Syria

Foreign Policy at the State of the Union

On foreign policy, the State of the Union was classic Donald Trump.

There were the usual expansive promises which could actually move American foreign policy in a better direction. The president promised to withdraw troops from Syria, open negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and praised the growth in spending by NATO allies. He even criticized America’s excessive military intervention in the Middle East.

DEFENSE DOWNLOAD: Week of 1/3/19

Happy New Year! The Defense Download is back after a brief break for the holiday season. This new round-up is intended to highlight what we at the Cato Institute are keeping tabs on in the world of defense politics every week. The three-to-five trending stories will vary depending on the news cycle, what policymakers are talking about, and will pull from all sides of the political spectrum.

Trump Is Right to Withdraw From Syria

President Trump has ordered a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. This is the right decision. The U.S. military presence in Syria has not been authorized by Congress, is illegal under international law, lacks a coherent strategy, and carries significant risks of entangling America in a broader quagmire in yet another Middle Eastern country.

As I wrote in Axios:

Kill the Iran Deal, Open Pandora’s Box

This afternoon, Donald Trump made an announcement regarding the future of the Iran nuclear deal. Ahead of a self-imposed May 12th deadline, the President announced that he will not be waiving the sanctions. This decision places the United States in violation of the deal. But while it may not kill the JCPOA completely – European states and Iran could decide whether to keep some version of the deal going without the United States – it will start a period of profound uncertainty about the future of U.S-Iranian relations.

In some ways, this uncertainty is the most concerning thing about the current administration’s approach to the JCPOA. Trump’s speech included no realistic alternate strategy, other than “get a better deal.” His decision probably won’t be followed by public debate over whether conflict with Iran is desirable, a proposition that many in the administration seem to favor, but which most Americans would undoubtedly oppose.

Instead, by blowing up the nuclear deal today without offering any clear strategy or plan for an alternative, Donald Trump is opening Pandora’s Box, increasing the risks of escalation and bringing us gradually closer to conflict with Iran.

Initially, it probably won’t look that bad. Sanctions penalties will not kick in for 180 days. Iran has said it will take a few weeks to decide on its response, and discuss the issue with European signatories of the JCPOA. These countries may well try to keep some form of the deal running without the United States. 

Trump Commits to Another Open-Ended War in Syria

One of the leading critiques against President Trump’s foreign policy is that it smacks of global retreat and constitutes a U.S. withdrawal from the leading role it has played in the so-called “liberal world order.” As I explain in an op-ed in the New York Post today, that critique is unfounded.

I cite Joe Scarborough lamenting Trump’s “dangerous retreat from the world,” and Evan Osnos who, in a recent piece in The New Yorker, claimed, “President Trump is reducing U.S. commitments abroad.” Likewise, Hal Brands, who worked on foreign policy strategy in the Obama administration and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS, broods that Trump “is clearly attracted to something like Fortress America,” a vision that fuses anti-free trade economic nationalism with a withdrawal from U.S. alliances and overseas military presence. The Senate Appropriations Committee even released a report in September criticizing “the administration’s apparent doctrine of retreat.”

While it is clear Trump’s foreign policy disdains multilateralism and harbors contempt for engaged diplomacy, it is profoundly misleading to suggest there has been any kind of retreat from the world. As I explain in the piece, Trump “hasn’t backed away from any theater in which the U.S. military was committed or engaged at the time of his inauguration,” and in many cases, he has deepened America’s foreign entanglements.

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