January 14, 2021 | Monograph
From Trump to Biden
The Way Forward for U.S. National Security
January 14, 2021 | Monograph
From Trump to Biden
The Way Forward for U.S. National Security
By FDD Senior Management
On January 6, 2021, a mob of American rioters stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC. The ensuing melee led to the killing of a Capitol Police officer and the death of four rioters. The episode was a national disgrace. It was an assault on Congress. It was an attempt to forcibly overturn the results of a democratic election. It was a gift to foreign enemies whose main goal is to see American power and leadership laid low, riven by internal division and chaos. And it would not have happened without the encouragement of the president of the United States, Donald Trump.
The abortive insurrection was launched just as this edited volume on Trump’s national security legacy was about to go to publication. Indeed, FDD’s scholars had the unenviable task of having completed our foreign policy assessments of the most controversial president in modern memory at the very moment the most shocking events of his presidency were unfolding.
Trump’s term in office will forever be defined by the terrible events of January 6. Nothing will change that. To a lesser extent, it will be defined by his mercurial decision-making style. Trump was a “post-policy” president who vexed allies and enemies alike. And as we can attest, he vexed think tankers, too.
Yet there are foreign policy lessons to be learned from the Trump presidency. Whether challenging the Chinese Communist Party after years of accommodation and even obsequiousness, applying maximum pressure on the regime in Iran, or forging peace between Israel and no fewer than four Arab states, there are important wins to process. And even where Trump stumbled, such as by insulting NATO allies; flattering dictators such as Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin; pressuring Ukraine to advance his own re-election; attempting to help Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan avoid accountability for a massive sanctions-busting scheme; making a bad “peace” deal with the Taliban; or suddenly withdrawing troops from Syria, there are lessons to be learned. We cannot simply dismiss four years of policymaking because Trump’s legacy is now indelibly stained.
America must learn from these last four years. Given the political climate and the toxic ideologies and divisions that will persist well after Trump is gone, that will not be easy. But FDD remains committed to playing a role in the foreign policy and national security debates that are sure to come. Our hope is that those debates remain substantive and respectful and ultimately serve to defend America’s democracy. To be sure, that democracy has emerged bruised and battered after these four years, if not longer. But it still stands tall. And we have every intention of joining with our fellow Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike – in helping to keep it that way and opposing all adversaries that would threaten our nation’s constitutional order and national security.
by John Hannah and David Adesnik
Two years after FDD published its midterm assessment of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, the job of evaluating his administration’s legacy on national security affairs has not gotten easier.1 As Trump’s presidency ends, his shortcomings as the leader of the world’s most powerful liberal democracy are starker than ever. The insults flung at longstanding democratic allies. The flattery of tyrants. The questioning of solemn treaty commitments. An oftentimes shambolic decision-making process marked by confusion, flip flops, and deep contradictions between Trump and his top advisors. The list goes on. And all of it magnified in the final months of his presidency by Trump’s unprecedented refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of his successor, President-elect Joe Biden, his extended quest to overturn the results of a democratic election, and the shocking spectacle of a pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol as Congress assembled to fulfill its constitutionally mandated duty to certify Biden’s status as the nation’s next commander in chief.
The events of January 6, 2021, will forever tarnish Trump’s place in American history. On top of all the other outrages, large and small, associated with his tenure, there will no doubt be a powerful instinct within the incoming Biden administration to recoil from everything associated with the 45th president, including the entirety of his foreign policy. But as this volume of essays suggests, that would be a serious mistake. In the 25 chapters that follow, FDD experts offer a systematic analysis of Trump’s term in office, tackling on an issue-by-issue basis the vast majority of topics of greatest significance to U.S. national security. They pull no punches in areas where they judge Trump’s efforts to have fallen short or even failed. But the authors also find many instances in which his initiatives had real merit in terms of advancing important American interests and are worthy of being maintained or built upon by the Biden administration.
Pointing out where the Trump administration may have succeeded in no way mitigates Trump’s incitement of an insurrection against our constitutional order. Rather, it is an effort to point out what can be salvaged as Biden seeks to repair the damage done at home and abroad.
