Not even U.S. President Donald Trump’s worst enemies would deny that he has fulfilled many election campaign foreign policy promises, including opting out of international agreements on climate change, the Iran nuclear accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and pressurising allies to pay more for joint defence. A matter for surprise then, is that another Trump campaign pledge, to end the ‘endless wars’ and bring American troops abroad back home, specifically to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan, is met with denunciation and open or indirect obstruction from both civilian and military circles.
The opposition within
This opposition, marked by some high-level resignations such as Secretary of Defence James Mattis — which have been accorded hero-martyr status by the media — has been provoked by Mr. Trump’s decision to repatriate some 2,000 forces from Syria and around 7,000, which is around half the total number, from Afghanistan. Mr. Trump’s moves are condemned as isolationist and favouring the ‘enemies’ of the U.S., especially Russia and Iran. Regarding Afghanistan, his opposition was not astute enough to perceive that the drawdown was a necessary prelude to direct negotiations with the Taliban. The objectors also imply that Israel is exposed to greater danger, a cause certain to enjoy bi-partisan favour. General Mattis, in his resignation letter, wrote he was leaving “because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.” It is amazing that it took him two years to detect any mis-alignment.
No proposal to draw down the U.S. military presence abroad will be acceptable to Mr. Trump’s critics, because the American military-industrial complex referenced by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961 still holds the civilian authority in thrall, and since World War l, U.S. foreign policy has been totally militarised. To every international problem, Washington has only two responses: the application of sanctions, and the threat or use of force.
Mr. Trump is vilified as isolationist by the mainstream media, evidence that the neo-imperial spirit and god-given right to hold military hegemony is deeply internalised in the entire U.S. establishment. So also is the Francis Fukuyama prediction that “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution [is the] universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Insinuations about a sellout foreshadow whatever contact Mr. Trump wishes to make with the only world power that can incinerate the U.S., though every previous U.S. leader held talks with his Russian counterpart to make the world a safer place. This has less to do with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s interminable inquiry about Russian collusion, and more with the imagining of America’s role in the world. The New York Times writes of a “world order that the U.S. has led for 73 years since the Second World War”, accusing Mr. Trump of reducing that “global footprint needed to keep that order together”. The same theme is dutifully echoed by compliant European allies such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in July 2018 bewailed that under Mr. Trump the U.S. could not be relied upon to “impose order”. But whose order?
Mr. Trump is wrong in asserting that the U.S. destroyed the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, not only because there are some remnants of it left, but because while U.S.-coalition aircraft have dropped ordnance from several thousand feet and killed innumerable civilians in the process, the actual fighting against the IS has been done by Kurds in northeast Syria, and the Assad government, Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah elsewhere. The small U.S. contingent of about 2,000 serves to train and supply the Kurds, constrain the Turks and obstruct progress towards a peace settlement. As elsewhere, the Americans are ready to fight till the last local soldier. Mr. Trump has the support of Congress, media and the military on a tough line on Iran — again, a campaign promise — but in West Asia, Mr. Trump outsources local action to allies such as Saudi Arabia, turning a blind eye to its criminal activities in Yemen and also the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In the process of demonising Mr. Trump, accountability, responsibility and civilian oversight are discarded, while people in uniform and in the shadows — the ubiquitous U.S. intelligence services — are raised on lofty pedestals, encouraging dissidence. To no surprise, Mr. Trump’s announcements have resulted in a flurry of alarmist reactions. As demanded by the media and Congress, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration cancelled meetings with its Russian counterpart, and an end to U.S.-Russia collaboration in space appears probable. The Pentagon now reports that China seeks expansion by “military and non-military means” and military bases in Pakistan, Cambodia, and elsewhere that the American public have never heard of. The Pentagon concludes that China is “developing the capacity to dissuade, deter, and defeat a potential third-party [read, U.S.] intervention in regional conflicts”. With a second summit between Mr. Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in the offing, the media is predictably cautioning against any reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea as a result of any U.S.-North Korean détente, with head of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, weighing in to predict that China “probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025”.
Last word with Iran
The last word rests with Iran, regarded as an enemy by both Mr. Trump and his domestic adversaries. When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in January that “when America retreats, chaos often follows”, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif countered by tweeting, “Whenever and wherever US interferes, chaos, repression, and resentment follow.” No one in the United States is listening.
Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary