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When ‘America First’ Becomes Negotiable

The most remarkable thing about Trump's foreign policy is how much it's like his predecessors'.

As we near the halfway point of President Donald Trump’s first term, U.S. foreign policy is being widely portrayed as off the rails. Yet when one looks past the Trumpian bluster, the predetermined media narrative, and the serial incompetence of an understaffed and often inexperienced administration, one finds a foreign policy agenda that differs far more in style than in substance from its predecessors’.

Donald Trump ran for president as a foreign policy Buchananite in all but name. Thoughhe made pro forma genuflections before the altars of primacy and American military supremacy, Trump repeatedly bemoaned America’s disastrous interventions in the Greater Middle East. The South Carolina Republican presidential debate in February 2016 seemed like a watershed moment: Trump attacked George W. Bush’s war leadership and proclaimed the Iraq war a disaster, a bold stance in a Republican Party that still refused to acknowledge reality more than a decade after the invasion. Despite being booed by some in the audience, Trump won the state easily and drove “Low Energy” Jeb Bush out of the race.

Candidate Trump offered a radical break with the U.S. foreign policy establishment. He said was NATO obsolete and warned of the danger of a third world war with Russia. He rightly declared the Libyan intervention to be another fiasco, and an illegal one at that. Hillary Clinton, by comparison, bragged about Muammar Gaddafi’s death and compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler. Foreign policy realists and restrainers were understandably receptive to a Trump presidency, warts and all.

Much of Trump’s rhetoric revolved around the undeniable fact that our allies are prospering under an American security umbrella they do not pay enough to support. He famously said that the United States should “take Iraq’s oil” as payback for the American blood and treasure invested there. Trump seemed to sum up his view of America in the world when he told The Washington Post in March 2016: “We certainly can’t afford to do this anymore.”

Two years later, it is clear that “America First” was negotiable. U.S. troops aren’t coming home, entangling alliances are expanding not contracting, and American client states are even more likely to drag us into war in the Middle East. When one pushes the media and the president’s personality out of view, the most remarkable thing about Trump’s foreign policy is how unremarkable it is. Beneath the rhetoric, American foreign policy these past two years has remained shackled to the traditional pillars of primacy, interventionism, and hubris.

Afghanistan: The war in Afghanistan offers the clearest evidence of business as usual in American foreign policy. The administration’s brief attempt at unconventional thinking on Afghanistan was the risible Prince plan, whereby the U.S. would continue to prosecute the war but outsource it to a “modern East India Company.” Erik Prince, formerly head of the Blackwater security firm and more recently a logistics provider in Africa and trainer of Chinese security services, proposed to turn Afghanistan over to a brigade of contractors and a “viceroy” with total command of the U.S. war effort. Though many of Prince’s critiques of the current strategy are sound, mercenaries cannot fix a country with massive culture and governance problems. This idea was thankfully rejected. More creative thinking, like a real effort to work with Russia, China, and Pakistan to stabilize Afghanistan, or a withdrawal and a pledge to return in force if necessary, appears to have been unwelcome.

Instead, a vaunted new strategy offered little substantive change. U.S. forces in Afghanistan were increased by 4,000 troops, and the number of airstrikes shot up. But the situation there has only gotten worse. Casualties for both civilians and Afghan security forces have risen dramatically in the past year while Pakistan still shelters and abets the Taliban. The Afghan military is still not able to hold territory without U.S. assistance. In fact, independent assessors like the Long War Journal believe that nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are either under Taliban control or contested. The Department of Defense even briefly trotted out enemy body counts as a metric for progress before The New York Times rightly invoked the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile, 17 years after 9/11, the Pentagon claims there are now upwards of 20 terror groups operating in Afghanistan, including what’s left of ISIS, the heir to al Qaeda. For that reason, Americans are told we cannot leave.