All of the chapters in this volume follow the same three-part structure: 1) a factual description of the Trump administration’s policy in a given area; 2) an assessment of that policy’s successes and shortcomings; and 3) a series of recommendations for the new administration and Congress. While each chapter stands on its own and readers should not hesitate to focus on their areas of interest, taken together they paint a comprehensive portrait of Trump’s foreign policy and offer a wide menu of useful policy ideas for the Biden administration.
While Trump – not always without justification – touted his unpredictability as an asset in foreign relations, he also said that his overall approach to the world could be understood by one common-sense principle: “America First.” A blend of populism, nationalism, mercantilism, isolationism, and unilateralism, this maxim helped explain his transactional view of alliances, lack of attention to human rights, and skepticism of free-trade deals and foreign military commitments.
In many instances, the results were mixed. Amid Trump’s public scolding, NATO members continued to increase their investments in collective defense. But the contempt Trump showed for his European counterparts also made it harder to mobilize some of the world’s most influential democracies to meet common threats, particularly from China.
Trump’s efforts to establish a strong personal bond with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman helped win the kingdom’s backing for the historic normalization deals that Israel struck with several Arab neighbors. But Trump’s willingness to excuse the crown prince’s worst human rights transgressions triggered a congressional backlash that threatened the broader U.S.-Saudi partnership.
Trump’s unshackling of the U.S. military helped accelerate the takedown of the Islamic State’s caliphate. But his rush to rapidly withdraw troops from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan risks giving the Islamic State a new lease on life while empowering a witches’ brew of other enemies, including Iran, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda.
In some cases, Trump’s actions fed suspicions that America First had given way to the pursuit of his own personal interests first. Whatever the constitutional implications of his “perfect” phone call with Ukraine’s new president in 2019, it created the damaging perception that Trump was withholding U.S. assistance to a critical partner unless it acted to advance his re-election prospects. Less well-known but also troubling were Trump’s efforts, at the urging of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to stop federal prosecutors from holding accountable close Erdogan associates involved in a multibillion-dollar scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Trump’s idiosyncratic decision-making style often confounded efforts to develop and execute a coherent national strategy, “America First” or otherwise. Policy by presidential tweet was a fact of life for senior administration officials, who often received no warning of major policy reversals, including their own firings. Trump showed little interest in expert briefings. He trafficked in disinformation on Twitter. Cabinet members risked online harangues if they publicly reported basic facts at odds with Trump’s preferred narrative.
It is a truism that even the best-managed process can produce bad policies. But the opposite can be true, too. In Trump’s case, there were several important achievements worth highlighting that the incoming national security team would be wise to recognize and build on.
Achievements to Preserve
Biden would be well-served by giving careful study to the Trump administration’s two foundational documents on national security affairs – its National Security Strategy, published in December 2017, and the corresponding National Defense Strategy, issued just weeks later.2
President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
These documents provide a powerful assessment of the primary challenges that confront the United States – in particular the return of great power competition – and the policies required to secure America’s wellbeing. They have already become among the most influential national security texts produced by any administration in decades. The Biden administration would do well to take seriously many of their core concepts, even as it works to put its own unique stamp on policy. The two strategies’ key innovation was their paradigm-shattering approach to China. After a generation of misguided efforts by presidents from both parties to accommodate China’s rising power and integrate it into the U.S.-led, rules-based international order, the Trump team correctly identified Beijing to be America’s fiercest rival, and the Chinese Communist Party’s ambition for global primacy to be the greatest international threat we face.
To its credit, the administration did more than any of its predecessors to begin contesting and constraining Chinese power across all domains – diplomatic, economic, military, cyber, ideological, and technological. Integral to this effort were substantial increases in overall defense spending to restore the readiness of U.S. forces and invest in technologies critical to maintaining American military superiority.
