US President Trump is no doubt a highly controversial president, and he is rocking American politics. But it does not appear that he will be impeached anytime soon, which means that he will most likely be the US president for the foreseeable future, and the Trump administration will be directing US foreign policy during that time.
But the heightened tensions and the acrimonious dichotomy that have come to characterize the overall US political debate are beginning to have a negative effect on the nature and quality of foreign policy analysis as well. On the basis of their writings and commentary, it appears that for many analysts who are strongly anti-Trump, an obsessive and unrelenting focus on the president’s negative traits is having an adverse impact on the quality of the analysis they are producing, and by implication on the overall foreign policy debate taking place in the United States these days.
Many foreign policy analysts – operating on the basis of their assessment that Trump is highly unpredictable, inconsistent, lacking credibility, and basically unfit – seem to see no value in relating seriously to the current administration’s foreign policies. They often project a worrying tendency to ignore the full range of relevant facts, and are quick to pounce on superficial evidence of inconsistencies and contradictions in order to discount out of hand policy statements and positions. This tendency is exacerbated by their unwillingness to provide interpretation of foreign policy that might seem at all positive – most likely for fear of being regarded as supporting Trump the man. But the inability to separate between foreign policy analysis and expressed attitudes toward the president himself is resulting in black/white political assessments, rather than balanced foreign policy analysis.
The tendency is troubling because the reality is that not everything being advanced by this administration in the realm of foreign policy is inconsistent, contradictory, and/or overall problematic – certainly not with regard to the Middle East. First the administration was slammed for even trying to carve out a foreign policy agenda when Trump had said that he would focus on Making America Great Again. More significantly, however, there are some positive directions being advanced by the administration, especially as far as reversing some of the problematic foreign policy trends of the previous administration: regarding Iran and traditional US allies in the Middle East. But those focused on negating Trump ‘no matter what’ will have none of it, nor will they admit to any problems with Obama’s Middle East policies. But there were problems, and the Trump administration has begun addressing some of them.
We see this clearly in two areas in particular: the emerging policy toward Iran, and attitudes toward broader regional dynamics in Middle East. But when the administration responded quickly and with determination to Iran’s illicit missile test of late January, it was accused by many of escalating the situation, and jeopardizing the “détente” that Obama had established with the nuclear deal. Ignored by these critics was the fact that Iran had become more aggressive across the region in the months since the JCPOA was announced, not to mention that there was nothing even close to détente in its relations with the United States. Then, when the administration embarked on a comprehensive review of its Iran policy – explaining the basis for relating both to Iran’s behavior per the nuclear issue and in the region – critics either denounced it outright, or advanced the even more bizarre line that it was actually a continuation of Obama’s approach. And when the administration released statements regarding Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, and renewed sanctions waivers that came up for renewal, it was immediately ridiculed for being inconsistent and contradictory on Iran. But of course these were statements it was obliged to issue according to the terms of the deal, and it would have made no sense for the administration to abruptly change course on the JCPOA while in the midst of its Iran policy review. Just imagine what the reaction would have been if the sanctions waiver had not been granted: there would have been cries of “US unilaterally violates the terms of the JCPOA!”
And there are similar dynamics at play in reaction to the administration’s regional policy. Taking the Qatar episode as an example, it is of course Qatar that is zigzagging and following a problematic two-pronged regional policy which is at the root of its long-term tensions with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But many analysts were quick to point the finger at Trump, accusing him of stirring up trouble on his visit to Saudi Arabia last month. Some analysts seemed positively giddy about the news of Arab states breaking diplomatic ties with Qatar – tension and instability in the region was beside the point as long as they could score points in an anti-Trump agenda. If these regional tensions undermine Trump’s efforts to bring the Sunni Arab states into a more cooperative framework, they would seem to applaud it. With regard to the announced arms sale to Saudi Arabia – first the critique was how Trump could “sell America” to the Saudis. But when it became clear that the terms of most of the deals originated in the Obama years, and have not yet been concluded, the message changed to: “fake news!” But the real news here is not the arms deal per se, but rather the political change that has come about in the Gulf, and the fact that America’s traditional allies in the Middle East now sense a US pivot away from Iran and back to them.
As long as Trump is president — and no change is on the horizon — these are not helpful or productive trends. They engender a problematic debate — discussion that lacks depth in terms of content, and is politically charged. There is little space for an analyst to make the case that a foreign policy direction might be working, without being castigated for not understanding how negative the president is.
Foreign policy analysis should not be about being a fan or not of Trump, any more than it should have been indication of one’s attitude toward Obama. There is no doubt that the president exacerbated the negative trends in the US political debate with his own often highly problematic rhetoric, and his tweets – a constant source of confusion and problems. But should the community of foreign policy analysts be playing by the same rules?