Erratic Trump must get a grip or lose his allies

Unnerved by the US President, America’s friends are loosening their ties with Washington, leaving a vacuum for Russia and China to fill

Dov Zakheim

A sense of gloom is descending over Washington. Once again, a president is under fire; once again the prospect of jail haunts denizens of the West Wing; once again impeachment looms as a real possibility. Unlike Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, however, Donald Trump has rattled his allies and partners since his first days in office, much as he did during his insurgent election campaign. The prospect of instability therefore compounds a development that many politicians and observers overseas, both friendly and hostile, have perceived since January 20: an America that is at war with itself and unable to maintain its long-standing role as leader of the free world.

Admittedly, the Trump Administration has backed away — somewhat — from the President’s unsettling campaign promises and his announcements during his early days in office. The United States has not declared China to be a currency manipulator. It has not taken any steps to move its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It has not renounced Nato, or backed away from Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Indeed, America has dispatched more troops to Europe, for longer exercises than was the case under President Obama. Nor has it terminated participation in the North Atlantic Free Trade Area, though it has initiated a process of renegotiating the agreement with its North American partners, Canada and Mexico.

On the other hand, Trump undermined America’s position in East Asia by terminating American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He further upset his Asian allies, notably Japan and South Korea — which he visited in early November — by engaging in dangerous schoolboy taunts with the unpredictable and trigger-happy young ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. He upset his European allies when he refused to certify that Iran was abiding by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA), colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal. And by pulling America out of the Paris Climate Accord he paved the way for China to present itself as a leader in global environmental policy.

Indeed, unlike Nixon, who resigned before he was impeached by the House of Representatives, or Clinton, who was impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate, Trump does not appear to be able to erect a wall between his foreign and national security policy and his domestic travails, in no small part because foreign — that is, Russian — machinations are at the heart of the ongoing investigation that has rocked Washington. Trump’s hands are tied with respect to Russo-American relations, even though a dialogue between the two states is critical to resolving the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and perhaps even Libya.

Trump’s “America First” policy not only underpins his opposition to free trade but also signals a weakening of America’s security commitments to her allies. Moreover, the President’s constant recourse to “tweet storms,” which are not necessarily consistent with one another, and which he continues to view as policy decisions, has confused allies, friends, and even adversaries as to what exactly America’s national security policy is. Not surprisingly, many states have to a greater or lesser extent chosen to go their own way, effectively sidelining Washington as they have done so.

Russia and China in particular have exploited the opening that Barack Obama initially provided to them and that Trump has considerably widened. Russia, long an outlier in the Middle East, is today perhaps its most active and forceful player with increasingly greater influence especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. Whereas the Soviet Union had no relations with Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Jewish state’s long-serving prime minister, is a frequent flyer to Moscow, as is his defense minister Avigdor Liberman.

Similarly, while Egypt’s Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviets in 1972, its current leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has welcomed Russia back with open arms. For years America’s most powerful Arab ally, Egypt signed a major deal with Moscow in 2014 to acquire its S-300 air defence system and the following year purchased up to 50 upgraded Russian Mig-29M and MiG 35 combat aircraft and 46 Ka-50 combat helicopters at a cost of some $2 billion. In addition, in November 2016 the two countries signed an agreement calling for Russia to build and finance Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Sisi, like the Israelis, with whom he is extremely close, is hedging his bets regarding America’s reliability as an ally.

Russia has also upgraded its relations with Turkey, its historic rival. Despite the Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24M all-weather attack aircraft over its border in November 2016, Ankara’s relations with Moscow have become increasingly warmer. Indeed, Russia refused to support the Kurdish referendum on independence out of Vladimir Putin’s deference to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moreover, Turkey and Russia, together with Iran, concluded the Astana agreement on Syria in May 2017 without active American involvement. The agreement, and ongoing talks that have followed between the three countries, has resulted in the creation of four de-escalation zones in Syria, which are functioning with some degree of success.

Syria is the scene of Russia’s most forceful and successful incursion into the region. Having been dismissed by Barack Obama as having little capacity for influencing the outcome of the civil war, Russia’s military intervention has not only ensured the survival of the Assad regime, if not of Assad himself, but also expanded its long-term presence in the country. Moscow long had port privileges at the Syrian naval base of Tartus, but had no formal basing agreement. That has now changed: last January, Russia signed a 49-year renewable lease for both the Tartus base and the Khmeimim air base that it built in 2015. Russia continues to maintain good relations with Iran, not only with respect to their joint support of Assad, but also in the realm of military arms sales.

Lastly, Russia has signed a major arms deal with Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who effectively controls the eastern region of Libya, which is governed from Tobruk. Washington, for its part, only recognises the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli. As is the case elsewhere in the Middle East, however, it has lost the initiative in resolving that country’s civil war.

