Iran, North Korea pull in opposite directions
For the world, it has been a tale of two Trumps. In East Asia, the president is pushing for a fast-paced breakthrough on North Korean nukes, a whirlwind of diplomacy that has spurred talk of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet in the Middle East, where his moves on Israel, Syria and Iran have adversaries and some key allies fuming, many blame the administration for disdaining diplomacy and dangerously raising tensions.
By pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, Mr. Trump delivered on a major campaign promise and triggered a wave of praise from supporters and some regional analysts. They are thrilled that the White House is finally headed by someone who does what says he will without fear of bucking allies and leading on the world stage.
But the outrage over Iran stands in sharp contrast with the thaw Mr. Trump appears bent on quickly achieving with North Korea.
Killing the Iran deal — coupled with relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and calling for a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria — has set nerves on edge in the foreign policy establishment over the risk of moving too hard and too fast with an “America first” doctrine that chafes some of Washington’s longtime international partners.
In both theaters, Mr. Trump in his 15 months in office has swiftly dismantled key aspects of President Obama’s foreign policy legacy. He has walked away from the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. He also has levied tough tariffs on leading trading partners, called out China for its booming surpluses and restrictive trade policies, and vowed to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement if Mexico and Canada don’t agree to major changes, though the deadline for renegotiation passed.
Critics say the differing approaches in East Asia and the Middle East reflect a foreign policy based on an inexperienced president’s impulses and short-term focus that have left the U.S. isolated, but some say the establishment has it backward.
“Trump is not isolating the U.S. internationally; he’s actually reasserting the U.S. as a power broker again,” said Michael Pregent, a senior fellow and Middle East analyst with the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington.
“Everything the president has done so far has been accompanied by dire warnings of catastrophe by the groupthink in Washington, D.C., when actually the opposite has happened,” Mr. Pregent said in an interview.
“North Korea is making overtures, China and Russia are helping us with North Korea. We pulled out of the Iran deal, and Europe is going to pick working with us, the $20 trillion economy, over sticking with Iran, the $400 billion economy.”
Mr. Pregent did express concern that Mr. Trump has yet to formulate a long-term strategy for Iraq and Syria — and cautioned that the administration should be wary of making “bumper sticker” claims of foreign policy successes — but he said it’s absurd to see “the consensus among the establishment is that the president has no strategy on anything.”
“He may not have a strategy the way Washington would want him to have one,” said Mr. Pregent. “But he has goals and, in that, strategy is developed by the people who work with him.”
Critics see attempts to paper over the reality that Mr. Trump has burned through a secretary of state, two national security advisers, a chief of staff, a chief White House strategist and a top economic adviser with well more than half his term to go.
“We have foreign policy by impulse, not by conscious thought. Trump is a rogue elephant, crashing into the structure of the international system and breaking things without a plan,” said Gordon Adams, a longtime foreign policy professor at American University.
Mr. Trump’s stunning decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un face to face to discuss a peace deal faces a cloudy future, Mr. Adams said, while his disruptive moves in the Middle East have produced a backlash.
“There is no way of knowing whether the North Korea talks will lead to something or not, and Trump threw away his premature Nobel Peace Prize when he stepped away from the [Iran deal], leaving further turmoil in the Middle East, alienating our allies and increasing the risk of war,” Mr. Adams said. “Trump’s impulses are for show, not for strategic purpose. There is no sign of a strategy here at all. By walking away from TPP, the Paris climate agreement and [the Iran deal], what he has done is sacrifice U.S. global leadership.”
With the world rebalancing at a rapid pace amid the rise of China, Mr. Adams said, the “erosion of U.S. power and the U.S. role is permanent, not temporary.”
Risk and reward
Given the sharp swerve since Mr. Trump took power, the foreign policy establishment has struggled to explain Mr. Trump’s moves, a task made harder by the biting political climate in Washington.
“As with a lot of things in this presidency, there is the strategic explanation for actions being taken and then probably the correct explanation,” said Hal Brands, a former high-level Pentagon strategist who teaches global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“You can tell a story where getting out of the Iran deal is part of a larger strategy premised on the idea that we’re going to bring the Iranian regime to its knees using harder sanctions,” said Mr. Brands. “But you can also tell a story where the president just doesn’t like the Iran deal because it was negotiated by Obama.
“My view is that the latter is probably true, and if that’s the case, it may be a mistake to search for coherence across President Trump’s foreign policy across different regions,” he said.
But some argue that the president is free to charge ahead with his “America first” doctrine now that several early, more cautious advisers are no longer on the team.
Rex W. Tillerson, who as secretary of state favored staying in the Paris climate accord and the Iran deal, was fired. Gary Cohn quit his post as chief economics adviser after battling with the president on whether to impose tariffs on China.
H.R. McMaster resigned as national security adviser in March and was replaced by the far more hawkish John R. Bolton. As a private analyst, Mr. Bolton argued that America needed a more robust posture globally including, where necessary, the use of military force and the willingness to change regimes that are hostile to vital U.S. interests.
A senior White House national security official said it’s ridiculous to say the churning of aides explains Mr. Trump’s increasingly assertive stances and willingness to challenge the Washington foreign policy establishment.
“The president does what he says he’s going to do,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with The Times. “The fact that this continually shocks people says more about the state of our politics than the state of the administration.
“America first doesn’t mean America alone,” the official added, calling that argument “one of the knee-jerk criticisms out there.”
“What ‘America first’ means is: ‘How are we serving the American people, and is our foreign policy serving the American people?’”
Some longtime foreign policy operatives say Mr. Trump’s impacts on world crises will take a long time to evaluate, particularly given the dramatic changes he seeks to impose. And some deep forces are moving forward no matter who occupies the Oval Office.
“For all the attention drawn to this president’s daily actions, the metrics of American strength are financial solvency, public ethics, a vibrant middle class, shared civic responsibility and a sense of higher purpose in the world,” said Lincoln Bloomfield, a chairman emeritus of the Stimson Center in Washington.
Mr. Bloomfield, who served in security posts in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, said in an interview that “the international goal posts are geopolitical.”
Among them: “Responding effectively to Russia’s and China’s illegal territorial expansion; addressing nuclear and ballistic missile threats from North Korea and Iran; … eliminating sources of support for terrorism, extremism and violent non-state actors; and reversing the dangerous anti-democratic tide in the world.”
“As sports fans know, the play-by-play and rhetorical jousting are entertaining,” Mr. Bloomfield said. “But in the end, all that counts are the points on the board. For that we have to stay tuned.”
In the Middle East and in the Asia-Pacific region, President Trump in his 15 months in office has swiftly dismantled key aspects of President Obama’s foreign policy legacy.