Trump’s erratic foreign policy has left him in a tight corner
Leaders facing serious domestic crises can try to distract public dissatisfaction by embarking on foreign adventures which can then be presented as a victory. It is a policy which can, at times, work very well. For Donald Trump, however, the scope for this is rather limited.
The US president announced in the foreign policy section of his State of the Union address that he will hold another summit with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea. Talks are being held with the Taliban over Afghanistan. In Syria, he claimed Isis has been defeated under his command. Nearer home, he decried Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela, putting the blame for the troubles there on leftist policies.
There were no overt military threats against Venezuela or anywhere else. Trump has been less inclined to use the armed forces than most of his predecessors in the White House. The US did carry out strikes in Syria after the Assad regime’s chemical attack in April last year, but that was after Trump had backed himself into a corner, before speaking to his officials, by tweeting “missiles are coming” after seeing pictures from Ghouta on television.
In the event, US diplomats and military gave the Russians enough detailed early warning for them and the Syrian regime to ensure that the missiles largely hit bases which had been evacuated, with the result that casualties were minimal.
Trump, a Vietnam draft dodger, had a tendresse for the military, as was reflected in the sheer number of former generals he appointed to the administration.
But they have now gone, the love affair is over, and his continuous traducing of those who risked their lives for their country – like the late John McCain – has led to distrust and disdain among the military and intelligence services. One of the defining images from the State of the Union speech was that of the ranks of senior commanders sitting in stonyfaced silence.
There are hawks in the Trump administration, most notably the national security adviser John Bolton – another Vietnam draft dodger – who remains a supporter of the Iraq invasion and has been consistent in threatening regime change on perceived enemies. But the president himself, and his core constituency, show little aptitude for foreign wars.
Trump, unlike congress, has been careful to avoid making combative statements about Russia, even after events like the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury, and it is highly unlikely there will be any armed confrontation with the Kremlin over Ukraine or potential flashpoints in eastern Europe.
Critics say the main reason for this is Trump’s alleged secret Kremlin connection. Special envoy Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the president was the Muscovian candidate in the US election continues. Trump’s regular sniping at Nato while failing to criticise Russia is seen as another manifestation of this alleged Moscow link. The issue will be a lot clearer by the time he comes to Britain for the 70th anniversary conference of Nato in December. The Mueller inquiry is expected to be finished by then and the report submitted.
The summit with Kim Jong-un, to be held in Vietnam at the end of this month, was the main event unfurled by Trump. But this had been well trailed and expected: and it is the second one; the novelty factor of the first meeting is no longer there.
There is also the additional problem that little was achieved at the first summit in Singapore. That is not the way Trump presented it of course. “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would, right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” he said. This is untrue, there is nothing to suggest that either Barack Obama or Kim Jong-un were preparing for war. It was Trump who threatened war on coming into office with tweets of unleashing “fire and fury” and annihilating the country.
The tweets escalated tension and raised the prospect of sparking a conflict, but senior members of the administration, like then defence secretary James Mattis, ensured that matters did not get out of hand.
Trump held up the Singapore summit as a great triumph for his policy and the US. In reality he appeared to have been outmanoeuvred by Kim Jong-un. North Korea has not conducted new nuclear tests, but it has refused to dismantle its nuclear programme or allow international inspections. We also know, from UN monitors, that it is working hard to ensure its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities are not destroyed by military strikes.
If the president does make real progress in the Vietnam summit and obtain verifiable steps from North Korea on its nuclear programme then he could rightly claim a great diplomatic success. Whether that happens is another matter. John Bolton had suggested Pyongyang should follow the Libyan model of disarmament under which Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gave up his country’s nuclear programme in return for security guarantees. We all know what happened to Gaddafi, driven from power with western intervention and lynched. Kim Jong-un could be forgiven for feeling a degree of trepidation about taking that particular path.
Trump pointed out in his speech that 7,000 US troops had died and $7 trillion was spent in two decades of wars in the Middle East. This is, of course, a terrible waste of American blood and treasure. He did not mention the manifold more people of that region who had died in these conflicts or the sheer devastation which had been caused.
The Trump administration has done next to nothing to stop the wars. The president’s first official visit after getting to office was to the Gulf to openly sell arms which are being used in conflicts, including the carnage in Yemen. And the enduring problem of Israel and Palestine has actually worsened under his tenure, with the moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The president wants to bring the troops home something that will be approved by the American public. But it would not be easy, as President Obama, who had the same aim, found out. Trump effectively declared victory over Isis in his speech, pointing out the huge swathe of ground lost by the Islamists. “When I took office, Isis controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Just two years ago. Today, we have liberated virtually all of the territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty monsters,” he said.
In reality, much of that gain had already occurred under the Obama administration. And the fact remains that even if the caliphate is more or less over, Isis remains in the field – and a sudden withdrawal of American troops, as he proposes, would allow them and their allies to re-establish themselves. That is certainly the view of the American military as well as senior members of congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, who are putting steps in place to prevent a unilateral pullout by the president from Syria.
Congress wants to prevent a similar retreat in Afghanistan. In 2003, a year after the Taliban regime had fallen, American and British civil and military resources were moved away from the country, just at the time when there was a desperate need for stability and reconstruction to be poured into the bloody quagmire of Iraq.
The Taliban, fed and watered by their sponsors, elements of the Pakistani armed forces and secret police, the ISI, came back across the border in this security vacuum and established themselves. The Americans and the British had to redeploy in vast numbers in 2006 to try to turn the tide. Pulling out US forces now may well mean they would have to come back in future.
One needs to recognise it is entirely right that the Americans talk to the Taliban. But the Afghan government must also play a part in this and not be excluded as they are being now. The aim of the talks is powersharing with the Taliban; the feared scenario is a power struggle between the various shades of Islamists now in the country.
That is certainly the view of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who invoked the memory of his predecessor, Mohammad Najibullah, who was dragged away from the UN compound where he had taken refuge, and tortured, murdered and left hanging from a lamp post in 1996 by the Taliban after they had taken over Kabul. “The victims of the war are Afghans, so the initiative for peace should be in the hands of the Afghans,” said Ghani recently. “We insist on [safety] measures because we are aware of the experience of Dr Najib. We all know he was deceived. The UN guaranteed him peace, but it ended up with a disaster.”
The talks are likely to continue. But there have been talks before which have got nowhere, and there is a long way to go before one knows whether they will lead to a resolution of this long war.
Claiming to have started “an economic miracle” in America, Trump wanted to warn that it can be derailed by “foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations … If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just cannot work that way!”
The repeated references to the investigations reveal the real apprehension of the president, of the dark cloud hanging over him with the threat of impeachment. It is not, one feels, Syria or Afghanistan or Venezuela which will be the foreign state that has the most impact on what happens to the Trump presidency, but Vladimir Putin’s Russia.