Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Mattis Reassures in Asia, But Who Has Trump’s Ear on Foreign Policy?

Trump Mattis

On his first official trip as secretary of defense, Jim Mattis sent a signal to U.S. allies that American foreign policy in the region will feature more continuity than change. In South Korea, Mattis reaffirmed that the United States would react to a nuclear attack by North Korea with an “effective and overwhelming” response, and stated, along with the South’s defense minister, America’s commitment to proceed with the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. Mattis also provided clarification on the administration’s position in the South China Sea. In a break with past rhetoric by other administration officials, Mattis said “At this time we do not see any need for dramatic military moves [in the South China Sea],” and emphasized the importance of diplomacy.

Mature foreign policy statements have been a rare commodity since Trump’s election, and Mattis’s reassurance tour brought a deep sigh of relief from friends and adversaries alike. Whether or not Trump will follow through on Mattis’s words is an open question, however.

Initial reporting on the Trump administration’s approach to decision-making reveals two things. First, while his outlook cannot be labeled “restraint,” Mattis has a relatively restrained or moderate outlook on foreign policy. Second, the ability of such moderate voices to influence Trump is challenged by a group of policy advisors centered on Chief Strategist (and National Security Council member) Steve Bannon that has a much more aggressive outlook.

John McCain: America’s Foreign Policy Loose Cannon

President Trump’s testy telephone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly produced a reaction from one ubiquitous U.S. player on foreign policy issues, Arizona Senator John McCain. He contacted Australia’s ambassador in Washington to assure him of Washington’s undying devotion to the U.S. alliance with Australia and to that country’s security and well-being. The implicit message was that Canberra should not take Trump or his actions seriously. In so doing, McCain basically anointed himself as America’s shadow president, with the right and obligation to bypass the elected president and conduct relations with foreign governments and other parties.

His actions were entirely inappropriate. Granted, Trump’s conduct toward Turnbull deserves no praise. During the telephone call, a dispute arose over refugee policy, and an angry Trump reportedly berated the Australian leader and abruptly cut the scheduled one-hour session short after 25 minutes. Such behavior was that of a petulant adolescent rather than the expected behavior of a president of the United States.

Nevertheless, the Constitution empowers the president and his appointees to conduct America’s foreign policy. Even senators are not authorized to undercut their authority by engaging in direct, free-lance diplomacy with foreign leaders. Yet that is what McCain did.

Unfortunately, this was hardly the first time that he has engaged in such disruptive behavior. His record is that of an annoying, and sometimes dangerous, loose cannon. For example, during Ukraine’s political crisis in late 2013 and early 2014, McCain showed up in Kiev to urge on anti-government demonstrators in their bid to unseat President Victor Yanukovych’s elected government before the expiration of its term in 2016. America was on their side, he assured them.

McCain engaged in similar meddling in Syria’s civil war. In May 2013, he met with so-called moderate rebels who were trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and as in Kiev, conveyed America’s alleged solidarity with their cause. This intrusive action occurred at a time when the Obama administration remained wary of the United States becoming entangled in the bloody, complex conflict, and was at least trying to limit the extent of U.S. involvement. Not only were McCain’s actions complicating official U.S. policy, but they should have been embarrassing to the Arizona senator. The reality is that there were (and are) very few truly moderate Syrian rebels. Most of them are Islamists masquerading as moderates to gain support from gullible Westerners. Even McCain seemed unclear about the specific identities or the nature of his interlocutors in Syria.

Especially in light of his dreadful track record, McCain should tend to his senatorial duties and stop trying to be a shadow president or secretary of state. In fact, given his dreadful, ultra-hawkish views and his advocacy of, and often feverish lobbying efforts for, a lengthy series of ill-advised foreign policy ventures (ranging from the calamitous Iraq War to a new cold war with Russia), it might be better for all concerned if he just concentrated on domestic issues.

