US foreign policy

Trump’s Decision: the JCPOA or Something Else?

In his surprise speech today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented what he described as Iran’s “nuclear files,” promising to show proof that Iran has cheated on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 diplomatic agreement better known as the Iranian nuclear deal.

Instead, what he presented was a curious mix of details on the extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons program prior to 2003—all the major components of which were already publicly known and presented by the United States or the International Atomic Energy Agency—with a series of unfounded assertions about Iran wanting to continue with its nuclear program.

The presentation thus appears to have been far more about politics than anything else, with Netanyahu trying to use details of Iran’s past nuclear activity to argue that it cannot be trusted to comply with the JCPOA today. This is particularly ironic given that these details were among the key reasons which led to international sanctions and the eventual negotiation of the deal itself.  

Nonetheless, with President Trump rapidly approaching another key decision point on May 12th, this presentation will only add fuel to the fire. The president is widely expected to refuse to waive sanctions as required under the JCPOA, despite ongoing Iranian compliance with the deal confirmed and certified by the IAEA, the State Department, and members of his own administration.  

This all raises a key question: What comes after May 12th? Assuming the president does refuse to reissue sanctions waivers, the United States will technically be in default of the deal, regardless of whether we formally withdraw or not. And it remains unclear whether the Trump administration has any coherent follow-through plan.

Last fall, John Glaser and I explored this question in a Cato Policy Analysis, “Unforced Error: The Risks of Confrontation with Iran.” We looked past the JCPOA to ask what other policy options—if any—would be an improvement on the deal. Unfortunately, the four options we examined were all problematic: none resolved the nuclear problem, and several were astoundingly costly and dangerous. Nothing has changed to make these options more palatable in the meantime. 

Adapting U.S. Foreign Policy to a Changing World

The dramatic news that CIA Director Mike Pompeo met in secret with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over the Easter weekend has renewed hopes that one of the world’s most dangerous stand offs might be resolved without war. President Donald Trump confirmed via Twitter that details for a summit meeting were “being worked out” and predicted “Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!” The good feelings continued during the week, with Kim announcing on Saturday that the North no longer needs to conduct nuclear or missile tests.

Americans should welcome such prospects, but South Koreans have reason to be wary. They have the most to lose from conflict on the peninsula, a real possibility if negotiations fail. After all, President Trump has an uneven track record when it comes to making promises and following through. And even as he boasts of his success in getting the North to the negotiating table, he has also said that he wouldn’t attend the summit if he thought it wasn’t worth it. Unsurprisingly, the South Koreans have also been engaged in direct talks with the North. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet Kim next week. There has even been speculation that talks could end the Korean War. For now, however, and thinking beyond secret meetings and high-level summits, South Korea’s future, in a very real sense, still hinges on the decisions and actions of men and women living in the United States.

Although that has been the case for decades, it can’t ever be a comforting feeling, and that sentiment informed an essay just published in the New York Times. As I note, the process mostly played out well, for both the United States, for South Korea, and for regional stability:

Under American tutelage, South Korea eventually evolved from a desperately poor autocracy to one of the wealthiest democracies on the planet. American taxpayers continue to spend billions of dollars a year to help maintain regional security. A similar process played out in other parts of Asia and in Europe, where the American security umbrella, including tens of thousands of military personnel, provided room for those countries’ leaders to build strong democracies and economies.

American leaders argued that such policies served the cause of global peace and security. They also reasoned that the substantial costs would be tolerable. And, so long as American productivity and workers’ wages were rising, it seemed that Uncle Sam could ensure a decent standard of living at home and security around the world.

Trump’s Foreign Policy: No Hope, Little Change

Over at The National Interest, I review some recent articles (e.g. here, here and here) claiming that President Donald Trump has completely reoriented U.S. foreign policy in the span of one year. If true, that would be a pretty mean feat. After all, Barack Obama claimed to have tried to do the same thing, and he essentially admitted to being rolled by what Obama adviser Ben Rhodes labeled “the blob.”