Like that of Russia, Iran’s influence continues to grow throughout the Middle East. Thirteen years ago, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a Shia Crescent that would emerge in the region; Western analysts pooh-poohed his concerns. Iran has proved Abdullah’s prescience. Not only has it joined with Russia in propping up the Assad regime, and maintained its strong support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, it has also become the major actor in Iraq, despite America’s huge outlays in blood and treasure to stabilise the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, it was the Shia militias, nominally under the command of Baghdad but in fact linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which played a major role in the Kurdish loss of Kirkuk. The fall of the historic Kurdish capital has in turn resulted in the resignation of President Massoud Barzani, who had maintained an uneasy relationship with Tehran. The Iranians preferred to support the PUK party, the longstanding rival to Barzani’s DPK. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration sat on its hands as Kirkuk fell, once again betraying the Kurds, who have been their staunch allies in the war against ISIS both in Syria and Iraq, and demonstrating to all America’s unreliability as a partner when it is most needed.

Iran’s subversion of Middle Eastern regimes stretches from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. Tehran continues to support the Houthi rebels in Yemen, thereby confounding the efforts of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to restore the government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. It has not lessened its efforts to subvert the Sunni al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain. Finally, it has announced that it will once again fund Hamas, which continues to seek Israel’s destruction.

Russia’s re-emergence in the Middle East and Iran’s growing influence there is paralleled by China’s ongoing assertiveness not only in the Western Pacific but more generally on the international economic stage. China has for some time been creating and militarising artificial islands in the South China Sea despite protests emanating from Washington and Europe. It has no intention of stopping, and essentially has chosen to ignore American objections to its activities. As  China’s leader Xi Jinping bluntly emphasised in his marathon speech to last month’s 19th Party Congress, “construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea has seen steady progress.” In addition, China has opened its first-ever overseas base at the Djibouti port of Doraleh on the Gulf of Aden, giving it access to the Indian Ocean. Equally important is China’s continued thrust for a leadership position in the world economic order. It has capitalised upon the Obama Administration’s failure to dissuade its European and Canadian allies from joining the Chinese-led Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), headquartered — naturally — in Beijing, which now has 56 member states, including longstanding enemies such as Israel and Iran, and India and Pakistan. The AIIB is providing finance for Xi Jingping’s signature economic project, namely, the linking of China to Europe via overland and maritime routes termed “One Belt One Road.” Again, Washington is not a player in this ambitious undertaking.

China is hardly the Trump Administration’s only or most urgent challenge. Washington has yet to formulate a successful strategy to prevent North Korea from becoming a true nuclear-armed state. Trump’s sabre-rattling has done little to dissuade Kim Jong-un. But it has disconcerted Japan and South Korea to the degree that either or both may choose to create and then rely on their own nuclear strategy rather than meekly hide under what they may perceive as a porous American nuclear umbrella.

Shinzo Abe’s smashing victory in Japan’s legislative elections in October certainly points to a more assertive Japanese posture, given Abe’s longstanding desire to free his country from the shackles of its pacifist constitution. South Korea, like Japan, has avoided developing its own nuclear capability, preferring instead to rely on the American deterrent. The voices that are calling for Seoul to possess its own independent nuclear capability are getting louder, however, in the face of North Korea’s ongoing weapons and missile tests. The assertion by Assemblyman Won Yoo-cheol of the ruling Saenuri Party that South Korea “cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbour every time it rains. We need to have a raincoat and wear it ourselves” typifies this view.

At the time of writing, Special Counsel Robert Mueller had brought down indictments on 12 counts, including money-laundering and multiple counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank accounts, against Paul Manafort, Trump’s one-time election campaign chairman, and his associate Rick Gates, also a member of the Trump campaign team. If convicted on all counts, both men could spend the rest of their lives in prison — unless they turn state’s witness against senior members of the Trump White House. That already appears to be the case with respect to a relatively junior Trump campaign official, George Papadopoulos, from whom Mueller obtained a guilty plea for having lied to the FBI. Papadopoulos had actively sought contacts with the Russians during the presidential campaign, and had even suggested to more senior campaign officials that Trump travel to Russia. Having exchanged emails with Manafort and other campaign personnel, Papadopoulos could represent a serious threat to persons close to the President.

Trump is clearly frustrated by these developments, over which he has no control. Should he choose to fire Mueller, or even to restrict the funds available to him, his actions could be interpreted as obstruction of justice. In turn, that could trigger an impeachment process on Capitol Hill that Republicans, already nervous about their prospects in the 2018 legislative elections, may find themselves unable to prevent. The President has been obsessed with the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections ever since they were launched. He is unlikely to be less concerned about them today, or indeed for as long as they continue. Foreign policy, never Trump’s strong suit, is certain to suffer as a result, especially given the ongoing turmoil at the State Department, where Secretary Rex Tillerson often appears to focus more on personnel reductions than on America’s role overseas.

America’s friends and allies thus have good reason to be nervous. Nevertheless, this is not the first time in recent memory that America’s commitment was in doubt: Washington’s dismal international standing is not very different from that of the Jimmy Carter era, when Europe witnessed the neutron bomb fiasco, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and Iran took American hostages. America’s alliances withstood those tests, and reemerged even stronger in the ensuing years as the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War was won. Certainly these are trying times, yet America’s strategic fundamentals remain sound. Its military is still the most powerful in the world; its economy is on the upswing; its technology base is second to none. Washington’s alliances and friendships have weathered many crises in the past. No doubt they will do so again — but only in due course. 

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