Defense

Foreign policy setbacks cloud Trump 2020 pitch

A slate of recent setbacks to some of President Trump's key foreign policy goals is threatening to muddy his reelection message.

Reports show ISIS is regaining strength in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted half a dozen missile tests over the last few weeks, a pace not seen since before Trump sat down with Kim Jong Un.

Defeating ISIS and negotiating with North Korea are two areas Trump holds up as major accomplishments at campaign rallies and on Twitter, and backsliding on progress could undercut his message and give fodder to his Democratic rivals.

Still, Trump critics and allies alike say it would take a major development to truly resonate with voters and that neither situation has reached that threshold yet.

Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institutions, said Trump wants to counter "Democrats who are saying he's a bull in a china shop and overly aggressive."

"He'll say, 'Look, I'm a dealmaker and renegotiating sort of America's role in the world,'" Wright added.

"I think it will fall apart, but it may not fall apart until after the election. I don't think, like in North Korea, for instance, most people are paying a huge amount of attention to the details," said Wright.

North Korea has conducted seven short-range missile tests since late July, the most recent happening Saturday local time. Pyongyang has said the tests are in protest of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, drills that were already scaled down so as to not upset diplomacy with North Korea.

Working-level negotiations have not resumed despite an agreement to do so when Trump and Kim met at the Korean Peninsula's Demilitarized Zone in June. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed concern this week about the missile tests and acknowledged that talks have not proceeded "as quickly as we would have hoped."

On Friday, North Korea's top diplomat called Pompeo a "diehard toxin" in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.

Trump has brushed off the tests because they do not involve intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit the United States. Tests of those missiles would violate the commitment Kim made to Trump at their first summit in Singapore.

Trump has also continued to praise Kim, touting the North Korean's "beautiful" letters and saying that while the tests might violate U.N. sanctions, Kim "does want to disappoint his friend" Trump.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, evidence is mounting of an ISIS resurgence months after Trump declared victory over the terrorist group. A front page New York Times story this past week declared that "ISIS Is Regaining Strength in Iraq and Syria."

That was preceded by an inspector general (IG) report this month that found ISIS "solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria" over the last few months.

The IG report also found that a U.S. troop drawdown in Syria means the United States does not have the resources to monitor a refugee camp where "ISIS is likely exploiting the lack of security to enlist new members and re-engage members who have left the battlefield."

ISIS is also making sure it stays in the conversation over Afghanistan, where it claimed responsibility for an attack on a wedding in Kabul that killed 80 people and wounded more than 150.

Asked this past week about concerns ISIS is reemerging, Trump said the group has been "decimated" and that it's up to other countries to take up the fight from here.

"At a certain point, all of these other countries where ISIS is around - they've been decimated by the way, badly decimated - but all of these countries are going to have to fight them because do we want to stay there for another 19 years? I don't think so," Trump said.

As in most presidential campaigns, foreign policy has so far taken a back seat to domestic issues in the 2020 race.

Still, Democratic candidates have hit Trump on his foreign policy. In Trump's June meeting with Kim, the president stepped into North Korea for a moment, sparking a flurry of statements. Front-runner Joe Biden condemned Trump's actions, saying that he was "more concerned with a photo op for himself than getting results for the American people."

More recently, on Thursday night, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) tweeted, "I can tell you this: As president, I won't be exchanging love letters with Kim Jong-un."

Asked about criticism that recent developments are undercutting Trump's message, a Trump campaign spokesman responded that the success of the president's foreign policy "is beyond question."

"From his tough stance on China and their unfair trade practices, to improving our trade deals around the world, to standing up to the tin-pot dictator in Venezuela - President Trump says what he means and does not back down," campaign spokesman Daniel Bucheli said in a statement to The Hill.

"The president has proven time and again that he will respond to foreign policy challenges as they arise, always putting the security of America first," Bucheli added.

Trump is also seeking a major foreign policy win ahead of the election, with the administration racing to conclude talks with the Taliban that would lead to a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"I'm sure [Trump] and his top advisers see an election clock ticking as far as 'we have to keep our promises in the first term,' but I think just as much it's a frustration on his part for a general lack of progress and being caught in a stalemate," said Andy Keiser, a principal at the lobbying firm Navigators Global who worked on national security for the Trump transition team.

But Keiser added that as long as Afghanistan, North Korea and other foreign policy issues such as Iran remain unsettled, they could still impact Trump's campaign.

"What average voters in swing states would care about is less about what's happening on the margins, but if some major development with North Korea, maybe another nuclear tests might meet that threshold, or if those talks just totally fall apart, or if you had some total collapse in Afghanistan, for example, I think those big issues could resonate," he said. "Or on the positive side, if there was some macroagreement with the Kim regime and/or some negotiated settlement with the Taliban, the president could say he kept his promise."

Jim Carafano, a staunch Trump defender and defense policy expert at The Heritage Foundation, argued that recent developments with North Korea and ISIS are "way too subtle" to affect the election.

For a foreign policy mishap to have an effect, Carafano said, it has to happen close to the election, be demonstrably Trump's fault and be "huge."

"Absent a World War III-like event, if it's kind of the day-to-day up and down of foreign policy, like the North Koreans are being a little more rambunctious or the Russians are upping military operations in Ukraine or something, I just don't think that's going to move anybody's needle," he said.

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