Trump's foreign policy: the light and the darkness
August 11, 2017
As much as President Donald Trump enjoys taking a metaphorical sledgehammer to even the merest of slights against him, there is no reason to repeat the commander-in-chief’s behavior in judging his administration.
That there is so much darkness around Trump, his character and his intentions should not obscure the occasional rays of light emanating from his administration. In foreign policy, one can list a few achievements on this score. There was the appointment of Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In a few short months, she has done sterling work in confronting U.N. bias against Israel; exposing the various threats posed by Iran, North Korea and Russia; and shining a light on the forgotten civilian victims of conflicts from Africa to the Middle East.
There was the U.S. airstrike on the Syrian regime in response to its use of chemical weapons—not a strategy, to be sure, nor even that meaningful in a military sense, but at least a signal of a moral opprobrium that was conspicuously absent from the former Obama administration.
Then, this week, there was the placing of sanctions on Venezuela’s criminal dictator Nicolas Maduro, who has lost all legitimacy by usurping the democratically elected National Assembly and replacing it with a crony “constituent assembly.” Again, the sanctions on Maduro could have been tougher, but their very existence is a far cry from Obama’s belief that Maduro should be negotiated with—“We don’t want to do more sanctions,” he told a contact of mine in the Venezuelan opposition in 2013—rather than isolated and removed from power.
But none of this really tells us a great deal about how Trump thinks the world should be organized—assuming he thinks about that subject at all. Does he agree, for example, that the State Department should remove “democracy promotion” from its mission statement, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is rumored to want to do? Just going by his various statements on Syria’s Assad regime—running the spectrum from potential ally against Islamic State to the embodiment of the evil humans are capable of—one realizes that Trump could go either way. But one should also realize that as long as Trump remains ambiguous on the serial violations of tyrants, those same tyrants will interpret his lack of clarity as acquiescence, and push the envelope even more. This, in fact, is what men like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin are already doing—and with gusto.
On two critical fronts, North Korea and Iran—both fine examples of the dictum that war chooses you, and not the other way around—Trump is severely, even dangerously, wanting. North Korea now presents a credible nuclear threat to the continental U.S.—the culminating moment of the regime’s “Songun” ideology that puts North Korea’s military prowess before anything else, including the empty stomachs of thousands of ordinary North Koreans. If Trump is seriously considering using the military option against North Korea, as some congressional Republicans are suggesting, then we can only guess whether he will make the case for conflict to a worried American public, or whether he will announce any attack on Twitter, in order to retain the element of surprise.
This lack of systematic thinking, against the backdrop of the bitter factional divides Trump cultivates among his staff, is even more pronounced when it comes to dealing with Iran. As the result of a July 7 agreement between the U.S. and Russia creating four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, Iran and its proxies are becoming even more entrenched on Syrian territory with the full consent of the Russians, who have several-thousand troops on the ground there as well. Israel is furious with Trump for reaching an agreement that now presents a danger even more immediate than the Iranian nuclear program. One Israeli official put it starkly in an interview with Al-Monitor: “This is not just some disagreement. This is a real clash, pitting Israel against Russia and the United States. It reflects Israel’s conspicuous disappointment with the way that the Americans let Putin outmaneuver them, leading to the sellout of Israeli interests in the Golan Heights and Lebanon versus the Shi’ite axis.”
On this point, Trump needs to make clear to the Israelis that they will enjoy the full, unqualified support of the U.S. in the event of any confrontations with Russia as they carry out their mission to interdict Iranian weapons shipments. Trump should also tell Putin that the U.S. wants the Iranians and their proxies out of Syria, not least because groups like Hezbollah represent a threat as barbaric and potentially more deadly than Islamic State.
It is true that in these long, humid summer days, dominated as they are by the internal antics of the White House, such global dangers seem remote, with nobody wanting to believe that the worst-case scenarios are possible. But this is one reason why we trust our elected leaders to protect the national interest—and why, when they fail to deliver, we tend to find out only once it’s too late to matter.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.