Why Trump’s 'maximum pressure' foreign policy yields minimum results: Guardian

August 12, 2019 - 21:23

Donald Trump is heading into the 2020 elections with no clear-cut foreign policy successes, some dramatic failures and a string of looming crises around the world that could undermine his bid for re-election.

For that reason, many expect the president to try to reverse the trend with dramatic interventions around the globe with uncertain outcomes – which will make the next 16 months even more volatile than his presidency so far.

Trump has pulled out of nuclear agreements with Iran and Russia but the better deals he predicted seem more remote than ever, and in their absence nuclear weapons proliferation looks likely to accelerate.

An effort to oust Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela in April was a fiasco, and subsequent efforts to strangle the economy have so far showed no sign of achieving their political objective. This week, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned that the measures are likely to significantly exacerbate conditions for millions of ordinary Venezuelan.

Trump’s proudest diplomatic achievement so far, becoming the first U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader, is looking increasingly hollow, as Kim Jong-un steadily builds up his nuclear arsenal and resumes missile testing.

Similarly, Trump’s most significant military win, completing the eradication of the Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq, has been tarnished by a Pentagon inspector general report this week saying that ISIS had “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria”.

In Afghanistan, the administration claims to be close to an agreement with the Taliban, clearing the way for a major withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of Trump’s first term, but a spike in violence, with 1,500 civilian casualties in July alone, has underlined the tenuous nature of such negotiations.

Foreign policy issues rarely play a leading role in U.S. presidential elections, but Trump has relentlessly portrayed himself as uniquely able to strike deals with foreign leaders and bring U.S. troops home. And some foreign crises have a direct domestic result. The absence so far of the promised deal with China, the imposition of tariffs and the prospect of a worsening trade war will directly hit consumers and producers.

“What is interesting is that in every one of these issues, Trump saw a domestic political benefit: getting tough on China, Iran, on Venezuela, with voters in Florida in mind, the spectacle of meeting Kim Jong-un,” said Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. “But whatever short-term benefit there was has been more than eclipsed by the long-term mess he has created.”

Trump appears to be aware of his foreign policy deficit as he barrels towards full campaign mode, and is seeking to address it.
In the short term, that has amounted to redefining success.

In relation to North Korea, that means playing down the original claim that diplomacy with Kim would lead to nuclear disarmament. The emphasis instead has been on Pyongyang’s moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. When North Korea stepped up short range missile launches, the red line was shifted to a block on intercontinental missiles.

The “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran was intended to change the Tehran government’s behavior in the region, ending uranium enrichment, making it pull back from involvement, directly or through proxies, in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and persuade it open new negotiations with the U.S., outside the multilateral 2015 deal, that Trump abandoned.

By those measures, so far the strategy is backfiring. Iran is stepping up its nuclear program beyond the limits of the 2015 deal. It has become more assertive in the Persian Gulf and it has rejected several overtures from intermediaries offering talks with Trump.

However, the Trump administration argues it is making gains by cutting down Tehran’s disposable cash.

It is unclear whether tactic of lowering the success threshold will carry Trump through to the election in November next year, as North Korea fires off ever more provocative missiles tests, and Iran breaks free of its nuclear constraints.

Trump’s other option would be retake the initiative with bold action. That could take military form, though that would be the last resort. A new conflict on the Korean peninsula or the Persian Gulf would be disastrous, electorally and otherwise. The president was “cocked and loaded” to strike Iran in June but called off the operation at the last moment, when he was warned it could cost him his second term.

His instinct is to make an eye-catching deal. He has signaled his interest in another summit with Kim – jubilantly announcing the arrival of another “very beautiful” letter from the North Korean leader - where he could offer a partial easing of sanctions for the destruction of some of North Korea’s nuclear weapons infrastructure.

Trump’s attempt to talk directly to Iran’s leadership have thus far been rebuffed, but September’s UN General Assembly offers another opportunity for a meeting with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. It would probably take a significant easing of economic pressure to pull that off.

Trump may just think it is worth the risk, even if entailed the departure of his ultra-hawk national security adviser, John Bolton.

A partial trade deal might also be engineered with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in which China restarts imports of U.S. agricultural products in return perhaps for the easing of ban on dealing with the Huawei tech giant.

“I’m guessing from what the president has said in the past he’s willing to give more than other people [in his team] are willing to give, but that’s usually the case since he’s transactional and he wants a deal,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So maybe there could be a prospect for some small deal that emerges in September.”

Trump could seize any such agreement and proclaim it deal of the century. The question would be whether Pyongyang, Tehran or Beijing is prepared to play along, and that depends on whether they see an interest in helping the president win a second term.

“It is remarkable how much agency these countries have,” Rhodes said. “Certainly, Iran, China and North Korea will be aware that anything they do will have an impact on the elections … They have a vote.”

Kim has good reason to assist a president who has showered recognition and praise on its leader, so could well consider concessions. Tehran would most certainly like to see him gone, and will be unwilling to help stage diplomatic photo ops. Beijing too is showing signs it would rather not face a second Trump term.

In the faces of such challenges from abroad, Trump has demonstrated a willingness to take brinksmanship ever closer to the edge of an all-out trade war, or a shooting war.

“Trump will be trying to grab the headlines and portray himself as a leader,” said Julianne Smith, a former senior national security official in the Obama White House. “We will see a series of rash and reckless moves and a lot more drama in the next 18 months. So hold on to your hats.”

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