Europe: Early in his presidency Trump briefly declined to endorse NATO’s Article 5, provoking predictable hysteria on both sides of the Atlantic. A year later, he gave America’s European allies a tongue-lashing in Brussels, calling them delinquent in their contributions to collective defense. Germany received special attention, with the president labeling Europe’s largest economy a “captive of Russia.” In Helsinki a few days later, Trump appeared to dismiss charges of Russian meddling in U.S. elections, igniting yet another firestorm of criticism. Back stateside, he concurred during an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that starting a war over Montenegro, NATO’s newest member, would be folly.

Yet when the dust finally settled, little had changed. The United States continues to support Ukraine in its war against Russian-backed separatists, even selling Kiev Javelin anti-tank missiles and other “lethal aid” that the more cautious President Barack Obama had refused to provide. Sanctions against Russia pile up, dampening that country’s long-term economic development. European armies remain largely impotent while mindless NATO expansion continues apace. Despite what he said on Fox News, Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate had already signed off on the addition of Montenegro (and its tiny army of fewer than 2,000 soldiers) to NATO in 2017. Macedonia, another mouse that roared, is next. Poland has recently entertained the idea of a “Fort Trump” to permanently house U.S. troops on its soil—yet another American tripwire force.

The Middle East: Iran remains the Trump administration’s abiding foreign policy obsession. Here, at least, one cannot blame false advertising. The president was explicit about his plans to tear up Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that limited Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and make a better deal.

Once in office, the president’s instincts on the regime were further fortified by the Saudis and Israelis, to whom he has clung more tightly than any previous administration. He surrounded himself with paid advocates of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a cult that is hated in Iran. Trump’s lawyer and national security advisor, Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton respectively, have spoken on MEK’s behalf, despite it being a U.S.-designated terrorist organization until 2012. Bolton now officially abjures regime change, but in July 2017 he promised an MEK gathering in Paris that they would celebrate together in Tehran in 2019.

[Don’t miss Barndollar discussing the forever war, the military industrial complex, and military reform at our fifth annual foreign policy conference on November 15 in Washington, D.C. Full schedule and free registration here]

In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented Iran with a list of 12 demands that bring to mind Austria-Hungary and Serbia on the eve of World War I. Pompeo’s conditions were not a starting point for negotiations or normalization; they were a call for surrender. The administration now believes it can crush Iran through economic sanctions and force it to the negotiating table.

Trump’s Iran obsession has had baleful effects beyond the Persian Gulf. U.S. sanctions on Iran are damaging relations with a host of other nations by restricting their trade, even as the president extolled the primacy of sovereignty at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Tethered to the increasingly reckless Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the U.S. has continued to fuel, arm, and otherwise aid the Saudi-led coalition’s brutal, stalemated war in Yemen—a policy begun by Barack Obama.

In Syria and Iraq, the U.S. can take credit for a successful campaign against the Islamic State. Yet in the wake of this victory, U.S. troops seem to be staying put in Syria, despite a promise by Trump to pull them out earlier this year. Top officials announced in September that American forces will not be leaving Syria until the Iranians do. The risk of our presence in Syria dragging us into a war with either Iran or Russia is more real than ever.

In Israel, Trump has doubled down on support of Benjamin Netanyahu and the hardline Likud party. The U.S. finally moved its embassy to Jerusalem, as promised to pro-Israel donors during the campaign, and cut off all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency. These moves only cemented a growing impression that Trump never planned to be an honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Many now believe that the peace process is dead.

North Korea: North Korea dominated headlines and fears of during 2017 and early 2018. While the president tweeted about “fire and fury” and “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un, ultra-hawks in Washington pushed for a “bloody nose” preventive attack or even full-on regime change in North Korea. Thankfully, this was one case where Trump’s status quo foreign policy prevented conflict. Both sides climbed down, conducted a historic summit in Singapore, and made over-hyped and easily reversible concessions. The president’s personalization of diplomacy resulted in a victory, albeit in a verbal conflict that he had done much to create. Substantively, little has changed. North Korea will keep its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, American troops will remain in South Korea, and further negotiations are promised.  

