Foreign policy wins of 2017

2017 was a very good year for the U.S. economy and for domestic policy in general. But what about foreign policy?

CNN’s Peter Bergen points to three foreign policy wins by President Trump. First on Bergen’s list is the enforcement of the “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria:

On April 4, 2017, the Syrian regime used sarin, a nerve gas, against civilian targets in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing more than 80 people. . .Two days after the sarin attack, American warships launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield, the first direct military action that the United States has taken against Assad’s regime.

Assad hasn’t used chemical weapons against his own people since Trump ordered those cruise missile strikes in April. The enforcement of the important international prohibition against the use of nerve gas is certainly an achievement for the Trump administration.

It stands in marked contrast to President Obama’s humiliating failure to enforce his own “red line” against Assad.

Second on Bergen’s list (it should be first if we’re ranking by importance) is the defeat of ISIS. Bergen correctly gives some of the credit to Obama, who (after a long delay) initiated policies that eventually would have led to victory over ISIS. However, says Bergen, the Trump national security team helped to hasten the defeat of ISIS in two ways.

First, Trump decided to equip the anti-ISIS Syrian Democratic Forces — a largely Kurdish militia — with mortars, anti-tank weapons, armored cars and machine guns. Those forces captured ISIS’s de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa, in October.

Second, Trump allowed American ground commanders greater latitude to carry out operations in war zones such as Iraq and Syria without consulting higher up the chain of command. Pentagon brass had long chafed at what they considered to be the micromanagement of military operations by the Obama White House.

Bergen says the demise of ISIS brings a measure of stability to Iraq and reduces the scope of the terrorist threat that the group poses. He is right.

Trump has also improved our policy in Afghanistan. This is the third item on Bergen’s list:

In late August Trump announced a plan to bring some modicum of stability to Afghanistan, where the Taliban have asserted more control in the past year or so. In addition to sending a mini-surge of several thousand more troops to the country, Trump made it clear that the US commitment to Afghanistan is long term and “conditions-based.” Trump did not impose any timetable for withdrawing US forces from the country, which was the counterproductive approach that the Obama administration had taken.

The Afghan government has welcomed this long-term American commitment to Afghanistan.

I see this as a “win” only if Trump’s plan actually improves the situation. However, I agree with Bergen that, at a minimum, Trump’s plan “reduces the possibility that the country could slip back into an anarchic state conducive to groups such as ISIS securing a large presence in the country.” That seemed to be where things were headed under President Obama.

Bergen sees two foreign policy losses for Trump: the rejection of the TPP and the decision to move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But whether these are really losses depends on what happens (or doesn’t happen) as a result of the decisions and what one thinks of such consequences.

By contrast, the military defeat of ISIS and Syria’s cessation of the use of chemical weapons are undisputed facts and indisputably good developments. Moreover, the defeat of ISIS is obviously a big deal, while the response to Assad’s chemical attacks will help restore our credibility.

However, Year One of Trump’s foreign policy was dominated not by wins but by “incompletes” e.g., on North Korea, Russia, and post-ISIS Levant. That’s normal for a first year. By this time next year, we’ll know a lot more.