But, it turns out, it isn’t true. Trump hasn’t, for example, restructured U.S. alliances.

All We Want for Christmas

If you read the blog regularly, you might have noticed a pattern recently: Cato’s foreign policy scholars weighing in to see if Santa might be able to improve U.S. foreign policy for us. After all, American leaders seem perpetually unwilling to do so, and the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy doesn’t seem to offer much more hope for a more realistic, sensible approach to foreign policy either.

Trade-Offs in the Middle East

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump delighted in waving to packed crowds while the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t always get what you want” played.  At the time, the song seemed like a repudiation of the Republican elites who had failed to support his campaign. Today, as his Middle East policy careens off the rails, it’s a concept the President himself should learn to grasp.

Mere hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that tensions between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other regional states were negatively impacting the fight against ISIS and calling for all sides to defuse tensions, the President contradicted him, publicly castigating Qatar for terrorist financing, and backing the Saudis in their campaign against Doha. In this, as in other things, Trump appears not to understand the trade-offs inherent in his own Middle East policies.

Certainly, the rift between Qatar and other Gulf states predates Donald Trump. Tensions have been high for years, particularly during the Arab Spring, when the Gulf states often backed different sides in the political struggles and wars that convulsed the region. As I described in a Cato Policy Analysis in 2014:

“As early as June 2012, media sources reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were arming anti-regime rebels [in Syria] with both light and heavy weapons… The vast quantities of money and arms they have provided during the past three years have driven competition among Syria’s rebel groups. This competition has increased the conflict’s duration and has reduced the likelihood that the rebels will eventually triumph.”

The Future of American Internationalism

Hal Brands has published a long and thoughtful essay at War on the Rocks on the future of American Internationalism. Despite its length, or perhaps because of it, the piece is worthy of a careful read.

Echoing themes that I have discussed previously (e.g. here and here), Brands foresees two equally plausible scenarios: a return to the liberal international order (LIO) crafted and sustained by a bipartisan foreign policy elite since the end of World War II; or an enduring shift away from internationalism, a process decades-in-the-making, but hastened by Trump’s presidency.

Brands is cautiously optimistic that the former will eventually prevail, provided that U.S. leaders undertake a series of reforms reflecting new geopolitical and domestic political realities. Fearful that Trump’s isolationism and hyper-nationalism will prevail, I have argued for a third way. U.S. leaders should reiterate their commitment to economic openness and international engagement, but call on other wealthy nations to share in the burdens of maintaining it. And they should back up such rhetoric with actions, by renegotiating decades-long alliance relationships, and avoiding intervening militarily in disputes that do not engage vital U.S. security interests. 

Brands does shade the truth from time to time. For example, he claims that U.S. leaders “sought to sustain a global balance of power that favored America and its democratic allies, and to advance liberal concepts such as democracy and human rights.” A not-complete list of the U.S. government’s perilous partners over the past 70 years reminds us that Washington’s commitment to promoting democracy and human rights has been inconsistent, at best.

  • Chiang Kai-shek (Taiwan)
  • Syngman Rhee/Park Chung Hee/Chun Doo-Hwan (South Korea)
  • Ayub Khan/Zia-ul-Haq/Pervez Musharraf (Pakistan)
  • The House of Saud
  • The Shah of Iran
  • Hosni Mubarak/Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Egypt)
  • Plus a handful (or more) of generals and strongmen in Latin America

Will Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Match Her Campaign Rhetoric? Or Her Record?

A number of outspoken hawks have praised Hillary Clinton’s approach to foreign policy over the past few months, with at least one stepping up to raise funds for her campaign. This might be surprising if one assumes that hawks tend to support Republicans. It also doesn’t make sense if one believes Donald Trump’s contention that Clinton’s approach to the world is identical to Barack Obama’s, and that Obama is a naïve and foolish dove.

It is not surprising that hawks prefer Clinton over Trump, however, if you realize that Hillary Clinton supported every one of the last seven U.S. military interventions abroad, plus two others we ended up not fighting. Given this, it seems that the members of America’s interventionist class doubt that she would be as reluctant to initiate new wars, or expand the current ones, as her campaign rhetoric has suggested.

