In this Midterm Assessment, FDD experts and scholars evaluate the Trump administration’s efforts to advance and protect U.S. vital interests. The assessment spans the broad range of threats and challenges to national security and prosperity that our nation faces. Those threats and challenges include revisionist powers, hostile states, and transnational terrorist organizations. And the essays also consider new domains in which these threats operate (such as cyberspace) as well as increasing dangers associated with the potential breakdown of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the prospect of hostile states and non-state actors gaining access to some of the most destructive weapons on earth. This assessment deserves wide attention because the stakes are high. And it deserves attention because the authors have transcended the vitriolic and shallow partisan discourse that dominates much of what passes for commentary on foreign policy and national security.
The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy emphasized the need to compete more effectively to protect our free and open societies from those who are promoting authoritarian and closed systems. Nations committed to democratic governance and free market economies must demonstrate a much higher degree of strategic competence, especially in cooperative efforts to improve security and grow prosperity. And overcoming challenges to national and international security will require confidence – confidence in democratic principles, institutions, and processes as well as confidence in our free market economies.
At a time when those who know the least about issues seem to be those who hold the most strident opinions, FDD’s work as represented in this assessment is essential to generating the bipartisan understanding necessary to compete effectively and preserve America’s strategic advantages.
Trying to make a fair assessment of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy halfway through his term is fraught with challenges – not least the extreme polarization afflicting the Trump era. For the president’s opponents, there is little merit in anything that he has done. For his supporters, he can do almost no wrong. An honest effort to weigh pros and cons, to account for both the successes and the shortcomings, seems guaranteed to antagonize nearly everyone, save for the shrinking minority that still clings to the political center and puts a premium on old-fashioned – but critical – notions of bipartisanship.
A second difficulty for anyone taking stock of Trump’s foreign policy is the president’s own unpredictability. Nothing ever seems settled – even when it seems settled. Trump’s Syria policy is the starkest example to date. In March 2018, Trump took his national security team by surprise when he announced at a political rally that he would be bringing U.S. troops back from Syria “very soon.” After being advised that the Islamic State still posed a significant threat, Trump relented. Senior U.S. officials then spent several months reassuring audiences that the president had decided to remain in Syria until the Islamic State had suffered an enduring defeat, all Iranian-commanded troops had left the country, and an irreversible political process was underway. But within the span of a few days in December 2018, Trump yet again upended the policy, deciding to withdraw all U.S. troops on the spur of the moment during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
No prior discussion with his top foreign policy and military advisers. No notice to Congress. No consultation with allies – even those fighting alongside their American counterparts. And no advance planning on how a withdrawal might be executed to minimize risks. One day U.S. troops were staying and the next day they were leaving.
Needless to say, when American national security strategy becomes prone to overnight reversal based on little more than the unilateral whims of an erratic president, any attempt to assess that strategy becomes particularly difficult. A strategy to secure U.S. interests in Syria against Russia, Iran, and the Islamic State that appeared challenging but sound to many analysts on December 18 was suddenly upended by an impulsive tweet on December 19, yielding an irresponsible, dangerous, and chaotic mess.
Worryingly, what is true for Syria today could apply to other issues tomorrow. Within days of his withdrawal announcement from Syria, Trump also ordered that U.S. troops in Afghanistan be cut in half – catching not only America’s Afghan allies by surprise, but also U.S. negotiators who were struggling to initiate peace talks with the Taliban. Who can predict with any confidence from one week or month to the next that Trump will not suddenly and radically alter the U.S. force presence in Iraq, South Korea, or Japan? He has certainly complained about all these deployments in the past, questioning their cost, their value to America, and why the U.S. was doing what local partners should be doing for themselves. For that matter, he has also done this repeatedly with respect to the U.S. role in NATO.
