2018 will be a year of consequences

2018 will be a year of consequences
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In terms of foreign and security policy, 2017 could fairly be called a year of disruption for the Trump administration. Now, 2018 promises to be a year of consequences.

First the disruption, which began early with the president declaring the United States to be out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, an American-shaped commercial and strategic alignment of 12 nations (none of them named China) bordering the Pacific, which was then followed by an ill-conceived and poorly implemented executive order which looked to most of the world — and to a lot of America — like a Muslim immigration ban.

In short order, America then broke global consensus on the Paris Climate Treaty, did a bit of bobbing and weaving on its commitment to NATO’s collective defense under Article Five, walked back concessions to Cuba, threatened the North American Free Trade Agreement, decertified the Iranian nuclear deal, and announced the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (but took no concrete steps to fulfill that).

The president also amped up the fight against ISIS that he inherited, pushing battlefield decisions down to battlefield commanders, and presiding over the fall of Raqqa and the clearing of terrorists from much of the Euphrates River Valley. He made good on his predecessor’s unfulfilled promise of a red line on chemical weapons use in Syria, broke with his predecessor (finally) to give lethal missiles to Ukraine, and deliberately destabilized the troubling status quo he inherited in Northeast Asia, taunting as well as sanctioning and isolating North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

At the end of the year, the administration codified its approach in a national security strategy that was a marked departure from National Security Council Report 68, the Truman-era document that has governed American policy for more than 65 years, consciously downplaying the promise of an activist America “to develop a healthy international community” in favor of a vision put forward by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council: “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

So, we have seen Trump’s “America first” in action. Where might that lead us in 2018? After all, it’s easier to rip things up — or to launch Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, or to tweet about almost anything — than it is to orchestrate the still substantial, but limited, components of American power in a very complex world. Here are some spaces that I would watch in the months to come.

North Korea. The president did inherit a mess here, but not because his predecessors were stupid or short-sighted. This is a wicked problem, perhaps one without a really satisfying solution. No rational North Korean regime would give up its nuclear program. They’ve seen what happened to Iraq, Libya and (to a lesser extent) Ukraine.

Yet, Team Trump demands exactly that and rejects a strategy of limit, accept, deter and defend. If rejection of that really is our position, the only off-ramp is war. Recently the president (in language as unartful as “rocket man”) made noises about negotiations. That’s a far better off-ramp. Right now, though, we all seem to be taking a collective timeout for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but the other game resumes in early spring.

Iran. President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE hates the Iran nuclear deal, probably because it is Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden celebrates start of Hanukkah The massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women) 'Car guy' Biden puts his spin on the presidency MORE’s singular diplomatic achievement. I was never a real fan of it, but even I concede that this imperfect and too-generous agreement leaves Iran farther away from a weapon than it would otherwise be. National Security Adviser McMaster, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHillicon Valley — Blinken unveils new cyber bureau at State Blinken formally announces new State Department cyber bureau Hillicon Valley — TikTok, Snapchat seek to distance themselves from Facebook MORE and Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman Mattis The US can't go back to business as usual with Pakistan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default MORE seem to agree and, so far, have managed to limit the president to ranting against, decertifying but not quitting America’s responsibilities under the pact.

The deal also includes Russia, France, China, Germany, Great Britain and the European Union — all of whom say they will stay in. And it looks like the Iranian street gets a vote, too. Any American decision to leave has to be measured against its effect on the dynamics that led to deadly protests in Iran in December and January. But the clock is already running. The president has promised to walk in mid-May when renewal comes before him again.

Russia. Or, perhaps more accurately, Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE, whom I always thought would report out in late summer 2018. Unable to abide even perceived threats to his legitimacy, President Trump has never been able to muster the one sentence that would animate the American government to really respond to Russia’s manipulation: “You know you did it, and I know you did it, and I will not rest until we impose commensurate costs and ensure that it never happens again.”

That won’t be forthcoming, of course. The president has opted instead for descriptions of a “hoax,” “a witch hunt” and “an FBI in tatters.” But what happens if or when Mueller’s investigation finds some “there” there?

ISIS. By the fall it will be clear that bombing the stuffing out of ISIS — while necessary, justified and satisfying — hasn’t quite fixed the terrorist threat, Syria, Iranian ambitions, or the broader Middle East. What will be the administration’s long-term commitment then, especially after a campaign and a first year in office that condemned nation-building and practically anything else that wasn’t transactional, immediate, unilateral and kinetic?

So, 2018 promises to be a busy year, and America may have to face it a bit more alone than we’re accustomed to doing — the product of a strategy that emphasizes American power over international institutions and the byproduct of language and actions that have even a good friend like Britain relieved that the president isn’t coming to visit.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, and a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His forthcoming book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies,” is due out later this year.