Whatever you did on your summer vacation, it probably wasn’t as eventful as President Trump’s time away while the White House underwent scheduled repairs. Here’s a roundup of foreign policy and national security developments, along with Monkey Cage analysis you may have missed.
1) North Korea
Trump’s vacation began with his August 8 threat that aggression by North Korea would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” North Korea responded with increasingly serious moves while Trump was away from Washington: a threat to Guam; a missile flight over Japan; and this past weekend, a nuclear test that the regime of Kim Jong-Un claims was a hydrogen bomb.
In the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell explained the importance of credibility in nuclear crises, and why North Korea calling Trump’s bluff may damage U.S. credibility. Roseanne McManus noted that Trump’s domestic political weakness undermined his ability to signal toughness to North Korea. James Fearon pointed out that the problem isn’t that the United States can’t trust North Korea — it’s that the Kim regime can’t trust the United States not to support regime change. Even if the United States promised not to support Kim’s overthrow, the promise just wouldn’t be credible. As a result, “threats and coercion just reinforce Kim’s sense that his safety … requires a working nuclear weapons capability.”
In another post, Mira Rapp-Hooper looked at five takeaways from Trump’s blustering rhetoric on North Korea. One of these is potentially lasting damage to U.S. alliances in Asia, including with South Korea.
If the early September reports that Trump is considering withdrawing the United States from a free-trade agreement with South Korea are correct, reassuring South Korea of the U.S. defense commitment becomes that much tougher — especially because Trump’s general skepticism of alliances is one of his few well-known, long-standing foreign policy views. Trump’s chiding of South Korea for “talk of appeasement” of the North, as he tweeted in the wake of Sunday’s nuclear test, won’t help either.
How Trump handled North Korea this summer was notable for another reason: His advisers repeatedly walked back or contradicted the president’s off-the-cuff rhetoric. As Rapp-Hooper noted, “This cycle of presidential bombast and Cabinet mollification carves a credibility chasm.” It also turned out to be a theme — with some variations — of Trump’s summer vacation.
After a months-long debate about what to do about the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, Trump spent a weekend with top advisers to wrestle with how to proceed in what is now a 16-year war. He ultimately chose a “new strategy” for the United States — although he declined, in the Aug. 21 prime-time speech announcing the policy shift, to elaborate further, or detail how many additional U.S. troops might be deployed.
The U.S. policy on Afghanistan appears to be the rare case in whichTrump’s advisers have persuaded him to change course, and to admit so publicly. This may reflect the president’s deference to the many generals in his Cabinet and immediate advisory circle. In the Monkey Cage, Risa Brooks reexamined Trump’s approach to civil-military relations in light of the Afghanistan decision.
But Afghanistan was also a rare case in which many experts shared Trump’s skepticism of a new deployment in a conflict where “there are no quick and easy answers,” as Geoffrey Swenson explained in the Monkey Cage. In May, Stephen Biddle, Julia MacDonald, and Ryan Baker warned that sending more military advisers — the likely mission for many of the new Afghanistan troops — rarely works. Sarah Kreps and Miles McCain also noted that Congress has been silent about the use of drones — a key tool in the Afghanistan war — leading to further risk that the war will go on indefinitely, without public scrutiny.
Nonetheless, having decided to recommit the United States to the war in Afghanistan, Trump’s prime-time speech went straight to a claim that “in the end, we will win.”
3) India and Pakistan
In his Aug. 21 speech, Trump also called on India to do more in Afghanistan. But Christopher Clary explained in the Monkey Cage why India can’t solve the United States’ Afghanistan problem, and why pushing India could cause Pakistan to step up, rather than decrease, its own involvement.
Trump’s speech also took aim at Pakistan’s support for terrorists and other armed groups. Yet Asfandyar Mir and Paul Staniland highlighted five reasons Trump’s threats are not likely to get Pakistan to back off its support for these groups, including the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan has its own domestic political and regional reasons for supporting certain groups, and U.S. pressure it not likely to change Pakistan’s behavior.
Both the North Korea and Afghanistan/India/Pakistan cases illustrate an important point: Trump, who fashions himself a dealmaker, is pushing against some strong regional dynamics over which the United States has little leverage. To the extent that the United States can play a role, it is hampered both by confusion in administration policy and the lack of confirmed diplomats in crucial State Department positions.
The steadily worsening political and economic instability in Venezuela remains a looming crisis. In the Monkey Cage, Annette Idler showed why these problems are likely to increase regional instability, threaten Colombia’s fragile peace, and fuel transnational criminal and terrorist networks.
During Trump’s vacation, his administration announced a new round of sanctions against Venezuela. But leaving aside the merits of these particular sanctions, there was apparently discord within the administration over just how strong they should be, with some last-minute policy maneuvering as the sanctions debate played out.
Internal policy debates are normal, although the absence of political appointees to key regional posts makes it more difficult to ensure administration policy is consistent and coordinated with the White House. These bureaucratic links also ensure that policy decisions can be made even when top officials are distracted by other crises. For instance, as Jonathan Bernstein noted in response to Idler’s post, North Korea may distract the Trump team from the day-to-day problems in Venezuela, a crisis much closer to home.
5) Transgender military ban
While away from Washington, Trump also issued a memorandum formalizing his Twitter-issued decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military. In the Monkey Cage, Alexander Downes explained why research suggests little evidence that allowing transgender people to serve would harm military effectiveness.
Trump’s memorandum gave Defense Secretary Jim Mattis six months to come up with a plan to implement the ban, but also granted Mattis discretion in how the plan addresses transgender service members who are currently serving. Mattis, in turn, announced that those service members would remain in place pending further study. Trump’s granting of discretion to Mattis may reflect the Pentagon’s pushback against Trump’s initial tweets, which suggested the possibility that all transgender service members would be barred.
Trump’s summer vacation also saw an even more dramatic break between the president and his top advisers. Asked about Trump’s response to events in Charlottesville, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace, “The president speaks for himself.”
As Trump returns to Washington for what promises to be a busy domestic and foreign policy season, there are widening gaps between him and his advisers — and that’s to say nothing of turnover and the lack of appointees. Presidents have limited foreign policy bandwidth under the best of circumstances. If Trump keeps trying to swim against powerful regional and international currents without a strong support team he trusts, he may soon learn the art of “no deal.”
Elizabeth N. Saunders is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of “Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions.”