Conflicted Public Reaction to Trump’s Immigration Executive Order

Last Friday, President Trump issued an executive order temporarily barring entry of refugees, visitors, and immigrants—including those with green cards—from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. During this delay, the government is tasked with making its screening process more extensive. The order indefinitely bans refugees from Syria.

As Henry Enten notes, we’ll have to wait until we have more polling data to ascertain how the public will judge the action, but polling over the past year gives us some clues.

Slim but Shy Support Most polls throughout 2015-2016 found about 56% of Americans opposed Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States. However, these polls tended to be conducted by live telephone interviewers. In contrast, polls conducted online by reputable firms like YouGov and Morning consult, find a plurality of Americans in support.

Aggregating over 40 telephone and online polls conducted over the past two years finds Americans opposed to the ban 56% to 39% in surveys conducted by phone, but a plurality in support 49% to 39% in surveys conducted online. This suggests that people taking surveys by phone feel uncomfortable sharing their true feelings and thus fib to the live interviewers. But, privately taking a survey online encourages people to share what they really think. In the polling world, this is called “social desirability bias” evoked by social pressure to not appear prejudiced to the live interviewer.

Of course, the difference cannot be entirely attributed to survey mode since the questions weren’t worded the exact same way. Nonetheless, it’s suggestive that there is a “shy immigration restrictionist” effect going on. (Remember the shy Trump voter?)

Americans Don’t Support an Outright Ban on Refugees Existing data suggest Americans do not support a permanent ban on refugees. Most telephone and online surveys found that Americans oppose not taking any refugees at all and a plurality (46%) say the “US should open our borders to refugees of foreign conflicts” according to an Ipsos/Reuters Jan 2017 online survey. At the same time, Americans tend to support taking fewer refugees rather than more, when given the option. For instance, both an Ipsos/Reuters Jan 2017 online survey and a Marist Apr 2016 telephone survey found 53% of Americans want the US to take in fewer refugees.

Wording Impacts Support Strength As you can imagine, survey question wording impacts responses. Support for immigration restriction increases when refugees and immigrants are described as coming from “terror prone regions” or when respondents are told that government needs time to enhance security measures. For instance, Rasmussen, measures the highest degree of support (57%) when it asked if respondents support or oppose a “temporary ban on refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen until the federal government improves its ability to screen out potential terrorists from coming here.” This question presupposes the government screening system is already poor and the new administration could meaningfully improve it. If these are the assumptions going in, support will be higher. When national security concerns are invoked and at the top of people’s minds they are more supportive of immigration restrictions.

Support for immigration restriction decreases, however, when the described policy implies a religious test. Surveys register lower support (48%) if the policy is described as a “temporary ban on all Muslims traveling to the United States” (from Morning Consult).

Trump Administration Begins Threat Inflation on Iran

In an op-ed for the Boston Herald last week urging the Trump administration to uphold the Iran nuclear deal, I noted that the precise posture that the Trump White House will have toward Iran is not yet known. Today, we got our first insight into just how confrontational that posture will be. And it doesn’t look good.

Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said in a White House briefing that, “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” According to Flynn, Iran’s recent test of ballistic missiles, which he said is “in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231,” along with an alleged attack on a Saudi naval vessel “conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants” in Yemen, serve as evidence of “Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the entire Middle East” and make clear that the nuclear agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1 has “emboldened” Iran to act nefariously in the region, “plac[ing] American lives at risk.”

Flynn’s statement amounts to heated, combative rhetoric over rather trivial issues. Only one of the incidents cited by Flynn was an Iranian action. While it’s true that Iran supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen, it has never been clear exactly how much support they give and it is doubtful Iran has the kind of leverage over the militants that make them qualify as strategic proxies. At the end of the day, whatever instability is caused by Iranian support for the Houthis, it doesn’t hold a candle to the regional instability caused by Sunni jihadists, like al-Qaeda-linked groups and ISIS, that have been supported with funds coming out of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. Rather than berate the Saudis with threatening bombast in a White House briefing, though, Washington continues to aid the Saudi military as it relentlessly bombs Yemen, killing thousands of civilians, putting millions at risk of starvation, and committing acts that a United Nations panel said could amount to crimes against humanity

