The world was dumbfounded by the election of Donald Trump, and his first 100 days in office have done little to alleviate a deep sense of uncertainty and unpredictability. Indeed, as one observer put it, the last few weeks alone have caused a severe case of global geostrategic whiplash.
100 days of the Trump show
The number of campaign promises that have morphed into presidential U-turns is staggering. Allies and adversaries alike are trying to figure out whether a Trump Doctrine is emerging, or whether, as former CIA Director Michael Hayden recently told me, a discernible doctrine does not exist in what resembles a family-run business of policy from the White House.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster “has hired a very bright woman to write the US National Security Strategy,” he said. “It’s a tough job. I did it twice for George H.W. Bush. But I was building on precedent and historic consensus. It’s really going to be interesting to see what an America First national security strategy looks like when you’ve got to write it down.”
Long-time American allies are comforted, though, knowing McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis make up an experienced national security team. NATO partners also welcomed Trump’s declaration that he no longer considers the transatlantic military alliance obsolete.
They, along with regional allies, supported Trump enforcing the previously declared US red line in Syria against the regime’s use of chemical weapons on its own people. After such an attack that the West attributed to the Syrian government earlier in the month, Trump launched retaliatory strikes.
But Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, are worried about US policy on North Korea. They welcome the tougher stance against Kim Jong Un’s ramped up nuclear missile program, but they were rattled by the USS Carl Vinson debacle, when for a time it was unclear if the aircraft carrier was steaming towards North Korea or not. It raised the question of whether the administration really has its deterrence policy in order, and South Korea was said to feel utter confusion, even betrayal, when the carrier was actually found to be steaming away from, not towards, the Korean Peninsula.
On Iran, signals are slightly harder to read. On the one hand, the State Department again certified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. Yet a day later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson strongly hinted the US could walk away from it, or try to link it to other issues it has with Iran. So far the deal remains in place and neither the EU nor the UN would agree to reimpose international sanctions on Tehran, which helped bring the country to the negotiating table.
On the Paris Climate Accord, Trump’s closest advisers seem to be having an almighty tussle about whether he should stay or stray from the historic deal. Big US companies like ExxonMobil are urging the US to abide by the deal and thereby have more say at the table.
Trump has also hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate, and seems to have reversed many of his pledges to play hardball with Beijing. But on trade, just recently a Financial Times newspaper headline blared: “Trump Fires First Protectionist Warning over steel Industry,” saying this paves the way for a global showdown on steel and possible sweeping tariffs on steel imports.
In his first 100 days, President Barack Obama visited nine countries. President George W. Bush visited two. Trump has visited none. But next month he visits Brussels for a NATO summit, and Sicily, for a meeting of the G7. Whether he can convince America’s allies that they have a trust-worthy friend with a strategic worldview as their most powerful ally remains to be seen, abroad and at home.
“I think I know what the policy is,” Hayden told me. “I have more difficulty, Christiane, putting this policy into a broader global view. And I think that’s causing unease with you, with me, and with a whole bunch of other folks who are trying to see, ‘Where are the Americans going globally?'”
Nick Paton Walsh
It was the mother of all statements, but he may have had nothing to do with it.
The MOAB (officially know as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast) wiped out an ISIS tunnel complex in the volatile eastern part of the country last week, killing around 90 militants.
It was the largest non-nuclear bomb used by the US in combat, but whether the new commander in chief personally approved its use is unclear.
The airstrike was immediately followed up by National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster visiting Kabul and assuring President Ashraf Ghani his country had a friend in the US and a strategic review was under way.
Yet outside of the huge bomb and its message of might, little has changed — as the new White House is inheriting the exhaustion of both resolve and policy options of the last.
A massive troop surge? Talks with the Taliban? A lighter footprint training Afghan security forces to secure the country? All have been tried, and all have failed to stop the insurgency controlling or contesting over half Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed rise of ISIS. Add to that the intense and escalating in-fighting in the Kabul political elite, and there is a very messy summer ahead, with few decent options.
It’s arguably the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
But when President Donald Trump was inaugurated back in January, several Chinese policy experts told me there was a lot of nervousness about the incoming leader.
