There is no comparison between the amount of activity on the domestic front (executive orders, Trumpcare, budget preparation) — however misguided — and foreign policy in the new administration. As for the latter, so far as one can tell, there is virtually no change in approach on Syria (passivity), Iran (continue the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), Russia (allow violations of existing agreements, enact no new sanctions) or NATO (commit to mutual defense, ask for more contributions). Promised renegotiation of trade agreements has not begun. A former George W. Bush official observes that “if you think about the JCPOA, sanctions, etc., there is no Iran policy. Why did we do nothing a week ago when the USS Invincible was swarmed by Iranian gunboats — just as Obama did nothing for eight years?”
Our minimalist strategy in fighting the Islamic State continues; no additional forces have been deployed in Afghanistan. We issue empty declarations as North Korea continues to test missiles.
Only three things have noticeably changed: 1) The administration is getting along with Israel (however, the U.S. Embassy hasn’t moved and the president still imagines a peace deal is possible); 2) President Trump has offended our Muslim allies by issuing the ill-conceived travel ban; and 3) We have taken stronger action against al-Qaeda in Yemen, thanks to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the military. (Trump’s proposed defense budget, while 3 percent higher than Obama’s, is hardly sufficient, let alone revolutionary, and without addressing entitlements is unsustainable.)
So why is continuity the rule and change the exception when it comes to foreign policy?
“If this were a normal administration, they would be hammering policies out now, and have them fully in place by early summer,” says former State Department official Eliot Cohen, a frequent critic of President Trump. “As is, they are floundering, with the Department of State and the Department of Defense unstaffed at the senior policy level (under- and assistant secretary), and the NSC staff still existing side by side with a shadow staff ([Stephen K.] Bannon & co.).” He adds that “most importantly, we have a president who is not only averse to, but probably incapable of having serious policies at all.”
Others point out that even if preliminary policy reviews are being done, the requisite political appointees are not yet there. “In that case, they won’t get the buy-in, team-building effects that well-run interagency processes provide and they also won’t get the benefit of better message discipline both here at home and abroad that a good process will enable,” says former ambassador Eric Edelman. “If they wait until everyone is in place they are making themselves hostages to fortune and unpredictable international developments.” He concludes, “They are well along to creating a damned if they do, damned if they don’t situation for themselves.”
As inexperienced as he is, it is unfair to blame Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who cannot even get an approved deputy. He has, in effect, been set up to fail, or at least remain inconsequential. Edelman surmises that the White House might “just as soon have poor Rex Tillerson running around trying to keep the lights on in embassies around the world without any supporting cast making it easier for folks in the White House to make policy on their own unconstrained by experience, subject matter expertise etc that is resident in the Cabinet agencies.” That’s essentially how we got the first, unconstitutional travel ban.
On one hand, we can be thankful Trump has failed to follow through on rash, dangerous and ill-conceived campaign promises. He, for example, dropped talk of challenging our One China policy. He did not tear up the JCPOA on Day One with no backup plan. However, if one thinks that President Barack Obama’s policies were harmful — as Trump claimed — then not changing them doubles down on his errors. If disengagement, retrenchment and reticence on human rights were distressing under Obama, they remain so under Trump.
Moreover, the world usually does not wait for American presidents to make up their minds who they want for deputy secretary of state. If a crisis develops, Trump is ill-equipped to deal with it. If other countries “count us out,” then we miss out on potential trade deals and other diplomatic initiatives that may affect us.
The real question remains: When do we start winning?