US President Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the North Korean side of the border at the village of Panmunjom in Demilitarised Zone. File/ Associated Press
Tracy Wilkinson, Tribune News Service
President Donald Trump starts the new year with his foreign policy record pretty much intact: 0 for 3.
None of his most championed causes — a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, disarmament of nuclear North Korea, the fall of Iran’s leadership — has produced desired results. To the contrary, especially with this week’s storming of the US Embassy compound in Baghdad, those endeavours have suffered considerable setbacks.
Trump can point to a handful of accomplishments around the globe, such as the military raid that ended in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the House passage last month of a revamped trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
But at least two volatile crises loom large, Iran and North Korea. And rather than resolving long-standing conflicts that Trump once boasted would be simple to fix, he has been shown the limitations of both his power of persuasion and his notion that he can throw money, or the promise of profits, at a problem to solve it. That is especially the case in the Middle East, where there are strong sectarian or nationalist sentiments, or in a dictatorship like North Korea, where the leader is impervious to popular demands.
Trump branded his foreign policy as “America first.” Its hallmarks include trial balloons, unpredictability and treaty busting —and the desire to keep the world on its toes. He has alienated allies, courted adversaries and reduced US troops in Syria, something that came at the expense of Kurdish allies who were killed when Turkey invaded to fill the breach.
Unlike most previous presidencies, Trump conducts a “top-down” policy that eschews the usual inter-agency deliberation examining the pros and cons of actions, and considering potential collateral damage.
“The president is a big believer that unpredictability gives him power which would solve a number of American challenges around the world,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official under President George W. Bush and global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It gives him some power, but there are negatives.”
Those include baffling foe and friend alike, as well as the American public and the foreign policy establishment, and creating a sense of unreliability.
With North Korea, despite becoming the first sitting president to step into the country, and two historic summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump has not reduced Kim’s arsenals or stopped construction of nuclear infrastructure by Pyongyang. In fact, the two sides have yet to even define “denuclearisation.” After apparent rapprochement, rhetoric from North Korea has again heated up, and the testing of short-range missiles has intensified.
On the first day of the year, as Kim was threatening “shocking, offensive measures” and to unveil a new “strategic” weapon, Trump was again praising the North Korean.
“Look, he likes me, I like him, we get along,” Trump said at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “But he did sign a contract, he did sign an agreement talking about denuclearization ... . I think he’s a man of his word so we’re going to find out, but I think he’s a man of his word.”
In fact, the “contract” that Trump referred to is only a vaguely worded agreement to shared goals of removing nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.
For Trump, some analysts say, his goal is not to resolve a problem but simply to appear to be tackling it, often without an enunciated goal.
“He looked at Iran and said he’d be tough. So he looks tough. He’ll declare: Mission accomplished!” said Daniel Byman, a former government official who is an associate dean at Georgetown University. “I don’t think he cares too much about outcomes.”
The attempt to isolate and cripple the Iranian government, following the decision to withdraw from the landmark Iran nuclear deal, has been one of the few consistent strategies in Trump’s foreign policy. The administration, in a “maximum-pressure campaign,” has placed tough sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, banks, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and scores of individuals. The measures have floored Iran’s economy.
Yet the “malign behaviour” that the administration says it wants to halt has apparently continued. The US blamed Iran for rocket attacks in September on Saudi oil-production facilities but did not retaliate militarily. On Dec. 27, a barrage of rocket fire killed an American contractor on an Iraqi base in northern Iraq. It followed a sustained campaign blamed on Iraqi Shiite fighters from the pro-Iranian militia Kataib Hezbollah.
The US responded, launching airstrikes that killed 25 people and wounded many more. The action infuriated Iraqis from the government, and across social and political lines. It led to this week’s attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad, which was quelled, for the moment, by US military reinforcements dispatched to the site.
Trump boasted the embassy was protected, saying there would be “no Benghazi” on his watch, alluding to US facilities attacked in Libya in 2012, where the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed. The incidents are hardly analogous: Libya was a lawless country and the buildings attacked were relatively vulnerable; the massive, 104-acre US Embassy compound in Baghdad sits in a heavily fortified Green Zone, off-limits to most Iraqis.
That the Baghdad rampage could take place owed in part to the refusal of Iraqi security forces to stop the attackers, US officials said, and underscores the failure of Iraq and the US to reduce Iran’s presence in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday acknowledged the problem.
Iraqi leaders must “get the Iranian influence out of the country,” Esper said. He warned that the Pentagon had “indications” that another attack on the embassy or other US facilities may be planned, and said the US government was prepared to act “preemptively.”
“The game has changed,” Esper said. Speaking alongside Esper at a Pentagon briefing was Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the more than 750 Marines and paratroopers rushed to Baghdad constituted adequate force.
“There is sufficient combat power there, air and ground, that anyone who attempts to overrun that will run into a buzz saw,” he said.
Kataib Hezbollah, for its part, suggested that its withdrawal from the embassy grounds was a tactical retreat and that it would begin working on legislation to oust “criminal invading foreign forces.”
Elsewhere in the Mideast, Trump’s efforts have stalled. After pledging to come up with a peace deal for Israel and the Palestinians to succeed where all before him failed, the president has largely abandoned the effort.
The last draft offered Palestinians economic benefits if they put aside for now their statehood aspirations — a nonstarter for most Palestinians.
Trump thus far has shown no signs of switching gears in his handling of these conflicts, even as the next weeks will prove daunting, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Thursday on Twitter. According to Haass, Trump faces a crisis with Iran because he rejected diplomacy and one with North Korea because “he asked too much of diplomacy.”
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