This is a good thing: a preventive war with North Korea would be the ultimate expression of Bismarck’s line about “committing suicide out of fear of death.” It appears that North Korea wants to slowly open itself to the world, a prospect that has South Korean businessmen quietly ecstatic and China relieved. Nonetheless, this is basically business as usual: North Korea threatens, is granted concessions, and the status quo is preserved. We have seen this before. We may be on the cusp of a permanent change in relations with North Korea, but the jury is still out.

China: There is one shining exception to the Trump administration’s conventional foreign policy: China. Trump, unencumbered by free trade ideology, is challenging China’s economic ascent. Gone is the mindless determinism of Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the evidence-free belief that free trade would somehow gradually end Chinese totalitarianism and mercantilism. The Chinese have never competed on a level playing field and as a result we have spent 20 years ceding American industry and supply chains to China. The hour is late, but there is still time for the United States to fundamentally reorient its relationship with China.

Despite the chimera of a 355-ship navy, America will not win or lose this fight in a Gotterdammerung in the South China Sea. The contest with China may be existential, but it is primarily an economic, technological, and political battle. For all of the deep structural problems in the U.S. economy, China has more to lose from a trade war right now than America does.

It is not clear, though, if we are in the midst of a trade war or a trade bluff. If it is the latter, we are likely to get a slightly better arrangement for U.S. businesses and then proceed towards the same endpoint. If we are fighting a real trade war, however, there is an opportunity to unwind “Chimerica” and bring manufacturing, if not necessarily jobs, home. It is an open question whether the president has the stomach for the economic and political pain that this will entail, as his oft-invoked roaring stock market tanks and Americans feel the bite of tariffs in their wallets.

As with most things this administration does, competence is also an enormous question mark. A trade war with China may be necessary and prudent. Simultaneously battling the Europeans and our NAFTA partners while conducting a trade war with China is neither. If we want to fundamentally reorder our economic relationship with China, for reasons of both national security and long-term prosperity, we need to do it in concert with the other liberal democracies, especially our North American neighbors. They could benefit greatly from a reorientation of American trade. A strategy is needed, not an impulse and a series of tactical tariffs.

How did America First so quickly become business as usual, China excepted? Diehard Trumpists are inclined to defend the president’s foreign policy U-turns by painting him as a prisoner of his own administration, surrounded by conventional Republicans who subvert his non-interventionist instincts. The writing was on the wall immediately, they claim, as a trio of generals—John Kelly, James Mattis, and H. R. McMaster—were chosen to drive national security policy. As veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, all three were unlikely to support any radical reexamination of America’s place in the world. Steve Bannon, who would and did support such a change, was forced out of the White House within a year.

Personnel is policy, as the cliché goes, and the administration’s foreign policy team is dominated by men who are conventional internationalists at best, unrepentant neoconservatives at worst. Rex Tillerson presided over a State Department in unprecedented disarray and often found himself focused on limiting the damage of the president’s bombast. His successor has been a reliable agent of foreign policy orthodoxy, dutifully dealing with North Korea on the one hand and threatening Iran on the other.

There is undoubtedly something to the narrative of internal betrayal, as Bob Woodward’s Fear and the recent anonymous New York Times editorial attest. America may not have a true Deep State, but Trump’s personality and some of his policies have provoked unprecedented resistance from within government bureaucracies and even from his own political appointees. Realigning American foreign policy in the face of an obdurate establishment was always going to be a significant challenge. Succeeding in this task without a united team is likely impossible.

But this is not an entirely tenable defense. These are men the president chose, and they are doing his bidding, inasmuch as he knows and communicates what that is. The bench of realists and non-interventionists may be small, but the president has put some of the worst warmongers in Washington into positions of real power and influence.

So those who believe in foreign policy realism and restraint are left with the worst of both worlds: a presidency that espouses an America First agenda but then proceeds to sabotage support for these policies through reckless rhetoric, incompetent implementation, and a refusal to carry out anything approaching a thoughtful, non-interventionist strategy.

Perhaps the next two years will see a drastic change in American foreign policy. Hope springs eternal—but there is scant reason for anything more than hope.  

Gil Barndollar is Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest and Military Fellow-in-Residence at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. He served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016.