Trump flexes foreign policy muscle as new year begins

Trump flexes foreign policy muscle as new year begins
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems flip Wisconsin state Senate seat Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP rep: 'Sheet metal and garbage' everywhere in Haiti MORE spent the first week of the year flexing his muscles on the world stage, strongly supporting Iranian protestors and sending the signal that foreign aid could be cut off to nations that differ too much from U.S. policies.

The aggressive approach, while not a dramatic departure from the “America First” agenda that dominated Trump’s first year in office, nonetheless sent the signal that Trump wants to shift the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

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“If it’s not actually accomplishing anything, why are we doing it?” James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who’s close with the administration, said in commenting on Trump’s decision to suspend aid to Pakistan.

“It’s consistent with how really this administration see themselves as neither Bush nor Obama,” he added, referring to the last two presidents.

Trump set the tone with his very first tweet of the New Year, which blasted the past aid given to Islamabad and its continued reticence to aggressively target terrorists.

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Trump tweeted.

Later in the week, the administration followed through with concrete action, announcing that it would suspend not only the $255 million it previously withheld, but also almost all security assistance. It’s unclear exactly how much money is being suspended total.

Trump had called on Pakistan to do more to fight terrorism in August, when he announced his new strategy for the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan. But at the time, he provided no details as to how the United States would pressure Islamabad.

The administration portrayed Thursday’s announcement as following through on the August speech.

“It has been more than four months since the president’s speech, and despite a sustained high-level engagement by this administration with the government of Pakistan, the Taliban and the Haqqani network continue to find sanctuary inside Pakistan as they plot to destabilize Afghanistan and also attack U.S. and allied personnel,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a press briefing Thursday.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Trump also threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians, following his December decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“[W]e pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel,” he tweeted Tuesday. “We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"

On Iran, Trump has repeatedly voiced support for Iranians protesting their government, earning praise from conservatives. The effort has not been echoed by European allies, and critics have suggested Trump’s tweets risk making the protests appear to be a plot backed by the West.  

Trump and the administration have sought to portray their response to the demonstrations as in stark contrast to Obama, who was criticized for being slow to respond to the 2009 green movement protests.

“President Trump is not going to sit by silently like President Obama did, and he certainly supports the Iranian people and wants to make that clear,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a press briefing.

Trump’s tweets about North Korea have led to raised eyebrows around the world, and he outdid himself this week when he wrote on Twitter that his nuclear button was larger than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's.

After South Korea and North Korea announced they would hold high-level talks, Trump took credit for the progress.

“With all of the failed ‘experts’ weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total 'might' against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!” he tweeted Thursday.

Mathew Burrows, director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, said he would describe Trump’s foreign policy moves over the last week as “rhetorically aggressive,” but added that few had concrete actions associated with them.

What concrete actions were taken, such as on Pakistani aid, were counterproductive, Burrows said.

“You can eliminate some, but the thing is, the Pakistanis already believe the U.S. has a very short attention span,” he said. “This is just going to confirm for a lot of Pakistanis that the U.S. is a highly unreliable partner.”

Taken as a whole, Burrows said he was doubtful Trump’s actions over the last week were part of a broader strategy.

“It’s not clear to me that this is part of a well thought-out strategy that he played the bad guy and [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson and [Defense Secretary James] Mattis can go in and get some change,” Burrows said. “It’s more in the realm of an emotional outburst.”

But Carafano at Heritage said the actions were “not knee-jerk.” Rather, he said, Trump has warned Pakistan since August of ramifications of failing to take sufficient actions against terrorists, while his response to the Iran protests was an extension of previous criticisms of the government.

“Obviously he didn’t plan the Iranian protests, but when the protests went out, it was, 'how can we leverage what’s going on here to complement our existing policy,' ” Carafano said.

The week was also characteristic of Trump’s willingness to break with the past, Carafano added.

“The overarching theme is he’s just picking up where he left off.”