Why isn’t Donald Trumpeting His Foreign Policy Record?

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Lambert here: This should provoke discussion! (And do think twice before using the word “you” in a comment. Address the substance of the comment, not the commenter.)

By Paul Rogers, professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy’s international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group.. Originally published at Open Democracy.

With the US election campaign entering its final weeks, one of its oddities so far is that Donald Trump is saying very little about the global aspect of his mission to “Make America Great Again”. True, there are plenty of reasons to concentrate on affairs at home, but all the falsehoods and fake trails on COVID-19, law and order, the economy, wildfires and the rest are doing little but shore up his base.

What makes this odd is that the Trump team are more than skilled enough to manipulate their presentation of foreign achievements as successes if not triumphs. The thorny issue of North Korea is currently sidelined, with Trump able to argue that his deal-making skills have brought Kim Jong-un to the table, while being vague on the details, and he can claim to be a peacemaker in the Middle East with the Israel-UAE-Bahrain agreement.

On Afghanistan he can point to the current peace talks between the government and the Taliban and the steady withdrawal of US troops, with plans being to bring back almost all the uniformed troops by next May, with half of them back home before the election. As for Iraq and Syria, he can also hail the withdrawal of US troops from those countries. It all sounds a good package from his perspective, especially if the pudding is hugely over-egged by a cursory regard for facts.

On all those issues, though, the actual circumstances are trickier. Things certainly are quiet at present on the North Korean front but so far it is Kim who has outplayed Trump and got more of what he wanted. Sanctions continue to have a dire effect on the North Korean economy, but China is providing sufficient support to avoid collapse, while the development of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads continues with little fuss from Washington.

Three years ago, an array of missile tests included the Hwasong-15, an ICBM with a range estimated at 13,000 kilometres – sufficient to reach any part of the US. In his election campaign in 2016 Trump made it clear that he would never allow the North Koreans to threaten the continental US, yet a further test of this missile would be enough to show he has broken that promise. There have been recent indications that the North Koreans could conduct such a test at short notice, so any campaign attempt by Trump to trumpet victory could suddenly look rather silly. Perhaps best to leave that item out of campaigning for now.

As for troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, that is certainly the intention, but problems are already emerging. The peace talks with the Taliban got under way two weeks ago. Within ten days, however, there were strong indications that the Taliban were continuing their offensive operations across the country, and US sources believe the progress of the talks will at best be tortuous.

The Afghan government’s concern is that the Taliban are entrenched across so much of rural Afghanistan that they are essentially negotiating from a position of strength and that the US is simply walking away because of domestic considerations. This would leave the government having to concede far too much. Among many sufferers from a Taliban role in governance would be women’s rights, but that means little or nothing to Trump.

He may well try and make something of his ‘success’ in Afghanistan, but it will be more difficult with Iraq and Syria. Here, again, ‘success’ depends on how you see it. US troop withdrawals have already cost the Kurds dear and are they are being left in the lurch. In any case, in spite of the four-year air war against ISIS which destroyed its caliphate, it is still a significant force even in Syria. It has even increased its attacks on US troops, so much so that earlier this week the Pentagon announced it was sending a mechanised force across the border into eastern Syria to protect US troops guarding oil installations against ISIS.

Trump can claim success in his dealings with Israel, but the agreements with Bahrain and the Emirates will, again, only shore up core support, no more.

Meanwhile, Islamist paramilitaries continue to maintain and even increase their influence in North Africa and across the Sahel. There are reported to be more than 5,000 ISIS paramilitaries in deeply unstable Libya and the instability in Mali following the recent coup does little to diminish their influence there.

Across the continent, Shabab in Somalia and North-East Kenya is sufficiently emboldened to increase its direct attack on US units. One Pentagon response to this is to argue for armed drone operations to be run from Kenya, provided the government will agree.

Overall, given his capacity for wild statements and unpredictability, Trump may still bring these issues into the campaign and will no doubt embellish the claimed successes.

Where he would remain vulnerable, though, is that his recent criticisms of the senior US military, and especially his widely reported comments on US troops killed in action being “losers”, mean that any reference to military successes can easily be connected to those views. If Trump, as he hints, is ready to challenge the election result, he may come to need the support of the Pentagon. Perhaps best, therefore, not to raise the defence issue during the next few weeks.

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This entry was posted in Banana republic, Globalization, Politics on September 27, 2020 by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered.
To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

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