Whatever adjustments Biden believes may be needed to better address the China challenge – including working more with allies, elevating human rights, making greater investments in domestic sources of U.S. power, and developing a more sustained diplomatic track with Beijing to avoid miscalculation and carve out areas for possible collaboration – he would also do well to recognize what was almost certainly the Trump administration’s most important insight: Winning the strategic competition with China, without blowing up or impoverishing the world in the process, will be the defining challenge of U.S. foreign policy for the next several decades and the likely centerpiece of any successful effort to rebuild the foundations of a bipartisan approach to international affairs.
Biden should also embrace Trump’s most unambiguous diplomatic success – the historic peace deals that he helped broker between Israel and several Arab states. In doing so, Trump defied longstanding conventional wisdom that held such deals to be impossible absent a final resolution of the Palestinian conflict.3 While relations had been warming between Israel and many of its neighbors for years, the Trump administration early on made their further advancement a major priority and skillfully seized the opportunity that arose in the last six months of 2020 to negotiate a series of normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. There is every reason to believe that additional breakthroughs are in the offing – including with Saudi Arabia, the Muslim world’s most influential state – but achieving them will require sustained U.S. focus and support. An important moment now exists for American diplomacy to restructure the geostrategic map of the Middle East in ways enormously beneficial to U.S. interests. Biden should not let it pass.
The Trump achievement that may be hardest for Biden to accept is the exceptional leverage the United States now enjoys vis-à-vis Iran – made possible by Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and re-impose crippling sanctions. Biden and several of his top advisors played key supporting roles in negotiating the JCPOA, consider it one of President Barack Obama’s most important successes, and were harshly critical of Trump’s decision to leave. While Biden now acknowledges that a new agreement will be necessary to correct the JCPOA’s shortcomings, he has also said that he is prepared to bring America rapidly back into compliance as a first step toward that new deal – a move that would require lifting Trump’s toughest sanctions and squandering much of the leverage now available to pressure Iran to curtail its malign behaviors. Whether Biden can set aside his past criticisms of Trump’s policy and exploit the strong hand that he has inherited to negotiate a better deal will be an important early test of his foreign policy.
Build Back Bipartisan
Biden faces a daunting set of international challenges and threats, compounded exponentially by the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic as well as the country’s alarming levels of polarization. After the tumult and division of the past four years, culminating in the sitting president’s inciting his supporters to launch an insurrection against the seat of American democracy, a visceral impulse to adopt some version of ABT, or Anything But Trump, will be understandable. But it should be resisted. Instead, what is required at this moment of hyper-politicization is a clear-eyed assessment of the Trump record that, in as objective a manner as possible, cuts through the sound and fury of his presidency to identify both the mistakes that Biden should seek to correct as well as the successes that are worthy of building upon.
Select icon or title to view assessment
By Bill Roggio
By Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic
By Eric S. Edelman and Philip Kowalski
By Cleo Paskal
By Mark Dubowitz and Richard Goldberg
By John Hannah
By Jonathan Schanzer and David May
By Emanuele Ottolenghi
By Tony Badran
By David Maxwell and Mathew Ha
By Eric S. Edelman and John Hardie
By John Hannah and Varsha Koduvayur
By David Adesnik
By Aykan Erdemir and Philip Kowalski
By Varsha Koduvayur
By Behnam Ben Taleblu and Andrea Stricker
By Samantha Ravich, RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery, Annie Fixler, and Trevor Logan
By Bradley Bowman
By Brenda Shaffer
By Emanuele Ottolenghi
By Tzvi Kahn, Alireza Nader, and Saeed Ghasseminejad
By Orde F. Kittrie
By Richard Goldberg
By Eric B. Lorber and Juan C. Zarate
By Thomas Joscelyn
By Clifford D. May
Making America Secure Again
“Make America Great Again” was President Trump’s rallying cry. “Build Back Better” was President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign slogan. Both phrases recognize the need for restoration, for reversing deterioration and decline, for fixing what is broken. At this moment, that need is more urgent than ever.
On the Wednesday afternoon when Congress was fulfilling its constitutional and ceremonial obligation to count electoral votes, Trump shamefully encouraged the breaching of the Capitol by an unruly and violent mob. Having done so indelibly tarnishes him and his legacy.