All this suggests that the half-life of any particular Trump policy could be decidedly short. Indeed, in just the few weeks since his Syria announcement, the president and his advisors issued a flurry of statements indicating that the withdrawal might actually end up being more deliberate and conditioned than Trump’s initial tweets suggested. Trying to produce an edited volume that gives readers an up-to-date rendering of the administration’s efforts across a wide range of issues certainly runs the risk that at least some of the assessments could be overtaken by events – or, more accurately, tweets – in the week or two between the time when authors complete their final revisions and publication occurs. With Trump, the standard warning label seems more apt than usual: While these essays have sought to provide an accurate snapshot of the administration’s policies at the time of writing, the authors are not responsible for any sudden disruptions that the president’s social media account may subsequently beget.
Despite the unique occupational hazards of policy analysis in the age of Trump, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies nevertheless felt there was real utility in this effort to collect in one place the considered judgments of our experts on Trump’s policies at midterm. The flood of events since the president entered office, not to mention the heat of the rhetoric, have often done more to obscure than illuminate reality. It is hard enough at times to recall and make sense of what happened last week, much less last month or last year.
The essays that follow seek to fill that gap by providing concise, dispassionate overviews of what the administration’s policies have actually been over the past two years on a wide array of topics that are central to American national security. Especially as a new Congress takes up its responsibilities, and the global challenges confronting the United States show no signs of abating, the expertise and research brought to bear in this volume offer a starting point for anyone seeking to get up to speed quickly on where U.S. foreign policy stands at the beginning of 2019, as well as to consider the necessary next steps to secure U.S. interests.
To make the collection as user-friendly as possible, each essay is of similar length and follows an identical three-part structure in addressing its topic: 1) a review of the administration’s policy to date; 2) an assessment of the policy’s achievements and shortcomings; and 3) a set of recommendations to strengthen the policy over the next two years.
While by no means a comprehensive treatment of every key area of U.S. foreign policy – climate change, sub-Saharan Africa, and Venezuela are absent, for example – the breadth and depth of knowledge on display is a testament to the extraordinary range of expertise that FDD’s researchers possess and the breadth of issues in which we are engaged as an organization. Along those lines, it is worth mentioning that, consistent with FDD’s internal ethos of welcoming spirited debate among its experts, the views expressed reflect the professional judgments of each essay’s author(s), and are not intended to constitute any “official” institutional position.
By definition, midterm assessments consist of works in progress. Trump’s foreign policy is very much that. This volume seeks to move beyond the polarized caricatures to capture the complexities of the past two years – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Nuance and balance may be increasingly out of vogue, but those remain the standards that these essays strive to meet – and the ground where Americans from both sides of the aisle are still most likely to engage in productive debate about the future of their country and its role in a rapidly changing, still dangerous world.
by Mark Dubowitz
by Benjamin Weinthal and David Adesnik
by David Maxwell and Mathew Ha
by Mathew Ha and Eric Lorber
by Boris Zilberman
by Aykan Erdemir and Merve Tahiroglu
by David Adesnik and Toby Dershowitz
by Emanuele Ottolenghi and Tony Badran
by Jonathan Schanzer and David May
by Jonathan Schanzer and Romany Shaker
by Romany Shaker and Tzvi Kahn
by John Hannah
by John Hannah and Varsha Koduvayur
by Varsha Koduvayur
by Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio
by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
by Orde Kittrie and Behnam Ben Taleblu
by Bradley Bowman
by Annie Fixler and David Maxwell
by Juan C. Zarate
by Saeed Ghasseminejad and Tzvi Kahn
The president of the United States has no responsibility more imperative than this: to defend Americans from those intent on doing them harm.
What can we conclude about the current commander-in-chief’s national security policies halfway through his term? Based on the assessments of FDD’s researchers, I think it is clear that Trump deserves more credit than his Democratic and Republican #NeverTrump critics give him, but less than his most fervent fans – and the president himself – like to claim.
On the plus side, he has seemed not just willing, but eager, to confront America’s many enemies, adversaries and competitors, and to prevent them from making further advances. On the minus side, he has been mercurial, impulsive, and too quick to cast instances of modest progress as significant victories.
Most troubling was his decision, in the waning days of 2018, to call for the speedy withdrawal of all American forces from Syria. No preparations were made in advance. No speech or paper explained the president’s decisions, and no plans were prepared to mitigate foreseeable deleterious impacts, in particular on those who have relied on American support to fight our common enemies. In response, Defense Secretary James Mattis submitted his resignation.
