ukraine, Syria and the unmaking of U.S. foreign policy

Understanding the significant shifts in U.S. foreign policy under the Trump Administration

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan hold a joint news conference at the White House (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan hold a joint news conference at the White House
(photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland provided a rare glimpse into how US President Donald Trump conducts foreign policy. It is symbolic of other policy decisions by the administration and likely represents how the US has conducted itself when dealing with Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Koreas and other key files on the desk of the President. That’s good news and bad news.
In the US the testimony of Sondland has been hotly debated over whether he provided evidence of a “quid pro quo” between Trump and Ukraine in which Ukraine would get aid for investigating Joe Biden’s son. The issue of the quid pro quo is important to the impeachment hearings but may be less important globally than other issues Sondland and others have discussed with the committee. It turns out that neither Sondland or Energy Secretary or special envoy Kurt Volker wanted to deal with the president’s man.
At the heart of some of the Sondland testimony was the President’s wish that he and others work with Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani. “We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said. This seems to have deeply impacted policymaking. In one statement he indicated that a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president wouldn’t have gone through had they not played ball.
The Ukraine file included all the big players in the Trump administration. Vice-President Mike Pence was involved, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. It also involves key people at the embassy in Kiev, including William Taylor, the US envoy to Ukraine. David Holmes, an aide to Taylor at the State Department, also has spoken to the committee. According to VOA, Taylor overheard a conversation between Trump and Sondland in which it was indicated Trump didn’t care about Ukraine.
The whole affair with Ukraine now brings into the light how foreign policy is conducted in DC under this administration. First of all, it’s personal. Trump has a love-hate relationship with those close to him. When they are close and ostensibly loyal, he showers them with praise. But when those like Sondland testify then they are slammed as if the President never knew them.
The Sondland testimony also shed some light on Pompeo, who has tried to remain above the recent controversy. The State Department said that Sondland “never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the president was linking aid to investigations of political opponents.” Now Time, The New York Times and NBC have all focused on Pompeo, bringing unhelpful scrutiny to one of the survivors of the Trump administration. Pompeo, it should be recalled, moved from CIA to State and was not jettisoned along with others such as Rex Tillerson, H.R McMaster, John Kelly, James Mattis and Bolton.
Pompeo is a star of the administration. West Point graduate, Harvard, Congress, business, CIA, State. But the testimony seems to raise questions about why he didn’t know what was going on with Ukraine policy. Either he did and that presents a problem, or he didn’t and that makes him seem aloof at State.
The Ukraine file was managed in a manner similar to other foreign policy decisions in the administration. For instance Trump tends to prize personal relationships with foreign leaders. That’s not unique but he puts a lot of weight in these relationships. Some of these have included the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the French president Emanuel Macron, and the king of Jordan.
A lot of these relationships have not turned out that well, partly because Trump inspired some great expectations when he came to office and lots of leaders thought he will reverse former policy decisions. Trump has also made some interesting comments about leaders he liked, calling the Egyptian president “my favorite dictator,” for instance. It’s never entirely clear if Trump has gelled with some foreign leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The problem the US administration had at the beginning was that there was a belief in foreign countries that if they wanted policy changes they needed a direct and personal line to the president. Instinctually they seemed to understand that this would be more effective than going through official channels, such as the State Department, because media reports indicated that Trump’s inner circle had a problematic relationship with what some Trump supporters called “the deep state.” The administration was accused, in its first weeks, of not paying attention to intelligence agencies and spurning most status quo aspects of policy making.
The Sondland testimony has only reinforced that. Former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch also shed light on this problem. She underscored how Trump appeared to have insulted her when speaking with the Ukrainian president, calling her “the woman” and claiming she would be “going to go through some things.”
How do you work with the US when public perception is that the US president and his circle do not like or trust their own diplomats and may even be ignoring their own intelligence and military leaders? You go directly to the top. Turkey has been a mastermind at that, getting Trump to leave Syria twice, once after a December 2018 phone call and again after an October phone call. Of course, in the end, the US is like an oil tanker. You can’t turn it quickly. So the US didn’t leave Syria, yet. But the US envoy for Syria and the anti-ISIS war, James Jeffrey told Senators that he was not consulted by Trump on the Syria withdrawal. It doesn’t seem Trump consulted almost anyone either time.
What does that say about Pompeo and some of the others? Are they not consulted, or are they consulted and they give the appearance of not being. It does appear that Gulf regimes and other countries have sought ways into the administration’s graces via different channels. In the Ukraine testimony this was called an “irregular” channel. But Sondland said that it wasn’t “irregular” because Trump, Pompeo, Bolton, Perry, Pence, Mulvaney, were involved in the channel. Others were not included. The picture that emerges is not that there is an “irregular” channel but that the White House has generally relied on those it feels are trustworthy, which means several expanding circles around Trump.
This includes family, and political appointments, and less of the professional staff outside of that circle. The administration has a reason to be paranoid. It has enemies. The recent Ukraine issue has made it even more suspicious, with feelings that potential “whistleblowers” are listening to calls and leaking information. It’s not the first time explosive details were leaked. A condolence call to the family of a fallen soldier, or a meeting with the Russian ambassador, both in 2017, both seemed to involve leaks to media.
Two years later the administration’s way of doing foreign policy is being revealed. This was long suspected. But the dysfunctional nature of it and also the spur-of-the-moment reality has implications. For instance if Trump didn’t care about Ukraine, but cared more for something closer to home, that seems to mirror other decisions on Syria and other places. These tend to be transactional relationships.
In Trump’s favor is the fact that he always said he cares about “America first,” not these foreign issues. But foreign policy is one place Trump can affect change because that is a place the president has prerogatives. It’s also why Trump stepped back from airstrikes on Iran in June. But what happens when leaders feel the US doesn’t really care about their countries? What happens when they think military aid is transactional? What happens when they know that the US ambassador or envoy has no pull back home in DC?
The US appears to be short on ambassadors in general in some regions, such as the Middle East for the first two years of the administration. This leads to lack of consistency in policy. It also leads to spur-of-the-moment declarations about countries such as Venezuela and then the appearance that the US loses interest and moves on to other things. It means the US also empowers lower level people, in the Pentagon or State or CIA, to do things, but means the president may suddenly reverse policy, leaving locals feeling betrayed. This was the case in eastern Syria. It may leave Israel or Saudi Arabia or other countries wondering if the support they were promised is actually forthcoming.
The ramifications for world order under the current framework go far beyond the Sondland testimony. The House has merely opened up a huge window into the American strategic policy-making process and laid bare how it functions, or dysfunctions. Foreign countries, particularly friends of the US are concerned. Adversaries are learning from the testimony as well. Those like Iran now know they may hold more cards then they thought.
Similarly the leader of Venezuela has been able to outlast US threats precisely because he and his friends in Ankara and Moscow calculated that the US wouldn’t move against him. Almost three years into the Trump administration it has stabilized itself in some ways, but lack of policymaking consistency and a top-down team making policy leave it open to the kind of scandal that has come out of Ukraine. This has global implications.