By Fareed Zakaria
Three months ago, Donald Trump suddenly withdrew American forces from northern Syria that were, in part, thwarting Iran’s efforts to dominate the country, declaring, “Going into the Middle East is one of the worst decisions ever made in the history of our country. It’s like quicksand.” Well, a few weeks ago, he dramatically escalated America’s military engagement in the region, ordering a strike on Iran’s most important military leader and deploying thousands more troops. How to make sense of this Middle East policy?
It gets more confusing. Around the same time that he was urgently withdrawing American troops from what he calls the “sand and death” of Syria, Trump sent 3,000 additional troops to Saudi Arabia. (When asked why, he answered that the Saudis were paying good money for this deployment.) And just a few weeks after announcing the Syria withdrawal, he reversed himself and left some troops in the north, “only for the oil.” All clear now?
After the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Trump warned that were Iran to attack “any Americans, or American assets,” he would retaliate “very fast and very hard.” And yet after Iran did attack two American bases, Trump essentially did nothing, announcing that Tehran “appears to be standing down.” I’m glad Trump chose to deescalate, but that doesn’t change the fact that he reversed himself yet again.
The problem with Trump”s foreign policy is not any specific action. The killing of Soleimani could be justified as a way to respond to Iranian provocations, but this move, like so much of Trump’s foreign policy, was impulsive, reckless, unplanned and inconsistent — and as usual, the chief impact is chaos and confusion. Trump did not bother to coordinate with the government of Iraq, on whose territory the attack was perpetrated. After the Iraqi government protested and voiced a desire to have American troops leave Iraq, he threatened to sanction the country and stay put until it paid the U.S. billions of dollars for an air base.
The result: A policy that could well have resulted in a marked diminution of Iran’s power might well trigger the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, which has been the chief Iranian objective in the region for years.
This is not an isolated instance. Trump began his policy toward North Korea threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and ridiculing its leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man.” Soon he was declaring his unabashed affection for Kim — “we fell in love” — and making unprecedented concessions by meeting with the dictator three times. Trump kept hoping for a deal and, despite every indication that Kim was unwilling, kept up his one-sided love affair, minimizing the North Korean regime’s record of almost-unsurpassed brutality and terror.
Trump had warned that if North Korea’s trajectory was not halted, the world faced a dire situation, hinting of the dangers of a regional conflagration. Well, North Korea continues on its path. In fact, Kim recently promised to reveal a “new strategic weapon,” which hasn’t elicited any concern or even response from Trump. Was he hyperventilating then, or is he overly sanguine now?
Or consider China. Trump was right to take on Beijing’s illiberal trade practices, and he promised to push the country to make real reforms — such as ending or at least reducing its state subsidies to domestic companies, its favorable regulatory treatment of local businesses, and its theft of intellectual property. He raised tariffs and kept announcing that he would hold out for a big deal that got at these issues. Then, suddenly, he announced a phase one agreement that punts on most of them. Instead, the pact seems to be a familiar “managed trade” deal in which Beijing promises to buy more American goods. That is precisely what the Chinese had been willing to do from the start, making it unclear why the U.S. had inflicted the pain of tariffs — which are paid for by American consumers.
Donald Trump does not have a foreign policy. He has a series of impulses — isolationism, unilateralism, bellicosity — some of them contradictory. One might surge at any particular moment, triggered usually by Trump’s sense that he might look weak or foolish. They are often unleashed without any consultation, and then his yes men line up to defend him, supporting the president’s every move with North Korean-style enthusiasm, no matter how incoherent.
The United States has made many mistakes in foreign policy. But over the past several decades, it has by and large had a carefully thought-through process of decision-making, involving consultation with allies, and tried to maintain consistency and coherence in its policy. That hard-won reputation is being squandered in arena after arena around the globe.
Fareed Zakaria’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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