President Donald Trump had hoped to head into the 2020 campaign season as the world’s consummate deal-maker.
He may instead enter his reelection campaign not just empty-handed, but vulnerable to the charge that his policies have helped sow chaos across the globe.
His trade war with China keeps escalating, with mounting costs to the U.S. economy. Diplomatic overtures to Iran and North Korea have so far failed to yield the president’s desired outcome. Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace plan, two years in the making, is nowhere to be seen. And America’s retreat from Syria, where the president once boasted he had defeated ISIS, has allowed the terrorist group to regenerate, according to a new Pentagon inspector general’s report.
Trump’s critics see these data points as alarming signs that the president is out of his depth on international affairs, if not complicit in the breakdown of global order. And while his allies enthusiastically support his efforts to squeeze Iran, some are quietly nervous — if not openly scornful — of his policies elsewhere.
“He’s trying to pivot from being sort of a militarist to being a deal-maker and delivering on diplomacy. That’s his sort of political goal going into 2020,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He’s made all of these decisions and choices that are sort of getting him into trouble and he’s having to cope with the decisions and consequences.”
Jeb Bush, one of Trump’s political opponents in the 2016 Republican primary, recently rattled off a litany of global hot spots in a tweetstorm before suggesting the president was not meeting the moment. “And to think many now believe that America’s leadership in the world is not necessary,” Bush lamented.
Some of Trump’s own advisers have expressed particular concern over his desire to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before the 2020 presidential election. And allies outside the administration have likened the move to the 1972 election deadline set by Richard Nixon for the withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam.
Trump aides, including national security adviser John Bolton, worry that a premature withdrawal of American troops could leave the Afghan government in a weakened position, according to four administration officials and congressional aides.
Under pressure from the president to pull out troops, the U.S. has elbowed aside the Afghan government in favor of direct talks with the Taliban, and there are signs State Department envoy Zalmay Khalilzad may be close to reaching a peace agreement that could end the nearly two-decade war.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked recently if he expected the U.S. to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan before the next American presidential election, said: “That’s my directive from the president of the United States. He’s been unambiguous: End the endless wars, draw down, reduce.”
And while Pompeo later clarified that he is not working on a timeline, the president’s sense of urgency is clear from his public remarks.
Trump nodded to ongoing Pentagon concerns about the risks of withdrawal last month when he told Fox News host Tucker Carlson, “If you were in my position and a great-looking, central-casting — and we have great generals — and a great, central-casting general walks up to your office and I say, ‘We’re getting out.’ … And they say, ‘Sir, I’d rather attack them over there than in our land.’ It’s always a very tough decision. When they say that, it’s always a tough decision.”
A Taliban attack that left more than a dozen people dead in Kabul on Wednesday underscored those concerns. And a Pentagon inspector general’s report published Tuesday also offered some sobering evidence for them as they apply to Syria, where Trump advisers voiced similar warnings last year about the potential consequences of a premature withdrawal.
The report, covering the period from April to June, warns, “Despite losing its territorial ‘caliphate,’ the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was re-surging in Syria.” The conclusions contrast sharply with Trump’s recent claim that, “We have 100 percent of the caliphate, and we’re rapidly pulling out of Syria.”
Whether pushing for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan or imposing tariffs on China, many of the administration’s most consequential foreign policy moves over the past few months have taken place over the objections of the president’s senior advisers. Trump allies describe a wear-down factor among his top aides in the face of Trump’s uncompromising views on these issues as they work to manage crises across the globe.
In Asia, apart from the deepening trade dispute with Beijing — the Treasury Department designated China a “currency manipulator” on Monday — the U.S. is struggling to mediate a historical feud between U.S. allies Japan and South Korea and to respond in any meaningful way to North Korea’s fourth set of ballistic-missile launches in just under two weeks.
Elsewhere in the world, the Trump administration on Monday imposed an embargo on Venezuela to ramp up the pressure on President Nicolás Maduro, the target of a thus-far unsuccessful Trump campaign to push him out of office. And India stripped the special status of Kashmir, a disputed region over which it has fought two wars with neighboring Pakistan. Both countries possess nuclear arms, adding to the weight of the dispute, and recently skirmished across the “line of control” separating the former British territories.
The sheer number of complex international standoffs, former officials said, threatens to overwhelm an already taxed foreign policy apparatus in Washington.
“In the best of times, the U.S. government doesn’t do well with more than 1½ crises at a time,” said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of Defense for policy under George W. Bush.
Administration officials counter that they inherited a world in disarray from President Barack Obama. “This administration took office after the prior administration had almost completely eviscerated U.S. deterrence by doing deals with regimes like Iran,” a senior State Department official said. “We didn’t bite off more than we can chew. We’re trying to fix what we inherited.”
And Trump allies remain largely supportive of the president’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, which they say is having the desired effect of isolating the clerical regime diplomatically and weakening its economy even if it hasn’t yet brought the Iranians back to the negotiating table.
“I think if Trump rushes to a deal, shows too much desperation for a deal, he’s going to get taken to the cleaners the way Obama did,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has worked closely with administration officials on Iran policy.
But there are signs, too, that the president’s penchant for personal diplomacy is bumping up against the harsh realities of global power politics.
Early in his term, Trump entertained Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, plying the Chinese leader with chocolate cake and hailing their relationship as “excellent.” But last week, the president announced a 10 percent tariff on Chinese imports starting Sept. 1 — a move born of frustration with his own team’s lack of progress in negotiations with the Chinese as well as with Xi, who would not agree to purchase U.S. agricultural goods even after Trump cornered him last month at the G-20.
Despite public optimism from administration officials like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, some analysts say the Chinese are unlikely to strike any sort of trade deal with Trump in the coming months — or before the 2020 presidential election. “They don’t think he’s an honest negotiator and that he would actually implement a deal if it was reached,” said Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A Goldman Sachs analysis published last week reached the same conclusion, indicating that the bank’s economists “no longer expect a trade deal before the 2020 election.”
Analysts say the U.S. economy, the president’s biggest selling point as he prepares to run for reelection, is likely suffering from the dispute. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had its worst day of 2019 on Monday when the Treasury Department labeled China a currency manipulator. In response to that announcement, China called off all imports of U.S. agricultural goods, a major blow to farmers, who rank among the president’s strongest political backers.
Trump appears not to fear a political fallout, tweeting Tuesday, Massive “amounts of money from China and other parts of the world is pouring into the United States.”
As for the country’s farmers, he said, “As they have learned in the last two years, our great American Farmers know that China will not be able to hurt them in that their President has stood with them and done what no other president would do — And I’ll do it again next year if necessary!”
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.