Even as Donald Trump winds up a relatively successful 12-day Asian tour, the media has been wailing about the U.S. president surrendering America’s world leadership.
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“America’s global influence has dwindled under Donald Trump,” intoned The Economist. “How China's Xi upstaged Trump as the 'world leader',” Germany’s Deutsche Welle explained to readers. The New York Times bemoaned that “Trump is ceding global leadership to China.”
America may be surrendering global leadership, but it was doing that long before Trump was handed the keys to the White House. Just note the Obama administration's unwillingness to entangle the U.S. in Syria, Libya, Ukraine or other global flashpoints.
Obama was keen about multilateralism, when it came to trade. But if anything, that signaled American retreat, not leadership. It was a politically correct way of sloughing off responsibility on others.
'He's our bastard'
The U.S. has never been comfortable in its role as leader of the free world. It retreated into isolationism after the First World War and only took over the task after World War II, when the communist menace emerged and no one in Europe was strong enough to counter it.
America likes to imagine itself not as an imperial power furthering its national interests, but as a crusader for democracy, free markets and the American way of life.
That idealism just makes burden of leadership even heavier. Idealism is not a good fit with the realities of global politics, which requires doing business with unsavory governments and engaging in nasty wars.
Harry Truman once reportedly said about a Nicaraguan leader, “He's a bastard, but he's our bastard,” but that attitude never went down well in America.
Under George Bush, America seemed to overreach in foreign policy, fighting seemingly endless and far-off wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which aroused anxieties that are shared across the U.S. political spectrum. So it was a natural that the next administration would withdraw.
Trump is now taking arrows for pulling America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. But the fact is that it was already dead in the water before, and Hillary Clinton opposed it, too, on the campaign trail.
Trump’s vacuous campaign promises to put "America first" and withdraw from trade agreements, downgrade NATO and rip up the Iranian nuclear accord all signaled plans to take America’s global pullback a step further. But the reality has been very different.
He did pull out of the TPP and the Paris climate accord, but his threat to do the same with the Iranian nuclear pact has been pared back to simply refusing to certify it. Withdrawing from North American Free Trade Agreement has morphed into negotiations to improve it, with no deadline and no clear agenda.
Not isolationism but incompetence
After jettisoning the likes of Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, Trump has a foreign policy team of establishment types who support an activist agenda. That’s how he got talked into stepping up operations in Afghanistan and now, after some distressingly childish and dangerous tweets, is willing to try and settle the North Korean crisis through diplomatic channels.
The big problem isn’t that Trump represents a new American isolationism, it's that his administration is as incompetent and directionless in foreign policy as it is in domestic policy. It’s a Mulligan’s stew that combines Trump’s personal worldview of America as a giant business with CEO Donald doing lucrative deals, with the inescapable realpolitik that the U.S. has global responsibilities it can’t easily ignore.
Here in the Middle East, the American indifference and policy confusion have left a vacuum that Iran, Russia and China are filling in.
It’s hard to pin down what the Trump White House wants to see in the region. On the one hand, it is pursuing ISIS, just as Obama did. But it hasn’t signaled any concrete ideas about what will happen in Syria and Iraq once the job is done.
Trump complains about Iran, but apart from slamming the nuke treaty and urging the Saudis to act, he has no evident plan. Iraq and Syria are coming under Tehran’s control and there’s no strategy to stop it. Trump seemingly eggs on the Saudis to isolate Qatar, while his secretary of state tries to heal the rift.
As for Israel and the Palestinians, Trump is pursuing a quixotic quest for a peace deal – and is even willing to ignore his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and demand a settlement freeze to do it – but then assigns the task to a team of amateurs.
Like Obama before him, Trump has de facto been leaving the Middle East to deal with its own problems by itself. That’s why Saudi Arabia has been acting unilaterally and why Israel hasn't been hassled about bombing raids in Syria. But neither country, even if they quietly cooperate, can replace the U.S.’s role as the one who can bring a semblance of order to the Middle East. Only America has the firepower, the money and diplomatic resources.
The Israelis who are applauding Trump for decertifying the Iran deal, supporting settlements, (someday) moving the embassy and dissing our supposed enemies in Europe are deluding themselves. Israel’s chief interest isn’t where the U.S. processes visas or whether the State Department condemns the latest settlement construction. Israel needs a U.S. engaged in the Middle East and in a coherent and consistent way.
Admittedly, coherency and consistency were never a hallmark of American policy, but under Trump, they have almost entirely disappeared.