For much of her career, Hillary Clinton has been one of the most hawkish Democrats in Washington, and one of the more hawkish American politicians, period (my Cato colleague Caroline Dorminey helped compile an early report card here). Clinton has supported the use of the U.S. military for a range of issues, not simply or primarily to advance U.S. national interests, but also to defend the security of other countries and pursue humanitarian objectives.

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote, “It’s impossible to know which national security crises she [Hillary] would be forced to confront, of course. But those who vote for her should know that she will approach such crises with a long track record of being generally supportive of initiating U.S. military interventions and expanding them.”

As First Lady, Hillary Clinton encouraged her husband to intervene in Bosnia in 1995–1996, and then again in Kosovo in 1999. Two years later, Senator Hillary Clinton voted for the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) following the September 11th attacks, and then for the Iraq war AUMF in September 2002, a vote she now claims to regret. Notably, she also regrets voting against the Bush administration’s Iraq “surge” in January of 2007.

America’s Contradictory Yemen Policies

Reuters has an investigation today of the ways in which the Saudi-led War in Yemen has empowered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group’s local affiliate. While it’s been relatively obvious to observers for some time that AQAP had benefitted from the conflict, the extent of their newfound control and wealth as detailed in the article is fascinating.

Thanks to the seizure of the city of Mukalla, AQAP now controls Yemen’s third largest port, a position that Reuters estimates has allowed them to earn up to $2 million per day in fees and taxes. Extortion of businesses, including around $1.4 million from the state oil company, has also provided an easy revenue source, as has the far less subtle method of simply robbing the city’s banks.

Perhaps of more interest is AQAP’s approach to providing civic services and stability. While it’s untrue that Al Qaeda has never experimented with state-building before, such a strategy has more typically been associated with ISIS. As the Reuters investigation notes,  in Mukalla, Al Qaeda is trying to present themselves as a less cruel and brutal ruler than ISIS, an approach which seems to be working with some Yemeni citizens who fear a return to instability.

So entrenched is the group that it attempted to set up a formal profit-sharing deal with the national government to split oil revenues. It is even managing taxes for the citizens of Mukalla, cancelling payroll taxes and promoting various populist policies. All of this is a remarkable feat for a group which has been the focus of concerted US drone strikes and counterterrorism activities for more than a decade.

Trump’s Rise: Who’s to Blame?

The Republican foreign policy establishment is up in arms over Donald Trump’s ascendancy. The prospect that “The Donald” could become The Commander in Chief is simply too much for many of them to stomach.

Take, for example, this “Open Letter on Donald Trump From GOP National Security Leaders” signed by almost 80 members of the Republican foreign policy elite. They warn that a Trump presidency would be dangerous to America’s safety, civil liberties, and international reputation.

I share their concern. But when people ask who is at fault for America’s tragic turn inward, if Trump wins a major party nomination – or, worse, the election – the very GOP foreign policy elite that is now denouncing him should get the lion’s share of the blame for his rise.

We should begin by understanding the people who comprise today’s GOP foreign policy elite, and what motivates them. This is not Dwight Eisenhower’s GOP, or even George H.W. Bush’s. Their bias toward interventionism is not grounded in traditional conservative precepts of order and fiscal discipline. When forced, they will call for higher taxes to fund more military spending. And they are openly disdainful of whatever small government instincts the modern conservative movement draws from libertarianism. 

So no one should be surprised when some neoconservatives speak openly of choosing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump as many are now doing. If they do ultimately pull the lever for Clinton, they will merely be reaffirming their core beliefs.

After all, some of the older neocons cut their teeth writing policy briefs for the hawkish Democrat Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. The earlier generation’s intellectual descendants fastened themselves firmly to the GOP, which they saw as the most convenient vehicle for implementing their foreign policy views. But that doesn’t mean that the association was either automatic or permanent.

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