Trump succeeds in economics but floundering in foreign policy


The economy of the United States is booming, with unemployment at historic lows and the stock market once again showing the signs of a thriving business environment. Using his business acumen, President Donald Trump has reversed the recent stagnation and boosted not only corporate profit but also consumer confidence as tax cuts and deregulation have bettered the lives of most Americans. 

Leaving the US’ shores, his foreign policy actions have been a cross between moderate success and outright failure.

While headline actions may prove to be successful - North Korea and pulling out of the Iran Deal - it is other areas that will continue to prove vexing and point out weaknesses in US policies. 

Foreign Policy as directed by the US State Department has always been slow to change. The west, in general, has been slow to react to societal changes: Fascist threats in the 1930s, humanitarian crises in Africa and the Far-East and elsewhere. 

Today, the threat to the world is coming from the region of the Middle East. Iran has become the major financer and leader of terrorism, and Turkey has become a dictatorship bent on reestablishing the Ottoman Empire and has used the threat of the PKK to invade Iraq and Syria. Iraq has become a vassal state of Iran and has turned its military, funded, trained and equipped by the US, against its own citizens.     

While Trump is scoring big wins domestically using a lifetime of business negotiation tactics, these same tactics are failing internationally.  

The problem seems to be that when Trump negotiated with other businesses, they both knew there would be accommodation and that both would win something; they would never get all that they wanted but were ok with that. This was true at one time in regard to national and, to a degree, international politics, but no longer. Today, ideology and identity politics has replaced compromise and pragmatic judgement.

Trump has engaged world leaders as if they were business people and is slowly discovering that they are not. Iran was able to manipulate the West into concessions during negotiations that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Deal) which ended in the release of billions of dollars and the opening up of trade and bank loans from Europe. 

Contrary to the spirit of the agreement, none of this money was used for the benefit of the Iranian people. 

Instead, the money was used to shore up the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and allowed them to increase their covert and overt acts of terrorism in the region. 

Continuing to exert influence in Iraq, the Iranian regime trained and funded the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Shia militias that carried out atrocities against Iraqi Sunnis in the guise of fighting the Islamic State (IS).  After Trump pulled out of the deal, Iran tightened its grip on Iraq and threatens to further destabilize the region

Turkey, on the other hand, was treated as a friend. While the public relationship between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to be very friendly, cracks recently appeared as Erdogan refused to release American Pastor Andrew Brunson. 

The release was reportedly part of a deal in exchange for the release of Turkish national Ebru Ozkan held in Israel. While Ozkan was released and allowed to return to Turkey, Brunson was released from prison but remains under house arrest in Turkey. 

This type of duplicitous dealing may be part and parcel of Erdogan’s character, but it did not go over well with Trump. The popular myth about powerful business people - that they are untrustworthy and will do anything for money - is just that, a myth.  It is true they will maneuver for the best advantage, between business leaders, however, trust and keeping your word are of utmost importance.   

The reaction of Trump to the failure of Erdogan to keep his word is the imposition of economic sanctions. With the Turkish economy in free fall, this should be devastating as it will be for Iran whose economy is also failing. 

The problem with sanctions is that they have historically not worked, at least not in any timely way.

Neither Turkey nor Iran cares that much for their general population and both have done a good job of repressing any opposition. Today there are serious demonstrations in the streets of Iran, but the government is still very much in charge and has no problem with the use of extreme violence to suppress dissent. Turkey, likewise, has used its military and police to render all opposition silent. 

US Policy options are limited on Iran unless the US and the rest of the world are willing to take direct military action, which at this time, it is not. The best the US can do is to either overtly or covertly support the citizens demonstrating in the streets and put such economic pressure on Tehran that the regime will collapse on its own.

The US has pulled out of the Iran deal and has reimposed a number of sanctions that will degrade the Iranian economy. Iran has reacted, as expected, with threats of retaliation, amongst other things, threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off oil shipments out of the Persian Gulf. This, of course, would open up the military option and would be supported by the EU as Europe is the main consumer of this oil. While this would remove the need for Trump to act diplomatically, the regional repercussions would be severe.

Recent events indicate the degree of difficulty that open warfare between Iran and the US encompass. 

Tunnel vision by the Defense Department over IS and the seeming incompetence of the US State Department in the guise of Presidential Envoy, Brett McGurk, has shown the US has no vision. It is easy to blame McGurk for his failure to advance US interest in Iraq, Syria and Turkey and to blunt the expansion of Iran, but the State Department has done nothing to reign him in and allows him to continue to stumble. 

The lack of initiative during the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum, allowing Baghdad to use US-supplied equipment to attack and kill Sunnis and Kurds in disputed territories, as well as seemingly to support Iranian proxy militias, degrades the leverage, if any is left, of the US in Iraq. 

Combine State department recalcitrance with Trump’s background of leaving middle managers in place following any acquisition (and to Trump, McGurk is nothing more than a low level manager best handled by others) failures will compound.    

Turkey is another matter that is also driven by the State Department and, to a degree, the Defense Department.  Regional actors have watched as Turkey has turned from a moderate democracy into a militant dictatorship. The Defense Department still sees it as the southern anchor of NATO and the State Department sees a friendly democracy that can be used as a model of Islamic democratic governance. 

Trump sees Erdogan as a strong leader, or at least, he did. Turkey’s actions against Pastor Brunson as well as its activities in Syria and a subsequent attack on US citizens are beginning to force the President to reassess his thinking. 

Unfortunately, Trump, like most people, can be set in his ways. Fortunately, unlike most politicians, he is willing to change direction when he sees the need. US relations with Turkey are undergoing some dramatic changes and will have an impact on world politics as the EU must also assess its regional relationships.

President Trump is dead wrong in most of his administration’s approach to the Middle East. 

This is caused in part by his lack of understanding of international politics, but there are two other major problems with the US’ approach. First is the lack of foreign policy experts with an understanding of regional culture and politics. McGurk is only one problem here; he is not a regional expert or even a foreign policy professional, but a lawyer with a title he does not deserve. The issue is compounded by a professional bureaucracy that, because of little real-world knowledge, merely continues to parrot past analyses and defend old positions, which in this case, supports poor reporting and bad policy recommendations coming from the field. 

The second problem is Trump’s own lack of knowledge regarding the rest of the world. Like far too many Americans, Donald Trump sees other nationalities as extensions of America. Add to this his experience being limited to business, specifically real estate, his response to crises is to counterpunch.

To end on an up note, Trump is bringing more pragmatic people to Washington, people who do not rely on past beliefs. While policy changes slowly in Washington, it does change, and continued pressure on the right people may turn things around.

Paul Davis is a Senior Fellow at Soran University and a retired US Army military intelligence officer. He has been a consultant to the American intelligence community specializing in the Middle East with a concentration on Kurdish affairs. Currently, he is the President of the consulting firm JANUS Think in Washington DC.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.

Editing by Nadia Riva