That is unfortunate because, in foreign and national security policy, he achieved some significant successes, following eight years of President Obama’s diminishing the credibility of American power vis-à-vis America’s enemies. Trump also suffered some significant failures. In other areas, he made incremental progress that his successor can advance – if Biden sees his task as building his own presidency rather than building back the Obama White House.
Trump came into office with limited knowledge of international relations and the complex mechanisms by which policy is formulated and implemented. He did know a thing or two about deal-making, and he intuitively grasped the logic of “peace through strength.”
On that basis, he increased defense spending – essential because hundreds of billions of dollars in defense cuts during the Obama years had left the U.S. military with decreasing readiness and aging weapons. Isolationists – now prevalent on both the left and right – will advise Biden to defund the military again. If he takes that route, he will embolden America’s enemies, making conflict more likely, not less.
Trump was either smart or lucky to appoint a disciplined soldier/scholar as his national security advisor. Lieutenant General (Ret.) H.R. McMaster’s thoughtful process of analysis and prioritization culminated in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). Most significantly, the NSS shattered the rose-colored glasses through which the People’s Republic of China had been viewed since the 1970s.
The new NSS recognized that the regime ruling China views itself as an adversary of the United States, and that Beijing has long been implementing a strategy to transform the so-called rules-based liberal international order – to make it decidedly illiberal, with rules made by the Chinese Communist Party, and “antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”4
Components of China’s strategy include an enormous military buildup for more than defensive purposes, massive and chronic intellectual property theft, influence operations everywhere from campuses to Capitol Hill to Wall Street, debt traps for resource-rich Third World nations, and the manipulation of the United Nations and its affiliated entities – the World Health Organization and the UN Human Rights Council, to name just two examples.
The NSS also recognized that Obama’s vaunted “reset” with Russia failed to make President Vladimir Putin America’s friend. Though Trump too often defended the Russian strongman, his administration’s policies, reinforced by Congress, were muscular compared to those of his predecessors. Were they sufficiently muscular given, among other crimes, the Kremlin’s assassinations and attempted assassinations using banned chemical weapons as murder weapons? By no means.5
The Islamic Republic of Iran and the dynastic dictatorship that rules North Korea were characterized as “rogue regimes.”
The former, for more than four decades, has pledged “Death to America!” while covertly attempting to acquire the nuclear weapons that could bring its capabilities in line with its intentions. Under Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the theocrats agreed to pause – not end – some aspects of their nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars. This attempt to buy – or rent – the goodwill of Iran’s Islamist rulers never enjoyed majority support in Congress or with the public, and in May 2018, Trump withdrew from the JCPOA.
He then began to impose sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy and reduced the regime’s financial support for a long list of terrorist groups. But the “maximum pressure” campaign was never really maximum, and slightly more than two years has not been enough time to force Iran’s rulers to make serious concessions in exchange for relief. Elliott Abrams, the president’s special envoy for Iran, believes the regime may be nearing that point – if the new administration does not blink.6
Trump also made the bold decision to eliminate Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a terrorist organization responsible for killing hundreds of Americans. The ruling mullahs’ longstanding belief (it traces back to the hostage crisis of 1979) that “The Americans can’t do a damn thing!” suddenly seemed questionable.7
As for North Korea, Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” a euphemism for doing nothing, achieved nothing. Trump attempted a different approach: personal diplomacy. It, too, fell flat. It was naïve to think that Kim Jong Un would be tempted by Trump’s offers to help him lift his people from poverty. Nor, apparently, did veiled threats of military action prompt the dictator to consider ending his efforts to develop the capability to deliver nuclear warheads to American targets.
For an American president to believe he could mitigate the animosity of self-declared enemies of the United States by offering friendship and a willingness to “address grievances” was hardly novel.
Recall Obama’s hopeful analysis in 2009: “It is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but [also] where there are potential avenues for progress. If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”8 Theocratic fists remained firmly clenched.
