The Middle East and Korea underline Trump’s competence and patience.
July 20, 2018
For a man who has been derided as a buffoon and a boor, Donald Trump has been remarkably effective in his Presidency so far. Perhaps the business like virtues of drive, strategic impatience and pure efficiency are worthy of study and emulation after all in a diplomatic world dominated by often failed group-think.
The outcome of the war in Syria underlines that. An agreement has ostensibly been reached between all powers concerned that Bashar al-Assad will stay as Syrian President, after seven exhausting years of fighting. This unofficial agreement is underlined and underwritten by Russia and Israel, the region’s most militarily capable actors, as well as the United States. It is a de facto admission of failure on the part of the West that continuing the war is futile, and that whatever the crimes committed by the Syrian President, his enemies in IS and al-Qaeda are worse. They are also much more threatening to the West. Trump deserves credit for recognising much of this even before he was elected President.
President Trump has applied logic and common sense to a seemingly impossible quagmire, and indeed he appears to have gone some way toward solving it. The Assad government has successfully defeated much of the opposition, with only the Islamist rebel held northwest region of Idlib still standing. A Syrian government victory there will likely end the war for good. The recognition that ISIS is only weakened, not terminally defeated and al-Qaeda retains a robust presence from the Sahel to the Gulf only demonstrates the astuteness of the decision to end the support for ‘moderate rebels’ who are often anything but. Most impressive is that Trump has contributed to a solution which accommodates the interests of Israel, Russia and Iran in some form, no mean feat.
For the Israelis, Assad has been weakened. The Iranian proxy of Hezbollah has also been bled. Two tier one threats to Israel will have to spend years rebuilding their human capital, physical infrastructure and war fighting capability. This is topped off by the fact that Putin has agreed to restrain the Iranians and keep them away from the Golan border, something which the Israelis have long been anxious about. This not only reduced the threat to Israel, it will make Jerusalem much more comfortable dealing with a very weakened Assad. It has to be considered whether this was in fact the Israeli aim all along, rather than the publicly stated aim of regime change.
An important point to note is that Russia is a big winner. It has decisively demonstrated its status as a global military power, retaining Syria as a key client state. Importantly, Putin has also shown that he can be reasonable and accommodating, an important point which anti-Russia politicians, bureaucrats and military officials across NATO need to understand. It is not in Russia’s interest to see an unstable Middle East needing constant intervention. The Russians have also demonstrated that overwhelming military power can effect change even in the worst of quagmires, something which should be a lesson in the West who believe that ‘there is no military solution’. There is always a military solution – a basic tenet of realism.
Iran has contributed significantly to the fight against Salafi terrorist groups in Syria – ironic considering that it is seen as a terrorist state itself by much of the world. It has sacrificed many of its proxies in the fight, but it can claim to have successfully prevented regime change and defied the West. It is important to realise that the primary terrorist groups threatening the West are Sunni Salafi taqfiris (violent exclusivist extremists), not the Shi’ite Iranian miitias. This has been noted by European governments who opposed Trump’s decision to pull out of JCPOA. A strategic misstep, perhaps, but one that shows no President is perfect.
Trump has taken the intelligent and frankly sane decision not to get involved in Syria. Had such an intervention gone ahead, it would have sucked in US resources in yet another futile act which sapped US power and credibility, even as China continues to raise tensions throughout Asia. That would not have been good for the world. It would also have risked a confrontation with Russia, which increased the likelihood of an all-out nuclear confrontation. That is naturally not an optimal outcome.
Speaking of China, Trump’s moves have been highly effective in countering the increasingly destabilising global influence of the Chinese communist party. His trade war will gradually drive Chinese GDP growth down, slowly enabling the other Asian giant India to catch up, creating a level of strategic balance in Asia. His engagement of North Korea was unprecedented in the first personal meeting between the leaders, Trump and Kim Jong-Un. Given the Chinese use of North Korea as a proxy to keep Japan and the US off balance, this is broadly a positive outcome. In future it will be harder for Beijing to use North Korea to needle Japan and the US. While the world should rightly watch and wait on the vital issue of denuclearisation, the signs are promising that Trump can weaken China.
President Donald Trump has proven to be effective in foreign policy, against the expectations of many of his detractors. He has demonstrated a ruthless ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, an important quality of businesspeople which he has now brought to the White House. The electorate may well reward him with a second term for it.