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Freddy Gray Middle East US Politics World

Trump’s foreign policy isn’t working

America First realism has been a cypher

December 31, 2019

8:25 AM

31 December 2019

8:25 AM

An end to endless wars? Get real. America’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War is a never-ceasing tragedy. One front improves, another worsens.

On Sunday, it emerged that the Taliban council had agreed a ceasefire in Afghanistan, a development that could at last end America’s longest war, its 18-year military engagement in the graveyard of empires. Maybe President Donald Trump really could make good on his promise to end America’s hopeless and destructive foreign entanglements.

At the same time, however, Iraq has fallen into greater chaos again — because America can’t stop meddling. George W. Bush’s other great disaster continues. The failure cycle whirs. Last night, Shiite protesters stormed the US embassy compound in Baghdad in protest at US airstrikes in Iraq in recent days, which killed 25 fighters of the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah. The airstrikes were themselves a response to the killing of an American contractor in Iraq. The protesters shouted: ‘Down, Down, USA’, ‘Death to America’, and ‘Death to Israel’. It’s all so appallingly familiar. Everybody sees the hand of Iran, and already the more bellicose pundits are talking about the need for America to tackle Tehran directly.

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But the latest Iraq eruption points not just to Iran, but to a serious flaw in Trump’s leadership. The 45th president was meant to be the great disruptor on the world stage — a leader so unorthodox that he could dismantle the national security establishment’s grip on America’s armed forces. He was meant to be against the foreign-policy swampthink in DC, the military-industrial complex and so on.

In some ways, he is. But there has been a disconnect between his public anti-war stance and the covert hawkishness of his administration. America First realism has been something of a cypher: in many areas, Trump has merely continued the foreign policy of Barack Obama: fighting shadow wars across the Middle East, as America tries, cack-handedly, to pull away from conflicts but always ends up being drawn back in. Quagmires abroad don’t just vanish with a new man in the White House.

Donald Trump wasn’t just elected because he said he’d build a wall. He was elected because he spoke about America’s exhaustion with war and ‘losing’ — so did Obama in 2008. But disentangling from conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan requires not just warm words about bringing troops home. It demands careful, strategic thought, something that appears to be lacking in this administration.

Trump excels at the pyrotechnics of dealmaking. He generates crisis headlines to achieve resolution headlines. But, as we have seen with North Korea, foreign policy problems are more intractable than real-estate deals. Trump has been disruptive enough to open up new avenues of possibility in foreign affairs. But so far he hasn’t been able to exploit those opportunities.

Faced with complexity, Trump often defers to the more war-prone voices in the State Department and elsewhere. He likes to believe he is cleverly triangulating between the hawks and the doves, keeping everyone guessing while he forges ahead in America’s best interests.

Yet the reality of Trump’s foreign policy and his bragging at rallies don’t add up. Trump ‘destroyed’ Isis, famously. Now Isis is back with a vengeance. He tore up the Iran deal, and his admirers said that Iran’s theocratic regime would fall apart. Iran has been weakened, no doubt. But Tehran is duly causing more trouble in Iraq, not less. Trump’s great skill is his ability to simplify messages for public consumption. He reduces difficult opponents to two-word insults. He specializes in feel-good and feel-bad slogans. But resolving war requires more than just salesmanship. And achieving peace needs more than just hot air.

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