A fair evaluation of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office must acknowledge that in the area of foreign affairs, he has acted in positive ways on many fronts. The mainstream liberal media won’t admit it, but the Trump administration has proven itself both adaptable and adept in its initial international dealings.
Let’s start with the Middle East. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly warned against entanglements in the region like the ill-fated war in Iraq, with its needless loss of American lives and treasure. As a candidate, Trump promised that he would avoid taking on open-ended commitments in the region. He correctly pointed out that not every dictator is worth warring against, because the alternatives can be even worse. Just look at Iraq and Libya, countries that descended into chaos after their strongmen were overthrown, leaving a void filled by Islamic State terrorists.
But authoritarian regimes have also been put on notice that the United States will not stand idly by in cases of atrocity and wanton disregard for the lives of innocent people. The surgical strike on the base from which Syria’s military launched its savage nerve gas attack on defenseless civilians was a case in point. With that surprise response to a genocidal act, the president sent a clear signal that the United States will act forcefully when force is clearly called for.
This element of strategic flexibility in American foreign policy is a welcome departure from the diplomatic straitjackets that recent administrations have imposed on themselves, whether it was George W. Bush’s preoccupation with Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” or Barack Obama’s paralysis with Syria’s “red lines.” Trump has instead allowed himself and his experienced military team a range of options that fit different circumstances. And we can be thankful that he isn’t second-guessing every action his military undertakes, but instead giving commanders the authority they need to make military decisions based on what they’re facing on the battlefield.
Equally important has been Trump’s flexibility in dealing with authoritarian regimes like Russia and China. He has let Russian President Vladimir Putin know that it is in our mutual interest to fight the scourge of ISIS even as we disagree on Russian expansionism in Crimea and the Baltics. And he has carefully engaged Chinese President Xi Jinping to win that country’s support for containing the nuclear ambitions of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
The only people this strategic flexibility should worry are ruthless leaders, like the ayatollahs in Iran, and Kim, the Little Dictator. In both of those countries the United States has repeatedly, over the course of many years, sent signals that belligerence and duplicity will be rewarded with American concessions and backpedaling. These two emerging nuclear powers have reached calculated conclusions that when the United States is pushed, it accommodates and retreats.
That calculus may have changed with the Trump presidency. Both Iran and North Korea should understand that if they push this president too far, he has not only the capacity to act decisively, but also a military leadership that will be accorded the trust and confidence of the commander in chief. Maybe it took a man like Trump, who can be both decisive and deliberate, to finally put the United States in a position in which its actions actually do speak as loudly as its words.
As the president embarks on his first foreign trip — to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican, cradles of three of the world’s major religions — it might be too much to hope that it will mark the beginning of a reinvigorated process of finally overcoming the greatest challenge of the last three-quarters of a century: establishing lasting peace in the Middle East.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.