Thanks to Trump Our Foreign Policy Isn’t in Crisis, It’s Recovering
The president has consistently favored disentanglement after 16 years of reckless hawkishness under Bush and Obama.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff recently issued a report titled “Diplomacy in Crisis: The Trump Administration’s Decimation of the State Department.” Oh, it’s horrid! Under Trump, 11 Assistant Secretary or Under Secretary posts are vacant or filled by acting officials. And career public servants—many of whom were actively involved in trying to impeach and “resist” the president—report “leadership exhibits a sense of disrespect and disdain for their work.”
Leaving aside the question of what an Under Secretary does and why previous administrations needed so dang many of them, one is tempted to say if this is what the real-world effect of American diplomacy in crisis is, please don’t fix anything: for the first time in almost two decades America has not started a new war. Cut back on some existing ones, too.
U.S. military fatalities during the Obama term were 1,912. Trump’s number to date is only 123. Damn uncomfortable truth. You can make yourself feel better by believing there’s no Trump Doctrine of winding back constant war, no thought that maybe America’s power is enhanced by not throwing a match into every bucket of gasoline—just Trump bumbling in the foreign policy darkness randomly added up to something. He’s the diplomatic equivalent of all those monkeys pecking away at a million typewriters and accidentally reproducing Hamlet. Whatever helps you sleep at night. But the tally in dollars and human lives saved is unambiguous and good.
With Elderly Caucasian Joe Biden heading up the alumni association seeking the White House like the last founding member of Blue Oyster Cult taking the “band” out on the road one more time, it might be fun to indulge in some Obama-Biden foreign policy nostalgia as a vision of things to come.
It’s easy to forget that in the foreign policy debate between Trump and Hillary way back in 2016 one of the catch phrases was “boots on the ground” in reference to how (not if) Clinton was going to war in Syria. Trump wanted no part of it, but Clinton was egged on by a June 2016 State Department dissent memo leaked to major news outlets demanding military strikes. The memo, signed by 51 diplomats who wanted more war yet whose identities somehow were not leaked, was almost certainly shepherded by former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Ford had earlier helped promote the destruction of Iraq as Obama’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad. He was pulled out of the job in Syria for his own safety after undiplomatically promoting the overthrow of the government.
Obama’s proto-war in Syria was minor compared to Iraq. After withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011 in time to get re-elected, in 2014 Obama partnered with Iran to put boots back on that same old ground. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to morph that conflict from a rescue mission (#SavetheYazidis) to a training mission, to bombing, to regular forces for what became Iraq War 3.0. American ground forces grew to some 6,000 on regular deployment, with an unknown number of Marines on “temporary duty” and not counted against the total.
Obama surged into Afghanistan, the same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize, sending 17,000 troops to raise the total in-country by 50 percent. Obama also had U.S. forces at war in Yemen, Pakistan, Mali, and Somalia. Goaded by Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice he attacked Libya, turning the country into a failed state and promoting one of the most tragic outflows of refugees into Europe in modern times, forever changing the demographics of the continent (Germany did not say thank you.) There was Benghazi. Luckily, time ran out before Obama-Biden could militarily intervene in Ukraine. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland, in a tapped call discussing manipulating political succession in Ukraine, said “F*ck the EU” showing how the administration valued its allies.
But in weighing Obama the Committed Warlord against Trump the Accidental Peacemaker, one cannot focus on policy alone. One needs to know the man.
Obama killed four American citizens by drone. Trump zero. After Obama ordered the killing of American Anwar al-Awlaki and later his teenage American son, Obama’s White House press secretary Robert Gibbs commented the kill shot on the kid was justified as he “should have had a more responsible father.” Obama personally led the Tuesday Oval Office reviews to choose who would die, telling aides in 2011: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.” Under Obama America wasn’t the world’s policeman. We were the world’s George Zimmerman.
At a time when militarization and Trump’s use of federal force in American cities are being questioned, Obama set the bar. Following the drone killings of Americans abroad Senator Rand Paul asked whether the president could authorize lethal force against an American citizen in the U.S. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder answered yes. He said he could imagine “an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.” Note to DJT: the legal justification is still on the books if needed in Portland.
That was the world in 2016. Donald Trump as president has started no new wars. Troop levels in Syria are down. Same for Iraq. Afghanistan has seen no new surges. Trump announced 12,000 American troops will be leaving Germany. The Global War on Terror, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and regime change in Syria played important roles in the 2016 election. They’re no longer in the lexicon, artifacts now of another era. Did we win? Are they postponed because of COVID? Or was it mostly a pile of bullsh*t from the beginning and Trump called the bluff?
It is a good thing a lot of nothing happened. John Bolton was the Bad Boy who was supposed to start wars with Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. He didn’t. The ending of the Iran nuclear agreement and the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem caused not much to happen. In the end Bolton had no home in an administration which didn’t want to go to war. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, along with State Department special envoy Brett McGurk, resigned over Trump’s decision to draw down in Syria. Mattis and McGurk too had no place in an administration which didn’t want more war.
Whereas Obama had given up on diplomacy with North Korea in 2012, Trump understood that you make peace by talking to your adversaries. His efforts were mocked, with the MSM declaring anything short of improbable full denuclearization meant Trump failed. But tensions cooled on the Peninsula, and both sides got a peek at how they can move forward in the future. It’s easy to forget before Trump’s diplomacy with Kim Jong Un the Council on Foreign Relations assessed the chances of nuclear war in Korea at 50 percent.
Of course Biden isn’t Obama. But neither is Trump, who spent the last four years disengaging from the policies Biden helped champion for eight. Biden’s foreign policy will be shaped by Obama alums. Only Satan knows the details of Susan Rice’s and Samantha Power’s pact with him, but they will both certainly have a role in a Biden administration promoting war as they did under Barack. We might even see the return of Bloody Hillary in some sort of elder statesman/special envoy role.
There are many domestic Trump policies people don’t like, and this isn’t meant to defend them. But it is worth noting how central war-making has been to mucking up America, whether it is savaging our economy with debt, diverting funds from some social program to war, fueling terrorism either directly through CIA funding, or indirectly by blowing up wedding parties and creating new enemies. America’s war-making has turned allies against us, burned too many times by American adventurism. For those concerned about America’s image, the most offensive Trump tweets have little to compare to Obama’s serial “accidental” bombings of schools and hospitals. So while the easy out is to rebut this with “But Trump…,” that ignores the centrality of war to American foreign policy and the benefits in walking that back.
It is possible the people know this. Trump’s 2016 win was influenced by his denouncement of the waste of America’s wars. Pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas especially was driven in part by people who agreed with his anti-war critique, voters who’d either served or saw their kids serve in Obama’s endlessly metastasizing wars. We’ll see who notices in November.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.