With regard to Iran’s ballistic missile test, the reality is far less alarming than Flynn’s words suggest. The nuclear deal itself doesn’t prohibit these missile tests. And as Dan Joyner, professor of international law at the University of Alabama School of Law, explains, “the assertion that Iran’s ballistic missile tests…violate UN Security Council resolutions is incorrect because, as of Implementation Day, all UNSCR’s adopted prior to that date regarding Iran are terminated except for Resolution 2231. And the language that Resolution 2231 employs in addressing Iran’s ballistic missile activity is legally nonbinding language…[T]here can thus be no violation of a legal obligation that doesn’t exist.”

As The Wall Street Journal reports, “UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal, ‘called upon’ Iran to avoid any activity related to missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.” It’s hard to confirm one way or the other, but for what it’s worth Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Journal that none of Iran’s missiles are designed to carry a nuclear warhead and the tests involved “conventional warheads that are within the legitimate defense domain.” Given that Iran has verifiably rolled back its nuclear enrichment program over the past year, it makes sense that they would have little interest in designing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, especially given the added international scrutiny it would needlessly attract.

Flynn’s statement indicates an eagerness to stir up tensions with Iran over relatively innocuous issues. This will undoubtedly be perceived in Tehran as threatening, thereby bolstering the more hawkish voices in Iran and undermining the future viability of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the fact that, as the International Crisis Group recently reiterated, “It has delivered so far on its narrow objective: effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons.” 

What Is Trump’s ‘America First’ Doctrine?

At noon on January 20th, Barack Obama stepped aside, leaving Donald Trump as the leader of the free world. In his inaugural address, Trump pledged to implement an ‘America First’ doctrine. But while the implications for trade and immigration are relatively clear, his speech brought us little closer to understanding what this will mean for foreign policy.

Indeed, thanks to the incoherence of the president-elect’s foreign policy remarks during his campaign, the range of potential outcomes is wide. But Trump’s past comments suggest four potential paths that his ‘America First’ Doctrine could take.

The first option is true isolationism. Though it remained unclear throughout the campaign the extent to which Trump truly understood the historical baggage that came with the term ‘America First,’ many commentators assumed that he would indeed pursue a classic isolationist policy. And Trump seems to mean it literally in some cases: only a week into office, he has already sought to erect trade and immigration barriers. He may also seek to withdraw from the world in military terms, abandoning alliances, and refusing to engage in even the diplomatic resolution of international problems which don’t directly concern the United States.

Yet elements of Trump’s own statements call this assumption into question. From his insistence on increased military spending to his promise in the inaugural address to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism ‘completely from the face of the Earth,’ Trump has repeatedly implied that he is likely to pursue a relatively hawkish foreign policy.

Safe Zones in Syria Are a Bad Idea

President Trump reportedly spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia on Sunday about imposing safe zones in Syria, presumably for the purpose of protecting civilians from rebels and Syrian and Russian bombardment. Such a policy carries a lot of risk, would likely violate international and U.S. law, and is strategically unwise.

Safe zones have a mixed record at best for protecting civilians. In the 1990s, Iraqi Shia in United Nations’ safe zones turned out to be not so safe from Saddam Hussein. Bosnian Muslims were unprotected in Srebrenica, the city now associated with a terrible massacre despite an established safe zone there. Even beyond the logistical challenge of setting up safe zones in the middle of a chaotic civil war, keeping the civilians safe inside is no piece of cake. Humanitarian relief would have to be supplied, which requires an additional commitment of resources and coordination. And it would be difficult to prevent Syrian rebel groups from infiltrating, targeting, or otherwise taking advantage of them. On-the-ground forces would be required to police the area and distinguish between militants and civilians seeking refuge. Moreover, safe zones would require, at the very least, sustained use of airpower to protect the skies over them and the territory around them. The Syrian air force and the Russian air force are already crowding those skies. U.S. intervention would be subject to direct challenge, or at the very least massively increase the chances of accidental confrontation.

