Think National Security Is Complicated Now? Wait Until Trump Gets Started

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Donald Trump is the next commander in chief. Envisioning a Trump foreign and defense policy challenges the imagination and leaves allies abroad and observers at home scrambling to sketch a vision of the future. As a candidate, Trump didn’t outline his policies in detail, and his previous thoughts on a given issue aren’t terribly reliable indicators of current or future ones.

The issues he will face as president, however, are quite clear. President Obama will leave behind wars in Iraq and Syria, a nuclear deal with Iran, a network of alliances to manage, and big spending decisions. In each case, Trump appears geared for a radical departure from his predecessor.

The Obama administration has waged two wars in Syria—an overt military campaign employing airstrikes and special operations forces against ISIS, and a covert war against the Assad regime through weapons shipments to vetted rebels. Obama sees Assad as a part of the ISIS problem, because he believes the regime’s wanton attacks on civilians draw foreign fighters to the group.

Trump has signaled that he would view the Assad regime as a part of the solution. In an interview with CNN, he pondered “are we better off with Assad?” and in his August speech on ISIS, pledged to find “common ground with Russia,” which is fighting on behalf of the Assad regime and considers the region a bulwark against Islamic extremism. That kind of rhetoric raises the possibility that Trump may end US support to anti-Assad rebels and coordinate with Russia and the Assad regime on a military campaign against ISIS.

As the US takes more territory from the self-styled caliphate, it raises the question of how to prevent ISIS from returning. Liberated cities like Ramadi require billions of dollars in reconstruction. But Trump has said “the era of nation-building will be ended” and it’s unclear what the US might offer to assist in rebuilding and governing cities once held by ISIS.

And then there’s the Iran nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agreement to place additional restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions against the country was among the Obama administration’s top priorities, but Trump has panned it and pledged to negotiate a “better” deal. “The JCPOA is dead,” says Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear nonproliferation and a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “The only question is how President Trump plans to kill it.”

Trump has at least two options here. He could slap new sanctions on Iran to goad it into walking away from the deal. Or he can follow a more direct route that’s part of the deal. Trump could trigger the agreement’s “snap back provision” with a written notification of significant noncompliance by Iran, then veto any attempt to save the deal in the United Nations Security Council. “Trump will say he is going to get a better deal, of course, but that’s what George Bush said about the Agreed Framework with North Korea,” says Lewis. “Five nuclear tests later, I am still waiting.”

European allies, who helped negotiate the the Iran deal, already are wary of Trump’s warm attitude toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and his skepticism toward alliance structures like NATO and American security guarantees. “There is a tremendous amount of nervousness and uncertainty about where this is going to go,” says Derek Chollet, a security and defense expert at the German Marshall Fund and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration. Chollet recently visited the Baltics, where he met officials worried by Trump’s suggestion that he might not commit American forces to their defense in the event of a Russian invasion. “This feels existential for them,” he says.

NATO is expected to hold a summit in the first half of 2017, and Chollet expects everyone will anxiously await Trump’s arrival, assuming he attends, to get a better grasp on his administration’s thoughts on the Atlantic alliance.

Bread and butter budget issues also loom large because of Pentagon spending caps enacted by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Bills for a number of big ticket weapons programs are coming due, and the military worries about those costs gobbling ever more resources and forcing more difficult tradeoffs.

Trump has been inconsistent on his approaches to defense spending. In the more disciplined light of a teleprompter, he’s promised to press Congress to roll back the caps. Speaking off the cuff, however, he’s criticized politically-connected defense contractors for selling gold-plated weapons systems that underperform, saying generals have those purchases “forced down their throat.” The markets are betting that Trump’s more moderate rhetoric will prevail, with defense industry stocks soaring Wednesday.

The challenge of governing has seen even the most clearly-articulated foreign and defense policies run aground. George W. Bush came to office promising a “humble” foreign policy free of nation-building and found himself mired in Iraq. Barack Obama promised to bring those troops home and ended up sending them back. How Trump’s already murky ideas on the use of American power will fare against the tide of global events seen and unseen remains anyone’s guess.

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