President Trump’s erratic and transactional approach to foreign and national security issues is undercutting some of the administration’s achievements, according to an assessment by a prominent think tank at the administration’s two-year mark.
Most of the more than 20 scholars writing midterm assessments in a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies offer some praise of the administration’s strategy, leavened by a strong dose of criticism for the way Trump executes it:
On Russia, the assessment says, it is hard to hold its government accountable “due to the president’s resistance to exerting personal pressure” on President Vladimir Putin. Authors hold Trump responsible for emboldening bad behavior by autocrats in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In China, the focus on unfair tariffs is being disrupted by trade disputes with allies. And in Europe, Trump’s penchant for personal criticism of leaders, lacking in “nuance and appreciation” for alliances, is knocked for creating unprecedented tension.
“I think it is clear that Trump deserves more credit than his Democratic and Republican #NeverTrump critics give him, but less than his most fervent fans — and the president himself — like to claim,” writes Clifford May, president of the FDD, which focuses on national security and foreign policy. “On the plus side, he has seemed not just willing, but eager, to confront America’s many enemies, adversaries and competitors, and to prevent them from making further advances. On the minus side, he has been mercurial, impulsive, and too quick to cast instances of modest progress as significant victories.”
The report comes a day after the president lashed out at senior intelligence officials after their assessments of global security threats contradicted those he has made publicly.
The criticisms, spanning continents and topics, are remarkable in part because several of the authors have been leading advocates of positions that Trump has advanced or have worked for organizations that have strongly supported Trump.
Mark Dubowitz, for example, was a major critic of the Iran nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated and that Trump unilaterally withdrew from last year. In his assessment of Trump’s Iran policy, Dubowitz writes that the reimposition of sanctions on Iran has been very successful but that the effort to counter Iranian influence in the region “is on life support thanks to the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.”
John Hannah, an FDD counselor who advised then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney on the Middle East and other national security issues, writes that the “unilateral whims of an erratic president” have made it difficult to analyze policies and have contributed to disarray.
“A strategy to secure U.S. interests in Syria against Russia, Iran, and the Islamic State that appeared challenging but sound to many analysts on December 18 was suddenly upended by an impulsive tweet on December 19, yielding an irresponsible, dangerous, and chaotic mess,” Hannah writes in the introduction to the report he co-edited.
Though several essays offer praise for the administration’s National Defense Strategy, the work of many career professionals, most of the authors find fault with Trump’s improvisational execution and reliance on personal relationships, such as the “love letters” between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Several chide Trump for not speaking up on human rights and for making strongmen and dictators believe their transgressions will not be punished or even remarked upon.
“Putin has little reason to fear that even his most brazen acts will provoke the U.S. to challenge the fundamental legitimacy of his regime,” writes Boris Zilberman, who used to work for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
A separate essay on U.S. cybersecurity policy by Annie Fixler and David Maxwell lauds the administration for publicly blaming Russia and North Korea for cyberattacks but adds, “One urgent issue to address is the president’s refusal to consistently accept the U.S. intelligence community’s assessments of Russia cyber operations during the 2016 presidential election.”
An essay on Turkey by Aykan Erdemir and Merve Tahiroglu says the administration’s “transactional and personality-driven approach” to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a failure. Noting that Erdogan has poured millions of dollars into lobbying Washington, the authors add, “The impact of such spending is difficult to assess, but Trump chose to overlook some extraordinary transgressions, likely endowing the Turkish president with a sense of impunity.”
Hannah, writing with Varsha Koduvayur on Saudi Arabia, applauds the administration’s efforts to improve relations with the oil-rich country but has withering words for a reluctance to push back on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence officials concluded ordered the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year. The authors say Trump’s “hands off approach was interpreted by MBS as a blank check,” and they find the administration’s handling of the “Khashoggi debacle” to be deeply flawed.
And in an essay on human rights, Saeed Ghasseminejad and Tzvi Kahn acknowledge the need to balance American ideals of respect for basic rights with geopolitical reality. “Yet President Trump’s double standards and resistance to evidence risk undermining his administration’s credibility on human rights while worsening partisan divides on an issue that should unify political opponents,” they add.
Some of the critiques offer more-muted criticisms, with analyses far short of the victory portrayed by Trump. An essay on North Korea says it is not clear whether Pyongyang agreed to negotiate because of Trump’s threats and economic pressure or just intends to protect its nuclear arsenal until sanctions can be dismantled. The critique also says the threat from North Korea will not be reduced until the government agrees to rid itself of nuclear weapons, “not just pause their development.”
In recommendations for policy changes, several authors urge the United States to not rush to withdraw troops from Syria, saying that would serve the interests of Russia, Iran and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The assessment focusing on Syria policy says Trump has “erroneously and repeatedly” asserted the Islamic State has been defeated and has ignored the contributions of Kurdish and Arab fighters in the ground war against the group. Authors David Adesnik and Toby Dershowitz noted the decision was made despite the opposition of the secretary of state, defense secretary and national security adviser.
“While a commander-in-chief has the right to overrule his advisers, Trump ignored the serious concerns they raised,” they say.