President Trump would not be the first U.S. president who turned from failed domestic policy initiatives to foreign policy. As we saw even with limited military action against Syria, the public does rally to a commander in chief, especially when America’s moral and pragmatic interests are aligned. Trump is fortunate insofar as Democrats and Republicans are ready to act on several fronts.
First, Trump’s recognition that Russia stands behind a heinous regime in Syria (and therefore cannot very well cooperate with the United States), if not a turning point for him on Syria, may be an opportunity to substantially redirect his thinking about Russia. We have already seen this with his newfound enthusiasm for NATO (not obsolete!). If Trump wants to score a legislative win he need look no further than Russia sanctions, which have been languishing in Congress. This week at the Atlantic Council, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) explained:
There is a bipartisan agreement on the policy tools that the U.S. should utilize as part of its comprehensive U.S. strategy to support Ukraine, deter future aggression against our allies and interests, and uphold the fundamental principles of the U.S.-led international system that Russia’s actions ultimately threaten. These policies include continued enforcement of joint U.S.-EU sanctions. . . . We also have continued increased discussion on lethal and non-lethal military assistance to Ukraine. I believe it is fair to say that there is a bipartisan majority in Congress that supports not just non-lethal but also lethal assistance so Ukraine can better defend itself. During the confirmation process Secretary Tillerson expressed his agreement with that approach and that’s something we continue to hear the administration talk about. We need to move forward with that in my view. In the Congress we’re talking about an enhanced U.S. military presence in the region, more robust and coordinated efforts to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation in Ukraine and, for that matter, throughout Europe, including with the elections in France and Germany upcoming, and the unity of action between the U.S. and the [European Union] on holding Russia accountable for its violations of the Minsk agreements, the Budapest Memorandum for that matter, and other international norms and agreements.”
Then there’s Iran, whose behavior has only deteriorated since Trump took office. Iran has conducted repeated missile tests and continued supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as Hezbollah. Moreover, Iran is on the move — along with Russia — in Afghanistan. The Post reports:
Iran and Russia have stepped up challenges to U.S. power in Afghanistan, American and Afghan officials say, seizing on the uncertainty of future U.S. policy to expand ties with the Taliban and weaken the country’s Western-backed government. . . .
Now, as the Taliban gains ground and the White House appears to lack a clear Afghan policy, Iran and Russia have boosted support for insurgents and sidelined the United States from regional diplomacy on the war.
Aside from developing a coherent Afghan policy that seeks to reverse recent military losses, the administration can, once again, get behind sanctions legislation. One suspects there is near-unanimous support in Congress for increasing sanctions on Iran in response to illegal missile tests, support for Assad and jihadist groups and human rights abuses. Russia will not be of any help here, but our E.U. allies may welcome some leadership from the United States. In any event, with sanctions legislation in hand, Trump will have leverage with Iran and its Russian protectors.
Tillerson’s tough talk in Russia was received well back home. He — along with other top members of his national security team — are in a strong position from which to urge that economic sanctions be deployed both against Iran and Russia. Trump can encourage Congress to move — and reap the praise when legislation lands on his desk. In this case, strong foreign policy would be good politics at a time he has so few accomplishments.