After all, during the campaign Trump said he would name China a currency manipulator on Day One of his term and threatened a trade war.
As President-elect, he spoke to Taiwan’s president on the phone and openly questioned the ‘One China’ policy, a cornerstone of Washington-Beijing relations in which the US recognizes Taiwan as part of China. And Trump accused China of not doing enough to put pressure on North Korea.
100 days on? Well, it’s a 180-degree shift.
In his first phone call with President Xi Jinping, Trump reaffirmed the One China policy. He has praised Beijing for taking some positive steps on the North Korea issue and he recently said that China is not manipulating its currency.
Trump denies these positions represent a flip-flop; the businessman-turned-president is saying it’s all part of a deal.
“I actually told him (Xi Jinping), I said, ‘You’ll make a much better deal on trade if you get rid of this menace or do something about the menace of North Korea.’ Because that’s what it is, it’s a menace right now,” Trump said last week.
Trump said he has developed a strong relationship with Xi Jinping and that their scheduled 15-minute meetings at the Mar-a-Lago summit stretched into “hours.”
But Yan Xuetong, a foreign policy expert at Tsinghua University, told me that the Chinese are skeptical. He said that if North Korea goes ahead with its nuclear program, then China will take the blame.
“Trump will use China as scapegoat to tell (the) American public that it is not his problem,” said Yan.
In Yan’s eyes, at least, the Chinese suspect more Trump policy turns.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate President Donald Trump after he won the November 2016 presidential election. The two leaders had instantly hit it off when they met a few months earlier in New York.
Their views are more aligned than were those of President Barack Obama, which reacted coolly to the 2013 coup by Egypt’s military — led at the time by Sisi. When he became president soon afterward, he ushered in a new low between Washington and Cairo.
It was an open secret that Cairo wished for a Trump victory over Obama’s former secretary of state, Hilary Clinton. Trump was perceived by Cairo as a pragmatist who had little interest in human rights.
In his first days in office, Trump invited Sisi to visit him in Washington. The Egyptian president arrived with three main objectives: deepen military cooperation, strengthen the war against terror and revive Egypt’s economy. The invitation to the White House also gave the Egyptian president a legitimacy that the Obama administration had previously denied him.
Recently, in a gesture of good will and eagerness to cooperate, American Aya Hijazi was released from an Egyptian prison after Trump directly intervened to secure her release.
Expect relations to remain warm as long as Trump’s administration keeps the lid on any criticism of Sisi.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel took heat from Donald Trump even before he was sworn in as president.
He accused her of making a “catastrophic mistake” on migrants, only being as trustworthy as Vladimir Putin, and intentionally trying to take business from the US.
For Europeans, Trump’s attitude to Merkel is symptomatic of wider issues: his like of Brexit and his dislike of the EU’s single market and liberal trade values.
At the EU leaders summit in Malta this February, both French and German leaders said openly that Trump’s attitude was uniting Europe to stand on its own feet.
Since then, Trump has said the EU is “wonderful” and he is “totally in favor of it.” Yet he still supports Brexit and seems unaware of the instability and frustrations Europe feels because of it.
It’s not the only cross-Atlantic reversal he has had. Coming into office, he said NATO was “obsolete.” He told the alliance nations they need to pay their way, and has given them a deadline to promise they will.
In recent weeks Trump has changed his tune. NATO, he said, is “not obsolete” — but he still wants members’ money.
Merkel’s March visit to see Trump at the White House did little to quell European concerns over his attitude to Europe, and trade in particular.
That Merkel was ignored by Trump when asking for a handshake in the Oval Office, and embarrassed by him again at the news conference that followed with an awkward comment about being spied on, reveals this relationship has some way to go before it gets on an even keel.
Iran’s leadership realized that Donald Trump was an unknown commodity, but many in the country’s senior leadership hoped they would be able to deal with the new man in the White House.
