by GIL BARNDOLLAR
Donald Trump came into office nearly four years ago promising to be the most disruptive foreign policy president in decades. On the campaign trail he had attacked both competitors like China and longtime allies, boasted that he knew more about war than the generals, and promised an “America First” foreign policy.
On a debate stage in South Carolina during the 2016 campaign, Trump attacked the invasion of Iraq and the president who ordered it — points that should have been obvious a full decade earlier but still qualified as sacrilege in the Republican Party of 2016.
The majority of senior GOP national security figures denounced Trump, even after he became their party’s nominee. Thanks at least in part to his foreign policy heresies, Trump defeated over a dozen other Republican candidates, broke both the Bush and Clinton dynasties, and won perhaps the most shocking presidential election in American history.
For advocates of foreign policy realism and restraint, November 8, 2016 was the high point. But both at home and abroad, Trump has since led and governed as a mostly conventional Republican, albeit with an extra dollop of incompetence and chaos. America First has become little more than a slogan and an attitude. With a few important exceptions, the reality of President Trump has not matched the rhetoric of candidate Trump.
The Middle East
President Trump inherited three major wars and several smaller counterterrorism campaigns in the Greater Middle East from President Obama. His record in handling them has been a mixed one: he is the first American president since Jimmy Carter to not start a war, but he has ended none of the conflicts he was saddled with.
Like Obama, Trump folded to “his” generals on Afghanistan, allowing himself to be talked into a small surge of forces that failed to change any of the underlying realities of America’s longest war. Unlike his predecessor, Trump seems willing to acknowledge those realities. His withdrawal agreement with the Taliban may be a fig leaf, but it is a long-overdue recognition that American forces have little reason to remain in Afghanistan.
It is with Iran that Trump has come closest to foreign policy disaster and yet, paradoxically, has demonstrated prudence at the eleventh hour. Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018, exiting an agreement that had broad international support and had constrained Iranian nuclear ambitions. The “maximum pressure” policy that followed has ravaged Iran’s economy but not Iran’s proxies, who remain ascendant in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.
Despite creating this problem, Trump ultimately turned away from war three times: after the Iranian downing of a U.S. Global Hawk drone in June 2019, in the wake of the Iranian missile strikes on the Saudi oil refineries at Abqaiq and Khurais that September, and after a symbolic, bloodless Iranian missile strike on a U.S. base in response to the U.S. killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January. All three near-misses were due to Trump’s own decisions — cases of an arsonist deciding to extinguish his own blaze.
Nonetheless, the president ultimately chose to turn away from war, in line with the wishes of the vast majority of Americans. That aligning with 87 percent of the country qualifies as an act of political courage is a testament to the size of the chasm separating most Americans from their politicians and foreign policy elites.
Yet “ending endless wars” has thus far amounted to little more than an applause line for the credulous and the craven. Like Infrastructure Week, bringing the troops home is always just out of reach. There are more U.S. service members in the Middle East now than there were when Trump took office. Even in Afghanistan, the numbers are virtually identical to what they were in January 2017.
Trump entered office as NATO skeptic. He seems to have instinctively felt that alliance members were free riding on the U.S. security blanket — which in fact they are. Many in Washington feared he might damage or even destroy the Atlantic alliance.
Yet in practice, Trump has merely settled on a more abrasive version of the standard U.S. president’s NATO playbook: browbeat the other alliance members to spend more on collective defense while expanding the alliance with ever more free riders. Montenegro and North Macedonia have joined on Trump’s watch, despite their tiny armies and the president’s fear of being drawn into a war by their “very aggressive people.” Even the recent announcement of a partial U.S. troop withdrawal from Germany is something of a shell game.
Promises have been made and European defense spending has ticked up, but with budgets busted by COVID,. even that minimal progress will disappear. The United Kingdom, one of the alliance’s heavyweights, is now talking about mothballing all of its tanks.
Despite — or perhaps because of — his 2016 campaign’s contacts with Russian officials, the Trump administration has probably been the most hardline on Russia since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. American troops continue to patrol the undefendable Baltics while American weapons arm Ukrainians fighting Russian proxies. A continent away, American and Russian forces have had several near-misses and one unofficial battle.
The realist objective of at least creating some daylight between Russia and China has apparently been discarded, in favor of maintaining a bankrupt status quo in Europe that diverts American resources and attention from other, more serious security challenges.
It is on China that Trump deserves the greatest credit for actually making a break with the assumptions and failed policies of his predecessors. Trump has long dissented from the free trade consensus that immiserated many Americans and made the country demonstrably less secure. His National Security Strategy rightly recognized that China is a far graver threat to America than terrorism. But there is little evidence yet of serious economic decoupling, even in sectors critical to national security. Fixing the dysfunctional U.S. Navy has barely begun.
COVID, regardless of its origins in China, has demonstrated anew that national security starts at home. America’s inept handling of the pandemic has gravely undermined faith in U.S. competence even among close U.S. allies.
Luckily, the Chinese have not done themselves any favors either, alienating potential fence sitting nations through bullying “wolf warrior diplomacy” and regular skirmishes with neighbors both at sea and on land. As Harvard professor Stephen Walt has noted, the United States and China seem to be competing to see who can hemorrhage power and influence faster. Bismarck’s old adage about the United States’ special providence may yet hold.
What accounts for the Trump’s failures as a foreign policy president? The old cliché that “personnel is policy” best explains the president’s inability to effect the agenda he campaigned on. Whether they are conventional hawks like the retired general James Mattis or zealous ideologues like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s key advisors and appointees have nearly always steered him back to the comforting cant of American primacy, power projection, and “leadership.”
Iran is perhaps the best example. Trump evinces no hostility for either the Iranian regime or the Iranian people and openly pines for some kind of agreement. But by surrounding himself with ultrahawks and de facto foreign lobbyists like former national security advisor John Bolton, Trump and the United States remain one incident away from a disastrous war in a secondary region with a third-tier power.
Trump’s erratic judgment and refusal to do the reading have also had real costs. His apparent yellow light to Libyan general Khalifa Haftar may have been a final factor in Haftar’s unsuccessful assault on Tripoli last year. Trump’s reversal on withdrawal from Syria has left Americans and Syrians with the worst of both worlds: a minor stake in someone else’s civil war, enough to do little more than obstruct. U.S. forces maintain a small desert redoubt at al-Tanf and control much of Syria’s oil — apparently making the president happy while impeding a Syrian reconstruction efforts that even U.S. partners are eager to join.
As both a candidate and a president, Donald Trump was willing to challenge America’s national security elite and give expression to the inchoate foreign policy desires of a majority of Americans. Given the oppressive orthodoxy of “the blob,” this is no small thing. His willingness to give peace a chance and negotiate with the likes of North Korea and the Taliban is welcome, however meager its yield. The Overton Window on American foreign policy has moved since 2016.
Yet as John Bolton’s boyhood hero, Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, told his teammates before every game: “Talk is cheap.” There has been little action to match Trump’s words. For those hoping for a fundamental reappraisal of America’s role and goals in the world, the Trump administration has been a disappointment to date.
Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and Senior Research Fellow the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.