Trump’s abrupt reversal on Syria reflects a broader retreat from his willingness to confront America’s enemies, an approach whose success confounded low expectations of Trump’s abilities as commander-in-chief. The withdrawal from Syria is a gift to Russia and Iran and may give the Islamic State a new lease on life. After calling for victory in Afghanistan, Trump is now weighing whether to pull out half of our troops while American generals implore the Taliban to negotiate. Trump’s firm words for Kim Jong Un have given way to warmth and affection. The same goes for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who holds American hostages to this day.
To appreciate the magnitude of Trump’s recent reversal, one must begin by contrasting his vigorous initial moves with the timidity of the previous administration. A year ago last month, there were reasons to believe President Trump was on track to achieve much more than had his predecessors. The White House had just delivered a National Security Strategy framed as “principled realism” – an attempt to “rethink the policies of the past two decades,”1 policies that had not produced the results intended or desired. The president’s actions reflected that goal.
In its first month in office, the Trump administration put Iran on notice that changes were coming. The most important one arrived in May 2018, when President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Concluded by President Obama without congressional approval, the deal aimed to slow, but not actually stop, Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Trump’s re-imposition of significant sanctions on the clerical regime followed. Tehran’s currency is now in a tailspin and its economy headed into a deep recession while protests continue to challenge the regime.
American policy toward North Korea also took a new turn. In 1994, President Clinton concluded an accord that, like the JCPOA, was fundamentally flawed. Over the years since, the Pyongyang regime has gone on to develop as many as 60 nuclear weapons, and missiles that, given continuing development, could soon reach targets anywhere – the continental United States very much included. The dynastic and Stalinist Kim family regime has a long record of cooperating on missile technology with Iran.
President Obama’s policy toward North Korea was known as “strategic patience,” a diplomatic euphemism for doing nothing. President Trump, by contrast, took the initiative. At first, he threatened and insulted Kim Jong Un. His administration began to put in place a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign that hit hundreds of targets left untouched by previous administrations. Despite expectations that Kim would escalate the conflict, the young tyrant suspended missile and nuclear tests while proposing the first-ever U.S.-North Korean summit.
The most notable success of Trump’s foreign policy, acknowledged on both sides of the aisle, has been his intensification of the campaign to eradicate the so-called “caliphate” that the Islamic State carved out of Iraq and Syria. Trump also pledged, “Our troops will fight to win” in Afghanistan, while warning, “We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq,” where a rushed withdrawal led to the rise of the Islamic State.2
President Trump also deserves credit for beginning to rebuild the U.S. military, weakened by years of budget cuts, including under “sequestration” which prevented intelligent planning. Nevertheless, the military remains, woefully under-resourced if the goals are (1) deterrence, and (2) ensuring that American forces easily overmatch any enemy or combination of enemies. In particular, the U.S. must prepare to face constant pressure from China, whose rapid economic growth and innovative use of technology have fed its hegemonic and neo-imperialist ambitions.
For two decades, China’s Leninist-capitalist regime has been utilizing cyber weapons to steal hundreds of billions of dollars of American intellectual property. A recent FDD report estimates that Beijing is responsible for 50 to 80 percent of cross-border intellectual property theft worldwide, and over 90 percent of cyber-enabled economic espionage in the United States.3 The U.S. has only begun to address the strategic threat from China, but no other administration has described the threat as bluntly or accurately.
Had President Trump continued to build on the tough approach he put in place during his first 16 months in office, his record at the halfway point of his first term might be genuinely extraordinary. Instead, there are numerous warning signs that impatience is getting the better of him.
After his summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Trump began to talk about withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. His flattery of Kim continues, even though Pyongyang has made no substantial moves toward denuclearization.
The sudden call for a withdrawal from Syria threatens to unravel the gains made against both the Islamic State and Iran. Among Trump’s arguments for withdrawing from Syria (made in tweets and an improvised video): that the Islamic State has been defeated. In truth, an estimated 30,000 Islamic State fighters remain in Syria and Iraq. Once U.S. forces leave, this networked insurgency is likely to revive and rebuild under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi whom the U.S. has not managed to track down and eliminate.
