by Gordon Adams 12 February 2019
Not only is the Trump administration not normal, its foreign policy reveals an administration in turmoil with several foreign policies being pursued at the same time. No wonder the world is confused about what American policy is. Policy-making in this administration is clearly a jump ball.
This is especially clear when it comes to decisions to withdraw from or intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. America First-ers seem to be duking it out with neo-conservatives in the executive branch. Meanwhile, liberal and conservative interventionists in Congress confront the White House with mythical policies drawn from the past, but having no future (see my characterization of these different camps of foreign policy advocates). The cacophony is especially obvious when it comes to Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and Venezuela.
Trump’s personal foreign policy inclination, if his words mean anything at all, is not to get involved in other countries’ internal affairs, especially using the American military to intervene. As he put it in the State of the Union, “great nations do not fight endless wars.”
His apparent decision to bring U.S. troops home from Syria and Afghanistan seems entirely consistent with this non-meddling attitude. The Syria withdrawal is already underway and the same approach seems likely in Afghanistan, a conflict Trump clearly does not intend to pursue. The 50 percent reduction in the 14,000 American troops there may well be complete by the end of the spring, though technically, the order has not been written. And someone, probably the president, has clearly authorized Zalman Khalilzad to negotiate hard with the Taliban to find an exit from the American commitment.
The Afghanistan withdrawal talks, in fact, are staggeringly reminiscent of the negotiations to leave Vietnam in the 1970s. The war is unwinnable, and the Taliban cannot be crushed. The government in Kabul does not control the countryside. President Ghani says 45,000 soldiers have died in the last four years and the Afghan military is shrinking. Meanwhile, “warlord” regimes in other regions of the country are hopelessly corrupt and un-reformable. This is all sounds like Vietnam, complete with leaving the host government out of the peace talks and a last-minute crushing pattern of U.S. bombing intended to buy leverage for the Americans in the peace negotiations.
I am not talking here about whether leaving Syria and Afghanistan makes sense. I am among those who think that the withdrawals are completely realistic. A continuing U.S. military presence in Syria buys no leverage, not even a place at the table, in the peace negotiations and only a slender thread of influence over the desire by a decidedly independent Turkey to eliminate Kurdish militias. A stalemate or pending loss in Afghanistan, after 18 years, reveals just how little the United States understood its Vietnam error and how impossible it is to use military force to change another country’s politics, economy, and security structure.
What is equally interesting is how the implementation of these policies of withdrawal reflects the chaotic nature of Trump administration policy-making, which continually calls each decision into account. Trump announces a withdrawal from Syria, but, wait a minute, the Pentagon did not know and had no plan, and the secretary of defense resigns over the decision. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tries to reassure the Kurds that they will be safe. And surreptitious leaks from the administration suggest (in a conservative interventionist mode) that maybe the military needs to stay around for the mythical leverage it provides. Meanwhile, both liberal and conservative interventionists in Congress object and debate bipartisan resolutions that would slow down or prevent withdrawal, though Congress has no policy option for how to change the realities.
Even with the back and forth on Syria and Afghanistan, put these two “no more endless wars” decisions together with administration policy on Iran and Venezuela and it seems that the same old neo-con and interventionist options are alive and well in the administration. Despite his recent denials about seeking regime change in Iran, National Security Advisor John Bolton’s objective is precisely that, as he clearly signaled before he joined the administration. Turning the screws on the Iranian economy and encouraging protests in the Iranian streets hark back to the swagger days of Kermit Roosevelt and the last U.S. effort to replace the government in Iran with something friendlier to US interests.
With dart-board randomness, regime change seems attractive to the non-interventionist president, who now pushes hard for the same outcome in much-troubled Venezuela, including the threat of military intervention. This about-face is surely music to Bolton’s ears. Or, more likely, he (and Florida senator and conservative interventionist Marco Rubio) serenaded Trump about reviving the long history of U.S. military intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean. The appointment of arch-interventionist neo-conservative Elliot Abrams as Special Representative for Venezuela, given his history of interventionism in Latin America, underscores the reemergence of bully America.
It seems that someone somewhere in the White House just can’t resist the desire to intervene. Nothing has served U.S. interests less well in the last 125 years than the desire to step into somebody else’s country to arrange their affairs. The United States seems to want to be a global Marie Kondo, the decluttering expert—going in to straighten things out, throw a few things away, bring some feng shui to the place, harmonize the people with their environment, and leave. America believes that it knows better, after all. And then America reaps the reward: loss of credibility, hostile reactions, and a further diminution of its role in the world.
This administration, with its loose coordination, inexperienced leadership, and chaotic management, turns out to be fertile ground for those who cannot resist the temptation to intervene and meddle. Even when withdrawal starts, the interveners in the White House and the broader foreign policy blob are around to slow it down and snuff it out, if possible. This chaos is endlessly confusing to others, dangerous to global stability, and damaging to America’s long-term interests.
Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus at the School of International Service, American University and, since 2008, a Distinguished Fellow (non-resident) at the Stimson Center both in Washington, DC. He taught at American University and George Washington University from 1999-2015. From 1993-97 he was Associate Director for National Security Programs at the Office of Management and Budget, the senior Clinton White House official for national security and foreign policy budgets. He is the co-editor of Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy (Georgetown, 2014), co-author of Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home (Routledge, 2010), and author of The Iron Triangle: The Politics of Defense Contracting (Transaction Press 1981). He was founder and Director of the Defense Budget Project from 1983-93. He has a Ph.D from Columbia University. He writes frequently on foreign policy and national security issues for a wide variety of publications. He is also a working professional actor.