The Trump presidency in fast approaching its 100 day mark. It is time for a quick appraisal of its performance in office. Trump ran on his appeal as a ‘take charge, decisive CEO’ who would rapidly solve all or most of our problems. He started with a travel ban from certain countries followed by ‘repeal and replace Obamacare”. Those did not turn out as expected. But soon international events, some unexpected, overtook domestic policies. I will group the hotspots into two main theaters based on their geography.
Russia, Syria, ISIS and the Middle East
It seemed that under President Trump, a gradual rapprochement with Russia was underway. It would become our partner in combating ISIS. Sadly, that dream went up in smoke as cruise missiles slammed into an airfield in Syria and the FBI continues its investigation into possible collusion of Trump’s election team with Russia during the election of 2016. The chemical attack by President Assad on civilians was ghastly, horrific and contrary to all norms of civilized conduct, in 2013, 2017 and on all the other occasions. Perhaps Trump was genuinely moved by pictures of children gasping for breath or dead babies seemingly asleep, cradled in their father’s arms in Khan Shaykun. Perhaps he wanted to differentiate himself from Obama as a decisive leader who would not hesitate to act if someone crossed a red line. So, he put Assad, Russia, North Korea and the whole world on notice with the missile barrage on Shayrat airbase in Syria. An opening gambit.
But, a salvo does not a strategy make. What is the next step? What are the plans for Syria, for dealing with ISIS and the entire Middle East? The Russians were warned before the attack and this time they quietly stood aside, but they won’t the next time. Relationship with Russia, a nuclear armed power, is at an all-time low since after the cold war and it continues to bolster Assad and his grip on power. This is to Russia’s advantage. Assad gives Russia a secure footprint in the region, airfields, a warm water port in the Mediterranean and a steady stream of refugees that continue to destabilize Europe and NATO, Putin’s dream.
It is not clear if there is a coherent plan for Syria, ISIS and the Middle East in general. We need clarity on:
- Can there be a peaceful solution for Syria with Assad in power? If he is displaced, what are the plans for managing the aftermath? Remember Iraq after Saddam Hussain!
- What are the plans post ISIS? Once they are driven from Raqqa and other strongholds, what are the plans for a peaceful, inclusive civilian government and who is responsible for ensuring that those places do not degenerate into sectarian violence. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are still fresh in our minds.
- Is the US getting gradually sucked into a Middle East quagmire again? We hear of more and more boots being sent to Syria and of our (not so well advertised) involvement in Yemen, a country at the other end of the peninsula. In Afghanistan, next door to Iran, the war is in its 16th year. There, we just dropped a MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the world. This bomb has been in our arsenal for quite a while but Presidents before Trump had carefully avoided using it. So, what was the reason for using it now?
The USA should not and cannot afford to be the policeman of the world. This is the platform Trump ran on in 2016. This is still true. But history has taught us that unexpected events do happen. Sometimes, after diplomacy and all other options have been thoroughly exhausted, we may have to take extreme measures when our security or those of our allies are directly threatened. But a military solution should not become a reflexive habit just because we have an overwhelming military capability. War should always be the very last resort.
China and North Korea
China is the second largest economy (after the US) and these two economies are inextricably linked. During the election Trump had repeated incessantly that China would be labeled a ‘currency manipulator’ and China would be taken to task for stealing jobs from the US. Now, after dinner with President Xi at Mar-A-Lago, President Trump has reversed his opinion regarding currency manipulation. He now needs China’s help to restrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
North Korea is perhaps the most acute problem in Trump’s inbox but unfortunately with very few solutions, all bad ones. North Korea is rapidly building up its nuclear arsenal and rockets including solid fuel ICBMs that can theoretically reach the United States. That is indeed alarming. However, threatening a volatile, insecure, young dictator like Kim Jong Un with an aircraft career strike force may not be a good idea. He could retaliate unpredictably and preemptively. Seoul is just 35 miles away, within range of his conventional artillery and his huge army is poised just across the DMZ.
China shares a land border with North Korea, is its biggest trading partner and the only country that has the best chance of persuading North Korea to change course. Here again, instead of saber rattling, a diplomatic solution with all the regional powers, China being the predominant one, is needed.
President Trump is clearly learning on the job. That is not necessarily a bad thing. What is disquieting is how diametrically opposite some of his current views are from what he said during the election. What were those statements based on? That is a fair question. And what would his ardent, vociferous supporters who cheered him then, think now? I am just curious.