The removal of America’s military presence in Syria can only undermine the president’s strategy vis-à-vis Tehran. Once the U.S. forces decamp, Iran’s rulers will encounter few obstacles to their establishing a land bridge through Syria into Lebanon – a country now effectively ruled by Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy – and on to the Mediterranean.
About 90 percent of Syria’s oil lies under territory the U.S. has controlled. Those resources may soon replenish Bashar al-Assad’s coffers, reducing the amount Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spends – an estimated $16 billion annually – to prop up the mass-murdering dictator.
That will leave more money for terrorists and missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads. The financial pressure Trump has exerted on Tehran will weaken. The odds that the regime can wait out the next two years will increase.
Jordan and Iraq – nations in which the U.S. has made significant investments – will face additional peril. Israel will be under increased pressure, too.
Other beneficiaries of the withdrawal include Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan, the latter a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. By standing up to Erdogan, Trump had won the freedom of North Carolina Pastor Andrew Brunson, whom the Turkish strongman had taken hostage. Now, Trump seems to trust Erdogan’s advice on Syria more than that of his own national security team, even though Erdogan holds additional U.S. hostages and is threatening to wage war on the Syrian Kurds, a loyal U.S. partner in the war against the Islamic State.
With regard to Putin, Trump has never faced up, at least publicly, to his bad intentions. True, the Trump administration has taken some firm measures with regard to Russia, including additional sanctions, the sale of weapons to Ukraine, and additional support for NATO. Yet giving Putin the benefit of one doubt after another is inexplicable.
There are now signs that Trump may also withdraw 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, about half of the total. In Afghanistan, the Taliban – which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and is closely allied with al-Qaeda – said it had no intention of meeting with representatives from the Afghan government, and reportedly celebrated its imminent victory. Nonetheless, the administration remains committed to the illusionary hope of a negotiated peace.
It is hard to square Trump’s recent moves with his own warnings not to repeat the strategic errors made by President Obama. Following the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Obama prematurely declared victory over al-Qaeda. Today, al-Qaeda has a larger presence in more countries than ever. Its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is alive and well.
That same year, ignoring his national security advisors, Obama withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq, opening its doors to Iran’s rulers as well as the Islamic State. Obama went on to enrich and empower the ruling clerics in Tehran in exchange for a deal based more on trust than verification.
Also beginning in 2011, Obama decided to do next to nothing to assist those in Syria protesting the oppressive Assad dictatorship. Over the years since, half a million Syrian men, women and children have been killed, and refugees have flooded into Europe where their impact has been destabilizing, to put it mildly.
In Afghanistan, too, Obama’s policies never achieved coherence or consistency. Perhaps most egregious, he announced in late 2009 a 30,000-troop surge, quickly adding that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” In other words, he told the Taliban and al-Qaeda that if they would just hunker down for a while, they would be fine. So they did, and so they were.
The United States is engaged in what FDD has been calling The Long War. Much as we might like diplomatic solutions, our enemies get a vote. They are not interested in half loaves. They are keen to keep fighting. American retreats can only bolster their determination.
Sustaining a long and low-intensity conflict utilizing all instruments of American power is not a pleasant prospect. But if we continue to allow our enemies to strengthen, eventually we will face a stark choice: fighting high-intensity conflicts – with nuclear weapons targeting Americans at home – or watching from the sidelines as authoritarians dominate a radically transformed international order.
It is tempting to believe that we can make ourselves inoffensive to those who despise us; that we can appease them; that we can ignore quarrels in far-away countries; that our goal should be “peace for our time,” “Peace now!” and “Ending Endless War.” But those are illusions to which only weak horses cling.
In the real world, hard work and sacrifice will be required to make America great again. President Trump’s National Security Strategy left no doubt about that. The commander-in-chief, as he contemplates the next two years, would be well advised to re-read it, along with the many thoughtful recommendations provided by my colleagues in this volume.