The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In a month, Trump has destroyed ‘America First’

President Trump spoke Oct. 12 about his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria, saying "let [the Kurds] have their borders." (Video: The Washington Post)
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The uproar in Washington over President Trump’s corruption in Ukraine and malfeasance in Syria has obscured a broader story. In little more than a month, virtually every other foreign policy initiative the Trump administration has pursued has imploded — thanks mostly to the president’s increasingly unhinged behavior.

The unraveling started on Sept. 7, when Trump abruptly announced that he had canceled a previously undisclosed summit with the Afghan Taliban due to be held the next day at Camp David, and shelved a draft peace deal that a State Department special envoy had spent a year negotiating. The immediate result was a spike in violence in Afghanistan — and at least the temporary shelving of Trump’s ambition to pull U.S. troops out of the country before the 2020 election.

A week later, Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran came undone. Following an Iranian-
sponsored attack on a Saudi oil complex, Trump ruled out a military response; instead, he told French President Emmanuel Macron that he was open to a plan to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations and lift sanctions on his government in return for negotiations. The gambit failed: Rouhani left Trump waiting on a phone line. But Saudi Arabia got the message: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has asked Iraq and Pakistan to broker a de-escalation with Tehran.

Just two weeks after the Iran debacle, Trump saw his nuclear negotiations with North Korea crumble — again. At a meeting in Stockholm, Kim Jong Un’s delegation rejected a U.S. proposal for an incremental deal — a far cry from the total disarmament Trump once sought — and walked away, refusing to agree to a date for future talks. Trump’s hopes for a Nobel Prize-securing breakthrough in 2020 now look vanishingly small.

All that led up to Trump’s Oct. 6 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he blindsided the Pentagon by facilitating a Turkish invasion of northern Syria. The most likely result, in addition to the betrayal of the Kurdish allies who fought with American troops for the past four years, will be the revival of the Islamic State, whose destruction was Trump’s most tangible foreign policy accomplishment.

Is there anything left to the “America First” agenda? Not really. The attempt to oust the socialist government of Venezuela flopped back in April. The plan for the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians has never been released, and Trump’s point man on that project, Jason Greenblatt, announced his departure last month.

True, Trump is still pressing his trade war with China and announced a partial deal on Friday. But most tariffs remain in place and the easy victory over Beijing he once promised is nowhere in sight.

This is the place in the column where I am supposed to identify the common thread that explains all these disasters. Only there isn’t one, other than Trump’s mounting erraticism. His explanation for pulling the plug on the U.S. mission in Syria — where just 1,000 U.S. troops were ensuring that Islamic State stayed down, while thwarting Russian and Iranian ambitions — is that he was determined to stop “endless wars.” But the deal he nixed in Afghanistan would have brought far more American soldiers home — 5,000 right away, and up to 15,000 by Election Day. The only explanation Trump offered for squelching it was that the insurgents had staged an attack that killed an American soldier — a strange reason for not ending an 18-year-old war.

Trump’s reversal on Iran was even more startling. For two years he had ramped up pressure on Tehran: While his top aides talked about regime change, Trump threatened “the official end of Iran” if it mounted a military challenge. Yet when the Iranians started striking targets in the Persian Gulf, the only casualty of Trump’s response was his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who had pushed him toward war. Now he appears desperate in his eagerness to open negotiations.

Of course, there’s reason for relief about some of Trump’s broken policies. The confrontation with Iran was unnecessary, and war in the Persian Gulf would be a catastrophe. The Taliban deal would have betrayed an Afghan government in which the United States has invested two decades and hundreds of billions of dollars.

But the carnage of Trump’s foreign policy likely isn’t over yet. Kim Jong Un has set a year-end deadline for getting what he wants from Trump — an end to sanctions — after which North Korea could return to testing nuclear warheads or intercontinental missiles. Iran may carry out further strikes in the Persian Gulf to try to force Trump to lift sanctions. And the Islamic State will probably regain its footing in eastern Syria. All that may not be as threatening to Trump as an impeachment vote. But it could do a lot of damage to U.S. national interests.

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Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump’s Syria decision reflects his stunning ignorance of the situation

David Ignatius: Trump has a chance to reset the table in Afghanistan

Jackson Diehl: How the diplomatic pros lost Ukraine to Trump

Henry Olsen: Trump’s decision to cancel peace talks with the Taliban could be a huge blunder

Fahrettin Altun: The world must support Turkey’s plan for northeastern Syria