Why you should care
President Trump’s policies toward Iran, Afghanistan and China — to name just a few — are in a muddle.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
American foreign policy has faded into a confusing and dangerous blur as a result of mismanagement, flip-flopping objectives, political turmoil in Washington and an understaffed and demoralized State Department. On issue after issue, it is impossible to discern a coherent strategy or an achievable goal. This is not just embarrassing and tragic for the United States but also harmful for the world because what the U.S. does — whether it succeeds or fails — affects everyone else.
To be fair, there is always some part of U.S. foreign policy that is troubled or falling short of its objective — even in the best of times. What is unique today is that nearly everything seems stalled, failing or out of focus. I cannot recall a comparable set of circumstances quite like this in more than 40 years of professional involvement with national security.
A quick look around the world …
Trump withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran by former President Barack Obama, saying it was too lenient and that he wanted a tougher one. U.S. sanctions are inflicting increasing pain on Iran, but it has blown off the dozen demands that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid down last year. It then pulled Trump into a game of chicken in which Tehran has been gradually canceling aspects of its documented compliance, saying it will increase its enrichment capability at Natanz and resume work at the Fordow underground plant. These are reversible steps, but with no U.S. strategy other than sanctions, Iran will keep inching toward nuclear “breakout” — precisely what the 2015 agreement had stopped.
In North Korea, the seeming “bromance” between Trump and Kim Jong Un has gone nowhere. The North is once again testing short-range missiles and last week rebuffed as “sickening” U.S. proposals to resume talks in December. This week, Washington and Seoul again canceled military drills in a bid to lure the North back to the table. The latest sign that the North is not easily courted came Monday, when a foreign ministry official demanded more U.S. concessions and said it would no longer give Trump meetings to “brag about.”
A year ago in Syria, one of America’s finest diplomats, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, laid out three worthy objectives: to defeat ISIS, achieve a political settlement and get Iran out of the country. Trump has continually undercut him, however, with a dizzyingly haphazard policy that rockets between saying the U.S. is leaving Syria and saying that we will keep a small number of troops to secure Syria’s minor-league oil resources (Saudi Arabia has 100 times more). Meanwhile, Russian forces are occupying a former American base, local U.S. military personnel tell an NBC reporter they are “ashamed and sickened” by what’s happening and Moscow has become the most influential power broker in the Middle East. Syria was a tragedy before Trump, but his erraticism has made it worse and flattened U.S. influence.
Next door, Trump’s long-promised Israeli-Palestinian peace plan has yet to be fully unveiled — lead negotiator Jared Kushner has revealed only economic proposals — but is likely to be DOA for many reasons. Among them: Palestinian anger at Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and other Arabs’ unwillingness to endorse without clarity on Palestinian statehood, all of which is compounded by ongoing turmoil, not to mention yesterday’s announcement that the White House no longer sees Israeli settlements in the occupied areas as breaches of international law. Astonishingly, even the State Department’s top Mideast official told Congress two weeks ago that he does not know what’s in the plan.
Further afield in Afghanistan, a year of hard work by Trump’s negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, was undercut by Trump’s ill-advised Camp David invite to the Taliban in September and his subsequent tweet declaring the talks “dead.” It is not yet clear if the prisoner exchange yesterday can lead to renewed talks or whether the negotiators would resume or have to start from scratch.
Elsewhere, nuclear-armed India and Pakistan remain at loggerheads over the disputed state of Kashmir, but the U.S. has lost the honest mediator role, and India this summer specifically rejected a role for Trump. In Venezuela, the military has yet to stop propping up the Nicolás Maduro regime despite heavy U.S. sanctions and opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s popularity. With China, Trump rightly challenged trade practices but got stuck in a tariff war that has cost U.S. consumers and businesses $37 billion since May. And of course, policy toward Ukraine and Russia is a complete muddle because it’s woven into the fabric of the ongoing impeachment controversy in Washington.
The most charitable interpretation is that this is the result of a deliberate upending of traditional American practice and of Washington’s foreign policy “establishment” in the interest of a legitimate alternative. Trump’s “America First” is the closest candidate, but so far the vessel is empty — a kind of paint-by-numbers template that remains blank.
To be sure, dedicated professionals further down in agencies across the administration are working hard to achieve outcomes in America’s interest, but they are lacking two critical elements: leadership and process. Because everyone takes their lead from the White House, there can be no consistent drive toward objectives when the president acts on shifting impulses. And the process of forming and implementing foreign policy requires constancy of leadership and practice in the National Security Council, which is on its fourth leader in three years (along with three White House chief of staff turnovers).
So even though the administration’s wish is often clear enough — a benign Iran, a non-nuclear North Korea, peace in the Middle East, a rules-obeying China — what’s missing is any apparent plan for getting there.
The bottom line? Successful foreign policy is the result of really hard work — a sustained and informed effort that orchestrates all the tools of American statecraft toward a well-defined goal. Foreign policy is not a wishing well.