In the days preceding last July’s NATO summit in Brussels that President Trump was set to attend, administration officials including Defense Secretary James Mattis worked around the clock with European allies to seal a summit declaration before the alliance leaders’ meeting even began.
The rush by Mr. Mattis and others to complete a deal they knew might not sit well with their boss – who had consistently aired his doubts about the benefits of international defense alliances like NATO and his disdain for what he considered to be freeloading allies – was striking.
What it displayed was one more example of Mr. Trump’s top national security advisers working around the president’s skepticism and unpredictability toward traditional allies to confirm America’s unaltered global leadership role.
Now, after Mattis’s unprecedented resignation and summary presidential dismissal following Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria, US officials and close allies are wondering who, if anyone, will put a brake on “America First.” The president’s foreign policy vision is one that sees alliances and other commitments abroad in terms of dollars and cents rather than as part of the bedrock of America’s global security and influence.
The growing assumption both in Washington and in foreign capitals is that Mattis’s departure, coupled with not only the Syria withdrawal but also word of Trump’s intention to cut the deployment of US troops in Afghanistan by half over the next few months, announce both an end and a beginning.
On the one hand it’s the end of the period in the Trump White House when a new president still getting his sea legs deferred to national security advisers who pushed back against and even worked around Trump’s instincts.
And on the other hand, it’s likely to be the beginning of a period of sharper challenges to America’s traditional alliances and of accelerated withdrawal from a global leadership role the US has played since World War II.
MORE CONFIDENT AFTER TWO YEARS
“After two years in the White House, the president has reached the point where he’s saying, ‘No more meetings, no more pressure, no more groups of people around me telling me what I can and can’t do, and please, no more arguments about the liberal world order and the requirements of American leadership,’” says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
What the Mattis departure and Syria and Afghanistan withdrawals signal, Mr. Gvosdev adds, is Trump declaring, “ ‘I’m going to start doing what I have always wanted to do.’ ”
Others second this view, saying the events of the last week have showcased a president shedding the restraints initially accepted as part of taking on a daunting new task.
“What’s changed is that after two years in office, Trump is feeling confident in his own ability and his own instincts,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official during the Reagan administration who is now a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “Even a self-confident person like himself felt overwhelmed when he first came into office, so he deferred to the people around him, particularly on foreign policy.
“But now he’s saying, ‘I’ve listened to everybody else, but things haven’t gotten any better, so I’m going to go ahead and implement my campaign promises and what I always sensed was best,’ ” Mr. Korb adds. “ ‘If Jim Mattis or anybody else doesn’t like it, they can leave.’ ”
Trump has long disparaged America’s overseas military commitments: whether it was those in Europe and South Korea, which he has blasted as costly gifts to wealthy allies building ever-larger trade surpluses with the US; or those in the Middle East, which he has cast as sinkholes of US blood and treasure.
With his surprise trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq Wednesday, Trump appeared to signal both continuity and the coming change in US foreign policy.
Apparently seeking to reassure jittery Iraqis and other US allies after the shock of the precipitous Syria troop pullout, Trump said he would not be withdrawing the approximately 5,000 US troops in Iraq anytime soon. And he endorsed the option of shifting some of those troops to undertake possible future cross-border strikes into Syria, an idea Pentagon officials first floated last week after Trump announced the Syria withdrawal.
‘WE’RE NO LONGER THE SUCKERS, FOLKS’
But on the other hand, the president, clad in a military bomber jacket, told the troops at Al Asad Air Base that the days of America fighting others’ wars and paying for others’ defense are over.
Lamenting that for too long the world has been “looking at us as suckers,” Trump told about 100 assembled troops, “America shouldn’t be doing the fighting for every nation on earth, not being reimbursed in many cases at all. If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price, and sometimes that’s also a monetary price,” he added. “We’re no longer the suckers, folks.”
Trump also hinted that the days of him listening to advisers is about to be reversed. “I think a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking,” he said. “It’s time for us to start using our head.”
For some analysts, the sense of shock among some US allies over the Mattis departure and US troop withdrawals suggests some widespread wishful thinking that an unconventional president would continue to be restrained by wiser and experienced national security advisers.
“The problem is that the public and allies and adversaries alike were oversold this idea that even if the US had elected a disruptive and unpredictable president, there would always be adults in the room to keep control of things,” Gvosdev says.
He recalls that just a year ago, the world was still being reassured that the quartet of “MMTK” – Mattis, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and departing chief of staff John Kelly, widely dubbed the “axis of adults” – were steadying the ship of state and holding the president back from rash decisions.
Now that team will be a memory as of January, with a team much more willing to support and facilitate the president’s instincts in its place.
Most Pentagon analysts expect Trump’s choice to replace Mattis, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, to focus on internal Defense Department matters and forego the frequent globe-trotting and policy pronouncements carried out by Mattis. Mr. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has no foreign policy experience.
Shanahan will come on board the first of the year as acting defense secretary, but Trump indicated Wednesday that he could keep Shanahan in his new role indefinitely.
ANNOUNCEMENT BY TWITTER
Korb says he welcomes Trump naming a nonmilitary person to what traditionally has been a civilian position to oversee the military. For that matter, he says it’s also possible to make the case for Trump’s troop withdrawals, particularly from Afghanistan after a 17-year commitment there.
But he says it’s the precipitous, inform-the-world-by-Twitter manner of announcing the decisions that throws the world for a loop and that will damage rather than enhance US interests.
“We have to remember that we’re in Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission, so how can we expect our NATO allies to see us as reliable and committed to burden-sharing after a decision like this that was taken without any consultation?” Korb says. He also notes that France has about 1,000 troops in Syria as part of the anti-ISIS coalition, and will feel “left in the lurch” by the sudden US pullout there.
“It’s fine to say, ‘I made the promise and I’m keeping it,’” Korb adds, “but you also have to ask, ‘What will be the lasting impact?’ and that’s what I’m not sure is happening.”
Traditional allies are likely to count on the US less to fulfill its decades-old role of leading and upholding what appears to be a fracturing postwar international order. Indeed, European officials and security analysts seemed to interpret the news out of Washington over the past week as a watershed moment that will be viewed as a turning point in transatlantic relations.
Senior aides to both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said both publicly and privately that their bosses feel only more certain of the view they’ve held since Trump was elected that Europe must learn to rely less on the US and more on itself for security.
THE NEXT NATO SUMMIT
Analysts say they also expect the president to return now to his campaign criticism of long-term basing of troops on allied soil, particularly in Europe and in South Korea – both of which run trade surpluses with the US.
Indeed, Korb says he recently quipped to a South Korean official that the prosperous North Asian ally, which currently pays about 48 percent of the cost of maintaining the 23,000 US troops based there, should quickly boost its share of the cost to just over half to head off Trump’s “freeloader” criticisms.
But humor aside, most analysts say US allies have good reason to buckle up for a Trump-led foreign policy – and to be concerned about the changes ahead in how the US exercises its global leadership.
“What happens at the NATO summit next year when there’s not someone of Mattis’s stature or inclination willing to stand up to the president and push for something different from what he wants?” Gvosdev says. “We’re not going to be out of NATO, but we could very well redefine our role in NATO and what it means for the US to be part of the alliance.”
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