Americans should also consider the legality of such a move. Establishing safe zones requires imposing on the territorial integrity of another sovereign nation and defending those zones with military force. Under international law, that’s illegal in the absence of host nation permission or an authorization from the UN Security Council. There is little chance Syria is going to give such permission to the United States and Saudi Arabia, and given Russia’s alliance with the Syrian regime, a Security Council authorization will not be forthcoming.

The Trump administration would be on similarly shaky ground as far as domestic U.S. law is concerned. U.S. military action in Syria during the Obama and now Trump administrations has no specific authorization from Congress. It has so far been justified legally by reference to the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized action against those groups and individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks and then against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Neither authorization could plausibly justify imposing safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria, operations that would clearly be unconnected to those past missions.

On Sanctions and Negotiations

Rumors are flying in Washington that Donald Trump is seriously considering an executive order which would lift at least some of the current U.S. sanctions on Russia. As with everything else the new president has ordered this week, details are sparse. But if the executive order would indeed lift sanctions unilaterally, with no attempt at negotiation, Trump won’t be sending a message of strength, but one of weakness.

I’ve never been a proponent of the U.S. sanctions regime. In fact, I’ve written extensively about the flaws of the sanctions regime on Russia, and even argued that they should be lifted before they calcify into a permanent impediment to improving relations with Russia. In Foreign Affairs last year, I argued that the sanctions have largely been a failure: they have been costly to U.S. and European business interests, and have not altered Putin’s aggressive policies towards Ukraine.

Nor is there good reason to believe that the sanctions will induce policy change in future. The underlying logic behind sanctions is to cause enough economic pain to the target state that leaders are compelled to change their policies. But though the Russian economy is in a terrible state, most of that damage was caused by falling oil prices, not by sanctions. Vladimir Putin was even willing to hurt his own people further by initiating countersanctions against European agricultural products, a move which served to substantially increase food prices for ordinary Russian citizens.

These conclusions are unfortunately supported by a substantial body of academic literature, which overwhelmingly finds that sanctions are rarely successful on issues of ‘high salience,’ such as questions of war and peace. Sanctions may be a useful tool for signaling to other states that their behavior is unacceptable, but when linked to unrealistic goals, they place policy makers in a difficult situation. Lifting them may be seen as a sign of weakness, yet there is little to be gained from leaving them in place. The path of least resistance can therefore end in situations like the half-century Cuban Embargo.

All of this suggests that policymakers should be a lot more cautious about implementing sanctions in the first place, as it may place them in a difficult situation further down the road. Indeed, academic studies also suggest that sanctions are not so much an alternative to conflict as a first step on the road to war: they serve to raise the stakes, and make it harder for policymakers to back down.

The problem is particularly acute in this case. Though the impact of Russian disinformation on the outcome of the presidential election remains unclear, an investigation is ongoing into whether advisors to the Trump campaign had contacts with Moscow. Donald Trump’s willingness to seek a better relationship with Russia is a solid policy choice, but unilateral concessions of this sort will only serve to intensify the idea that he is somehow beholden to Moscow.

Ultimately, understanding the flaws of sanctions cannot explain how to resolve this dilemma. There is no good solution for today’s U.S.-Russian relations, just a series of poor choices. The best of these bad options is an open process of negotiation. Russian leaders may not be willing to abandon Crimea or make other high profile concessions in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But the sanctions are causing some economic damage, enough that Russian leaders do want them lifted.

A process of negotiation which proposes to lift most of the sanctions in exchange for concessions in other policy areas – implementation of the Russian portions of the Minsk Agreement, Russian concessions on ending the Syrian civil war, or a variety of other issues – is a way for the Trump administration to end the sanctions regime without making a unilateral concession. For the man who wrote the Art of the Deal, this would surely be a better solution.