Trump's Doctrine in 2019 - Temporary, transactional and tactical

The decision to leave northern Syria was emblematic of this.

Turkish soldiers stand on top of tanks near the Turkish-Syrian border in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 15, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)
Turkish soldiers stand on top of tanks near the Turkish-Syrian border in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 15, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)
US President Donald Trump is shrugging off his impeachment in the House of Representatives, confident that in 2020 he will have a good year. He has finally hit his presidential stride after difficulties getting going in 2017 and 2018. This is because 2019 was the year he pioneered the third iteration of what should be seen as his Trump Doctrine, a way of doing policy and business that fits his personality and the few close advisers that remain around him.
The main theme of this year’s presidency was “transactions,” or a foreign policy that looks at America’s interests primarily as what can foreign countries give America, not what long-term interests the US might have. This policy is not interested in big ideas or ideologies, or long-term concepts like “containment” or “détente,” the way former administrations might have outlined. It’s purely about profits and trade-offs.
The decision to leave northern Syria was emblematic of this. Trump had sought to leave Syria since spring 2018 and said the US would leave in December 2018. But he was outmaneuvered by the Pentagon and slow-played by policy-makers. Each decision to leave Syria was not made by consulting US envoys and diplomats and generals. In fact Trump has sought to remove most of the generals that surrounded his first year in office. Gone are national security advisors H.R McMaster and Michael Flynn, defense secretary Jim Mattis and chief of staff John Kelly.
Trump’s decision to leave Syria was made after consultations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But in the background was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and State Department envoy James Jeffrey. It was actually the State Department that had come up with a policy that Trump best understood as the correct mission for the US in Syria. “Temporary, tactical and transactional.” This is how the State Department characterized US support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group that emerged from the mostly Kurdish-led war against Islamic State.
The US had partnered with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in 2015, but encouraged them to create the SDF to create a more multiethnic organization in eastern Syria. The US armed and trained the SDF, seeking to create a force of almost 100,000 fighters. It encouraged them to take Raqqa from ISIS and liberate all the areas east of the Euphrates, around one third of the country.
From Trump’s point of view there was no emotion in this battle. ISIS had to be defeated and Trump wanted to show that he could do what the Obama administration could not. In that sense, Trump had already fired missiles at the Assad regime in 2017 and 2018, to show that where Obama walked away from redlines, Trump would not. That was a developing Trump doctrine. The doctrine was first of all to dismantle the concept of America as the global policeman and create a purely America First policy. Not George H.W Bush’s “thousand points of light” and “new world order.” There would be one point of life and the world would have to sort out its own problems. This was behind Trump’s decision to leave various trade and environmental agreements and end support for international organizations, such as UNESCO and UNRWA. Let others pay for it. It was not America’s job to do nation-building, in Trump’s view. Let those countries rebuild themselves, and if they can’t, too bad.
But Trump was hampered his first year by secretary of states Rex Tillerson and McMaster, who had a more traditional view of the US’s role in the world. When Trump went to Saudi Arabia and encouraged Riyadh in its ambitions, a Gulf crisis with Qatar soon broke out. Tillerson wanted to patch it up and had naïve views about Iraq, suggesting the Iranian-backed militias there might “go home.” A rude awakening followed. Tillerson was fired. McMaster left.
What emerged in 2018 was Trump 2.0, which was made up of a new team. John Bolton as national security advisor and Pompeo as secretary of state. There was much here to spite the Obama years. Trump tore up the Iran deal, moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and the US set about pressuring China, seeking to work with North Korea and blustering about Venezuela. If Team Obama had done X, then the administration would do Y.
In Trump’s view, Team Obama had helped create the SDF and had been instrumental in laying the framework for a longer-term US commitment to eastern Syria. Thus the administration was skeptical of the country’s role in eastern Syria. Was it just a way to help the Assad regime and Iran? Convinced by some that a conspiracy was afoot, and that the US’s role in Syria had outraged Turkey, Trump’s State Department set on a course to find a way out of eastern Syria. They didn’t bother to tell the Pentagon, which spent more time training the SDF for a long-term role.
Trump fished around for financial commitments to eastern Syria from the Gulf and for European commitments to boost troop levels there. They even put a price on the head of senior PKK members to assuage Turkey. But overall the administration couldn’t thread the needle. The US walked away from northern Syria and a Turkish offensive caused 200,000 people to flee. They had trusted the US to stay, and found out how brutal the “transactional” US role could become. They were a transaction. And there was no profit in them. The US said it would stay to protect oil in southern Syria, a fig leaf that was sold by the Pentagon to keep Syria from becoming a total disaster. Israel, which fears Iranian entrenchment in Syria, was pleased to not see a total US withdrawal. Turkey and Russia benefit.
