Trump leans into foreign policy amid domestic disapproval
President Trump is leaning into his administration’s foreign policy accomplishments as he faces a difficult battle for reelection against Democratic nominee Joe Biden on domestic issues.
Over the past month, Trump has helped broker a peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, facilitate normalized economic ties between Serbia and Kosovo, and reduce troop levels in Iraq. On Friday, he announced that Bahrain also would be normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel.
The White House has touted the moves as examples of the president delivering on his agenda and leading as he faces widespread disapproval from Americans for his handling of the coronavirus, which has claimed almost 200,000 lives in the U.S.
But foreign policy is rarely a top issue for voters on Election Day. And any gains by Trump on the world stage are likely to be overshadowed by domestic matters such as his handling of protests against racial injustice, his reported comments disparaging the military, the deepest recession since the Great Depression and audio tapes revealing he purposely downplayed the public health threat of COVID-19.
“Unfortunately for them, the narrative every day is an increasing death toll and an economy on the brink,” said Doug Heye, former Republican National Committee (RNC) communications director. “But it does give them something positive to talk about and demonstrate accomplishment and leadership.”
The deal between the UAE and Israel, announced last month, won bipartisan praise, and the formal ceremony with Bahrain at the White House next week will afford Trump another opportunity to highlight a diplomatic achievement.
The Trump administration also announced this week that it would reduce U.S. troops in Iraq from 5,200 to roughly 3,000 by the end of September and has predicted a drawdown in Afghanistan from about 8,600 to 4,500 U.S. service members by November.
Trump has campaigned on bringing home American service members from prolonged conflicts abroad, and his effort to end the 19-year conflict in Afghanistan has been a key focal point of that pledge.
In a boost for momentum to end the war, long-delayed negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government began in Doha, Qatar, this weekend. Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to participate, underscoring the importance the president is placing on the negotiations as the election draws near.
Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a Charles Koch-linked think tank that advocates for U.S. troop withdrawals, expressed concern that in Iraq, at least, the drawdown comes across more as campaign rhetoric than a concrete step to bringing all U.S. troops home.
“With regard to Iraq, there is considerable room for skepticism, unfortunately, that we have a real commitment to leaving,” he said. “With Afghanistan, I think we have a more clear path to leaving, again, because of the deal with the Taliban, and the groundwork has been laid in terms of shifting our objectives.”
But Friedman acknowledged that it’s not necessarily bad if Trump’s motivation is political.
“Thank God for elections and the remnant of democracy we have when it comes to foreign policy that lets the anti-war sentiment of the American people be manifest in campaign promises,” he said. “So I don’t mind if it’s a political commitment, but of course it does raise the question of what happens after the election if Trump wins, if the promises get carried out.”
Trump boasted about his foreign policy efforts during a Thursday campaign rally in Michigan, lambasting the Washington establishment for involving the U.S. in “endless wars” and criticizing Biden for his 2002 Senate vote in favor of the Iraq War, which Biden has since said he regrets.
“We kept America out of new wars, and we’re bringing our troops back home, and they’re coming home very rapidly,” Trump told the crowd.
Americans broadly support winding down U.S. presence in so-called forever wars; former President Obama also sought to bring home forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. He later sent troops back to Iraq when ISIS emerged and was talked out of a full withdrawal from Afghanistan for fear of a repeat of Iraq.
Trump’s critics, though, argue that instead of ending the conflicts, he has increased the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East. The president deployed thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region in response to escalating tensions with Iran, caused in part by the administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign.
“Trump has shown time and time again that when it comes to ending endless war, he’s all talk and no substance,” Kate Kizer, policy director at progressive group Win Without War, said in an email. “Trump brought us to the brink of war with Iran, vetoed War Powers Resolutions on Iran and Yemen, and is stoking a new Cold War with China. The latest withdrawal brings troop levels in Iraq down to where they were in 2015, while keeping tens of thousands in the region indefinitely.”
Trump has also faced criticism for his approach to decisions on troop withdrawals, which have often come on suddenly and without the usual notification of U.S. allies or regional partners.
“My main criticism of Trump’s approach to this general issue of troop withdrawal is it is happening for the most part in an unplanned and chaotic fashion,” said Charles Kupchan, who served on the White House National Security Council under Obama. “We do need to wind down these series of wars in the Middle East, but you need to do so in a sensible fashion married to a diplomatic plan.”
In response to this week’s announcements on Iraq and Afghanistan, Biden told reporters he supports Trump’s drawdowns “as long as he has a plan to figure out how he’s going to deal with ISIS.”
Biden also told military newspaper Stars and Stripes that he supports ending “forever wars” but would keep a maximum of 1,500 to 2,000 special forces on the ground for counterterrorism operations.
On Tuesday, Trump will host representatives from Israel, Bahrain and the UAE for a ceremony establishing diplomatic relations between the countries. Trump has consistently used official White House events as a platform for his presidential campaign.
Dan Reiter, a political science professor at Emory University, said that while the ceremony would present a good photo opportunity for the president, it is unlikely to leave a large imprint on the minds of voters.
“It’s hard for me to imagine the Israel-UAE deal having hardly any sort of effect. If it was actually some giant Camp David-scale settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this is really at the margins in terms of American national interests,” he said.
Still, Heye, the former RNC official, said Trump’s efforts could work to sway voters in specific demographics living in battleground states. For example, the Israel-UAE deal could resonate with Jewish voters in states such as Florida, while the push to bring troops home could prove popular in military communities in states such as North Carolina.
“That doesn’t mean there’s no impact,” Heye said. “We’re talking about a race that is close with very few undecided voters.”
Laura Kelly contributed.
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