“We hope that he will have a pragmatic approach,” Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister, Amir Hossein Azamaninia, told me in an interview during the transition period shortly before Trump took office. He suggested that perhaps President Donald Trump would similar to the businessman Donald Trump — a shrewd dealmaker, whom the Islamic Republic with its oil wealth could possibly even strike deals with.
But Iran soon learned that the new administration was going to take a harder line towards Tehran than President Barack Obama had. When Iran tested ballistic missiles in late January — which the US believes could strike targets in Israel — then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn came down hard and fast on Tehran, announcing there would be new sanctions. He also said the US was “putting Iran on notice,” without specifying what that meant.
This harsh reaction and subsequent statements by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have sowed further uncertainty in Tehran about America’s strategy on Iran. The tough talk and action have put a severe damper on any notion the Rouhani administration had that its fairly constructive relations with Washington during the Obama years would continue.
At the same time, the Trump team’s hard line seems to be having an effect on Iran’s behavior.
There have so far been fewer reports of incidents and close encounters between US and Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf’s narrow Strait of Hormuz than during the end of the Obama administration. And during Iran’s National Revolution Day in February, the leadership did not display ballistic missiles as it usually has.
This has led some experts to believe that Tehran — for all its harsh rhetoric — is making an effort to not further antagonize an American president and Cabinet whom the Iranians view as erratic and very hostile towards the Islamic Republic.
If this was the Trump administrations intent, it could be working.
“I would bomb the s**t out of them,” declared candidate Donald Trump, summarizing his strategy to defeat ISIS. “I would bomb those suckers … and I’d take the oil.” The crowds loved it.
A decisive victory over ISIS, plus a grand prize of a lot of cheap oil, sounds great, but the real world just doesn’t work that way and slowly, perhaps, the new administration has learned this in its first 100 days.
For one thing, the battle to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, Iraq — now into its seventh month — has underscored just how hard it is to defeat the extremists. Since the push in the western part of the city began in February, both the US-led coalition and Iraqi forces have been bombarding ISIS as promised, using much heavier firepower than during the battle for west Mosul in the waning months of the Obama administration.
But the tactic has come at a high cost in terms of civilian casualties, brought home by what US officials concede was probably a US-led airstrike on March 17 that mistakenly killed almost 150 civilians. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are still in western Mosul, often exploited by ISIS as human shields.
But even with the heavy assault, the Trump administration is largely settling down and following the same slow, deliberate approach of the Obama administration.
The battle for Mosul has taken more than half a year and may take many more months. In neighboring Syria, there are nearly a thousand US boots on the ground, backing a mixed Kurdish-Arab force that aims at overrunning the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS. When this will happen is anyone’s guess.
And then there’s that other topic Trump has toyed with: taking Iraq’s oil. That was decisively shot down by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who flew to Baghdad in February and told reporters, “We’re not in Iraq to seize anyone’s oil.”
Donald Trump’s fiery pro-Israel rhetoric during the campaign had the right and far right in Israel salivating at the prospects of a Trump administration, while Palestinians worried about an American government adopting a more hostile stance.
Trump pledged to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, “dismantle” the Iran deal, reduce funding to the United Nations and cut aid to the Palestinians. At the same time, Trump said he wanted to close “the ultimate deal” — a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Save for the last, Trump has moderated his stance and backed off his positions in his first 100 days in office. The
Trump administration has said its still considering an embassy move, but has also called Israeli settlements in the West Bank unhelpful for peace and acknowledged that Iran is sticking by the terms of the nuclear deal. Some analysts in Israel have pointed out that Trump’s positions on the region are beginning to resemble Obama’s positions.
The Israeli right wing’s fervor over Trump has cooled somewhat, but it still expects him to be a friend in the White House. From Israel’s perspective, the big star of the Trump administration so far is US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who has repeatedly criticized the United Nations for focusing disproportionately on Israel. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly praised Trump, refusing to suggest even the slightest hint of criticism, since he entered office.
Meanwhile, a recent visit by Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, left Palestinians cautiously optimistic that prospects weren’t as grim as initially feared and that Trump was serious about attempting to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet Trump in Washington shortly after Trump hits the 100-day mark. The meeting could be a litmus test of how the dynamic between Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas develops.