Monday will mark two months since Donald Trump became president of the United States. Even after almost 60 days, any attempt to forecast where this administration is headed is like trying to use coffee grinds to predict the future.
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Nevertheless, regarding the Middle East in particular and foreign policy in general, one principle clearly stands out amid the White House confusion: Trump’s belief that force, more force and then a little more force is the solution. Indeed, in dealing with the Syrian crisis – and in contrast to his predecessor’s policies – the United States has already doubled the number of soldiers stationed in the eye of the Middle Eastern storm, from 500 to 1,000. And the number of boots on the ground is expected to double again soon.
With the pace of appointments to administration posts still slow, the publication of the Trump administration’s first budget on Thursday offered a rare opportunity to understand the president’s priorities.
The budget shows that Syria is not the exception and that strengthening the U.S. Army is Trump’s main objective.
“He looks through a magnifying glass and searches for what would make the United States stronger, economically and militarily,” a former Republican senator, Norm Coleman, tells Haaretz.
Coleman was voted chairman of the Republican Jewish Convention last month. He was in Israel recently to attend the annual conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). He said the U.S Army had suffered a sharp decline in its strength and preparedness, and that Trump intended to address that.
The only three departments set to get additional funds in the proposed budget (which still needs Congressional approval) are the departments of homeland security, veterans affairs and defense – the latter receiving a $52-billion boost.
Trump’s proposed budget signals the most significant departure in resource allocation since the days of Ronald Reagan. As expected, funding this increase will come at the expense of funding UN peacekeeping missions, humanitarian aid, cultural diplomacy and assistance to developing economies.
Trump’s cuts will also eliminate basic programs that have characterized the United States for decades – such as funding for public broadcasting, support for the arts, cleaning of lakes and development programs for the most disadvantaged areas in the United States.
As liberal commentators like to point out, Trump’s biggest supporters are the main victims of the cuts. But administration officials justify these cuts as being in line with Republican ideology (either the classic one or the capricious one of the current president), based on the argument that these programs have long lost their effectiveness and that if funding is to continue, it should come from local or state coffers, not federal ones.
On foreign policy matters, the idea that increased force is the right way to make America great again may encounter internal contradictions very early on – no more so than in the case of Syria.
One of the main reasons former President Barack Obama hesitated in directly intervening in the fight against the Islamic State group was his concern that U.S. soldiers would have to remain in the area long after ISIS was defeated. Trump supposedly solved this by agreeing to transfer liberated areas to Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, the capture of Raqqa by regime forces will mean leaving the Sunni population at the mercy of Shi’ite militias.
Dennis Ross, the former U.S. envoy to the Middle East and now co-chairman of the JPPI, says that if this happened, ISIS would lose its territorial grip but the momentum it would gain by attacks on Sunnis would resonate across the globe. “The result would be ISIS squared,” says Ross.
Added to this is the fact that an Assad victory is also an Iranian victory. From the start of his presidency, Trump identified the importance of limiting Iranian influence. And, as Ross notes, the White House has made clear that severing the alliance between Iran and Russia is also a top priority. The U.S. State Department is responsible for realizing this goal, but it’s set to lose 28 percent of its budget in the round of cuts.
It remains to be seen whether this new American power play impresses Russian President Vladimir Putin enough to make him dissociate himself from Tehran, which to date has proved so advantageous for him.