Policy goals are one thing. Fulfilling them is another

Business Times, May 15, 2019

by Leon Hadar

It would be difficult to deny that Donald Trump ran for the presidency in 2016 by challenging the foreign policy consensus in Washington, DC - one that has been pursued by all his predecessors, has dominated the thinking on Capitol Hill and in government agencies, and which has brought together Democratic and Republican lawmakers, and liberal and conservative pundits.

That foreign policy consensus reflected a commitment to an internationalist foreign policy agenda and was based on the axiom that the United States has an obligation to maintain the international order, to deter rogue states and aggressors, and to spread its liberal-democratic values around the world.

Candidate Trump had blasted during his presidential campaign the decision by his Republican predecessor to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein - a move backed by leading Democratic politicians - and pledged that under his presidency, there would not be any attempts to do regime changes and nation-building; he further said that he would commence a withdrawal of US troops from the Middle East and around the world and would be willing to make deals with unsavoury regimes as long as those served core US national interests.

Internationalist critics bashed the new president as an "isolationist"; those adhering to the Realpolitik approach welcomed his embrace of a more national-interest-based strategy.

And, indeed, for a while it seemed as though realism and not idealism was driving the president's foreign policy agenda: He reiterated his commitment to complete the withdrawal of US ground troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, vetoed plans to intervene militarily in the civil war in Syria and to try ousting its leader Bashar el-Assad. He also demanded that US military allies start doing more to protect their security interests, and stated his intentions to do business with authoritarian leaders in Russia and China.

But President Trump has faced a major obstacle in trying to advance his foreign policy and national security goals: He may have wanted to change policies, but then he has also inherited from his predecessors the international system that has evolved since 1945. This system is not only resistant to change, but is basically an American creation into which Washington had invested economic and military resources in order to sustain it.

Moreover, almost all the diplomats, generals, intelligence officials (that is, the American foreign policy establishment) that were available to President Trump to help him carry out his policies had spent their careers (and had vested interests) in maintaining the current international system - and this includes supporting the Iraq war and other regime changes and nation-building.

The bottom line is that President Trump has faced major obstacles in trying to pursue his policy goals. He had assumed that when it came, for example, to dealing with North Korea and Iran, all he needed to do in trying to achieve his long-term goals of disengaging militarily from the Korean Peninsula and from the Middle East was to exhibit toughness vis-à-vis North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un and the Ayatollahs in Iran, including by projecting readiness to use military power. That would force them to the negotiating table and to make deals with the American president.

This Trumpist vision of transactional diplomacy may - or may not - work in negotiating trade deals, but does not consider the complex reality of international relations. When it comes to issues of war and peace, more is required than just negotiating skills, personal chemistry with foreign leaders and economic considerations in order to overcome differences rooted in history and culture.

Hence, Mr Trump assumed that playing a game of chicken with President Kim and exchanging fist bumps with him during their 2018 summit in Singapore would lead directly to an agreement and a resolution of the nuclear crisis with Pyongyang.

That this did not happen was demonstrated by the collapse of the talks during the next summit in Hanoi. That outcome made it clear that President Trump may not be able to change the diplomatic game and its rules that reflect a long-time commitment - going back to the start of the Cold War - to maintain US military presence in the Korean Peninsula and to operate under the assumption that there would be no change in North Korea's determination to maintain its nuclear military capacity without a regime change in Pyongyang.

In fact, that has remained the view of National Security Adviser John Bolton and of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and of most of those dealing with the issue in Washington. For years, they have insisted that a nuclear deal with North Korea is nothing more than a fantasy and that nothing will happen until the regime collapses.

In short, President Trump is counting on officials whose views are diametrically opposed to his to carry out his policies.

Secretary Pompeo and Mr Bolton have also been responsible for implementing President Trump's Iran policy and who (like in the case of North Korea) have been long-term advocates of regime change in Tehran, even if that would require the use of American military power, a view shared by most Republican politicians.

President Trump's decision to revoke the nuclear deal that the Obama administration had signed with Iran and to provide support to countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel, which regard the Islamic Republic as a strategic threat, reflected his goal of negotiating a "better deal" with Iran while counting on the Israelis and the Saudis to counter Iranian expansionism.

But according to President Trump's foreign policy officials and Republican lawmakers, no deal with Iran would be possible without the ousting of the Ayatollahs from power. Secretary Pompeo presented a list of demands that Tehran would need to fulfil - with the clear understanding that the Iranians would reject them - before the Americans would even agree to open talks with them.

He also announced recently a new series of sanctions on Iran that - together with continuing American efforts to curtail Iran's oil exports - is devastating the Iranian economy.

The result has been exchanges of threats and counter-threats between the US and Iran, including reports that Iran was planning terrorist attacks against American targets, and growing military tensions between the two countries that some worry could lead to a military confrontation.

This, in turn, may end up with exactly the outcome that President Trump promised would not happen after he entered the White House: Producing another costly regime change and dragging the US into another military quagmire in the Middle East.

Closer to home in Venezuela, the Bolton-Pompeo duo has promised President Trump that tough talk (including threats of US military intervention) would leave the country's leftist and authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro no choice but to leave office, so that power is transferred peacefully to Juan Guaidó, Washington's favoured candidate: "Do not worry, Mr President. This will be a piece of cake. President Maduro would be out without the need to use American military power. A cost-free deluxe regime change in the neighbourhood." That was what President Trump was shown in the movie preview.

But then - surprise, surprise - there are no signs that that movie (as well as other films starring North Korea's President Kim and the Iranian Ayatollahs) would end anytime soon, and with a happy ending. And this suggests that unless President Trump resists the pressure from his foreign policy advisors - who are also opposed to withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria - he could be sucked into new military interventions around the world, engaging in the kind of regime changes and nation building that he loathes.