Then in May 2019 there was a crisis with Iran and discussions about a deal to leave Afghanistan. Here the administration did two surprising things. Trump chose not to conduct airstrikes in June in response to the downing of a US drone. It appeared the US was walking away from redlines. Iranian-backed groups fired rockets at US forces in Syria, downed the drone and attacked oil tankers.
There was no response, except more sanctions. Bolton, who had talked tough on Iran, left the administration. Iran is under pressure, but benefited from knowing the US won’t respond as long as US lives are not put in danger. Thus Iran can continue its role in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The White House message to allies in the region is: If you want to fight Iran, you can do whatever you like, just don’t expect us to do it for you. That means unlike the previous US administration, which would restrain Israel from a conflict, the Trump administration hints at clear support. But that support is transactional as well. It’s not ideological and not part of some grand strategy.
The transactional Trump presidency of 2019 led the administration into the Ukraine mess. When foreign policy is viewed as temporary, tactical and transactional, then a country like Ukraine is not seen as a key Western ally as part of long-term influence. It is seen as a place to make money and get things done. How do you get things done with Ukraine?
Ukraine wants Western support, particularly from the US. So the administration is accused of swapping aid for asking Ukraine to get dirt on political opponents. Trump says this isn’t impeachable and that its largely a product of a kind of “deep state” of spooks and Obama holdovers listening in on conversations and leaks and whistle-blowers. But the facts are clear, Trump’s own administration appeared to try to go around its ambassador and achieve results not through long-term policy goals, but short term quid pro quo.
Not every transaction can work out. The Afghan deal fell apart in 2019 and the sides had to go back to the table. Discussions with North Korea have not gone well, leaving the US begging the North to “get it done.” Any deal with Iran, explored via Oman meeting with Pompeo and meetings in Japan, have not led to fruition. Congress has been tough on Turkey and Russia with sanctions over a pipeline and an S-400 deal. Trump begrudgingly signed these sanctions into law as part of a defense package. And the US wants a deal with South Korea to get them to pay for the US troop presence there.
All in all, the administration is less reactive and more confident than it was in 2017 and 2018. Those years appeared to bring more weekly crises. Despite impeachment, Trump is confident. The Democrats don’t have the votes and they have a presidential campaign to worry about. Poll numbers for Trump also appear to be improving. He’s on message, calling out the legacy media and claiming that his political opponents are conspiring against him.
Some of the pushback even gains traction. For instance, in the Ukraine controversy, Team Trump pushed a story about Ukraine meddling in US elections, turning what is ostensibly a US ally, into an enemy. The administration tends to do this whenever there is pushback in Congress on its policies.
For instance, suggesting the US abandoned the Kurds led to accusations that Kurds had not helped the US in the Second World War. Considering that the US failed to help Kurds after the 2017 referendum in Iraq and then enabled an offensive against them in northern Syria, the administration has been particularly harsh on a group of people in Syria and Iraq who support the US. The administration doesn’t seem to want loyal allies, it wants transactions and temporary friends it can do business with.
In this sense the administration is threading a very realist American tradition blended with 1920s isolationism and pro-business policies. That means that the US doesn’t speak in terms of values. No one is “making the world safe for democracy” in the Woodrow Wilsonian approach. There is no “evil empire” or “axis of evil” as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush coined terms for enemies. There is no idealism of JFK about the world being half free and half slave.
Insofar as the administration caring about human rights in places like Iran, it only does so through a lens of Iran being an enemy state. It’s not about universal human rights. This blends Pompeo’s worldview with Trump’s as the two key figures leading US policy today. That could change in a moment with a Pompeo departure. But what will be left is a Trump doctrine whittled down to its absolute sharpest. Unencumbered by generals, who proved themselves to not be the mythological warriors Trump imagined them to be, Trump has focused on pardoning low-level army officers accused of abuses to try to channel populism in the armed forces as he did in the public at large. Trump is suspicious of bureaucrats and government agencies. He is critical of his own ambassadors, unless he picked them, and even if he did pick them he doesn’t seem to have much faith in them.
To the administration’s credit there is no massive crisis, no rise of ISIS, no new failed states or massive wars. Yet. The transactional America in some ways leaves its enemies able to exploit US withdrawal and makes friends ask America what more they can do. It also encourages countries to fend for themselves. Some may be more reticent to take risks knowing that the US isn’t going to be there to come help sort things out.
But this also fuels smaller wars, such as proxy wars, like the one in Libya. US cynicism tells authoritarian regimes they can get away with abuses. This isn’t the 1990s. There will be no humanitarian intervention. In that sense Trump has continued not only some of the trends of the Obama administration in reducing the US role, but has also sought to reverse the idealism of the two Bush presidencies. The only confusion foreign countries have is whether this new transactional America is primarily a transactional presidency centered on Trump, with a Congress that is more skeptical, or if America’s global retreat is a done deal for the future.