Eight years earlier, President George W. Bush met with Putin. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” Bush judged, adding: “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”9 We can now surmise that the souls of former KGB colonels are not so readily accessible.
Trump took meaningful actions against Sunni terrorism in Syria. A small cohort of elite American forces led Kurdish and Arab allies in a campaign that deprived the Islamic State of the territories it had conquered following Obama’s withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.
Trump ought to have taken credit for this efficacious policy, making the case publicly and persuasively for such economy-of-force forward deployments as the least-bad means of containing non-state terrorist actors.
Instead, in December 2018, he abruptly announced that he wanted all U.S. troops out of Syria. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, concerned such an abrupt move would threaten the security of both American troops elsewhere in the region and American allies in the anti-terrorist coalition, promptly submitted his resignation.
In the end, Trump was persuaded to reverse that decision, but he never appeared to comprehend how dangerous it would be to leave our terrorist enemies to plot and operate unhindered.
Trump also was eager to withdraw the small contingent of troops remaining in Afghanistan and is now leaving behind only a token force. Meanwhile, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, his special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation (a quixotic title), has negotiated a deal with the Taliban that appears likely to enable that ally of al-Qaeda to rule Afghanistan once again.
Biden now faces a tough choice. He can give his military leaders the tools they need to adequately perform their missions in Afghanistan and Syria, including training, advising, and otherwise assisting local allies; carrying out counterterrorism operations; and protecting intelligence assets and themselves. Or he can withdraw them all, as Obama withdrew all troops from Iraq in 2011, which would allow the Islamic State room to revive in Syria and Iraq and, as noted, would hand the Taliban an historic victory in Afghanistan.
The most significant achievement of the Trump administration was the signing of the Abraham Accords, the first time in more than a generation that Arab states have opened formal diplomatic relations with Israel. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were the pioneers. Sudan and Morocco are following suit.
An end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can now be imagined. Its realization, however, would require Palestinian leaders to define the “Palestinian cause” not as the destruction of the Jewish state, but as two states for two peoples peacefully co-existing. Hamas, which rules Gaza, will never adopt that position. Mahmoud Abbas, the 85-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank – a position he has held since 2005 – has been, at best, ambivalent about what a two-state solution might mean.
Human rights violations abroad were not a priority for Trump. In that, he was consistent with Obama, who largely ignored abuses not just by Tehran, but also by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Communist rulers (with whom he established diplomatic relations for no concessions in return), and many others.
However, with Trump’s apparent blessing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo established a Commission on Unalienable Rights, intended to reinforce fundamental freedoms as understood by the American founders.
Virulent criticism of Pompeo and his commission was immediately forthcoming from what might be called the human rights establishment, an international elite that wants enhanced rights for groups it deems oppressed, and diminished rights for groups it deems oppressors. This elite also is untroubled by the fact that the UN Human Rights Council is dominated by some of the world’s most egregious abusers of basic freedoms.10
From 2013 to 2015, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management was hit with a hack targeting the records of more than 20 million Americans – at that time the largest breach of government data in history. China is believed to have been responsible.11
The most recent cyber breach of at least six U.S. cabinet-level departments, likely carried out by Russia, makes clear that the tens of billions of dollars spent on cyber defenses by both the Obama and Trump administrations failed to get the job done.
The primary responsibility of a U.S. president is to defend Americans from those intent on doing them harm. In the Trump administration, significant threats, ignored or downplayed by his predecessor, were at least recognized. Accommodation was not the default response.
Following the November election, however, Trump attempted to undermine a key constitutional process: the peaceful transfer of power following an election. History will not judge that lightly.
No one expects Biden to say publicly that Trump’s foreign and national security policies served as a necessary corrective to Obama’s. But perhaps Biden and his top advisors have learned some lessons over the last 12 turbulent years. It would be premature to rule out that possibility. After the election, Biden said he wants the United States to be “[a] nation united, a nation strengthened.”12 Let us hope he understands that strength is no less vital than unity, so that our many enemies are not led to believe they can damage our interests and values with impunity.