It sounds unlikely, but the record shows that the most effective foreign policy adviser to President Trump since his election has been Barack Obama.
In their sole meeting, on Nov. 10, 2016, Obama managed to focus Trump on the most critical national security problem then facing the country: North Korea’s race to develop nuclear weapons capable of striking the continental United States. Trump went on to begin his presidency with a relatively effective, if erratic, campaign to raise the pressure on Kim Jong Un’s regime, which eventually responded by suspending its nuclear and missile tests and offering to negotiate.
Unfortunately, an underprepared and overconfident Trump muffed his summit meeting with Kim, leading the dictator to believe the United States would make extraordinary unilateral concessions; when that didn’t happen, the process stalled. Kim now seeks another meeting with Trump, no doubt in the hope of extracting from that soft mark what he couldn’t get from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or any other sensible U.S. negotiator.
In the meantime, the relative rationality that Obama managed to inspire — Trump’s concerted effort to address the most urgent international problem facing the United States — has disappeared. The administration’s foreign policy is now a scattershot mess of improvised initiatives, some aimed at real problems, some not. Big challenges that would preoccupy a normal White House — such as the historic refugee crisis in Latin America caused by Venezuela’s implosion, or the genocidal campaign by Myanmar’s army against its Rohingya minority — are all but ignored. Eccentric follies, such as the cold war with Canada, take center stage.
Bob Woodward’s new book depicts Trump’s top advisers working to save the country from his worst ideas, sometimes by snatching papers off his desk. But that’s a better description of 2017 than now. The aides who did that snatching — Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster — are mostly gone, replaced by a new crew content to allow Trump to indulge his most powerful compulsions. So we have trade wars driven by Trump’s ignorance of elementary economics and vindictive campaigns to punish close allies — such as Justin Trudeau of Canada and Angela Merkel of Germany — for the president’s seething personal resentments.
The silver lining is that Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are allowed, for now, to pursue some relatively sensible and conventional policies that contradict Trump’s viscera. In Afghanistan, where Mattis does just enough to keep the Kabul government from collapsing while Pompeo seeks an opening with the Taliban, or in Syria, where Mattis keeps U.S. troops deployed in two strategic corners of the country while Pompeo tries to revive a diplomatic process, the Trump administration is doing pretty much what Hillary Clinton would have done. The only problem is that Trump could reassert himself at any time and pull the plug.
This makes the work of a Trump national security functionary sound pretty dreary, and no doubt it is. But there are perks: In this, as in no other administration, it is possible for anonymous “senior officials” to pursue their own causes. That might mean writing a self-justifying op-ed for the New York Times as an advance claim on future vindication. Or it could mean pursuing their own personal ideological obsessions and crazy long-shot strategies, unvetted by the normal policymaking process.
We’ve seen a couple of those ventures in the last two weeks. First came an assault on the Palestinian movement, with U.S. funding canceled for U.N.-run schools and health clinics in the Gaza Strip as well as hospitals in Arab-populated East Jerusalem. The Palestinians’ Washington office was ordered closed. Apparently Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, real estate developers turned would-be Middle East peace brokers, believe squeezing the Palestinians will induce them to be more reasonable, like wayward subcontractors. Longtime veterans of Mideast diplomacy will tell you the opposite result is far more likely — but then, the pros are excluded from this initiative.
Even more striking was the relaunch by national security adviser John Bolton of his decades-long pursuit of his personal white whale, the International Criminal Court. Since Bolton last served in government more than a decade ago, the ICC has failed to become the mortal threat to Americans that Bolton predicted. But that hasn’t diminished his fervor: Last week he devoted his first public speech since moving into the White House to threatening sanctions and even criminal prosecution of any ICC prosecutor or judge who pursued any alleged wrongdoing by any American. (Until now, none has.)
The next day, reporters asked State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to explain how the United States could legally prosecute international lawyers and judges. She repeatedly refused even to try. “I’d refer you to Ambassador Bolton’s office,” she said. State can’t explain the new ICC policy any more than it can say why we are starving the Palestinians and crusading against Canada. It’s the norm of an administration that has substituted chaos for coherent foreign policy.