“Build Back Better” was Joe Biden’s campaign slogan. How different is that, really, from “Make America Great Again”? Both BBB and MAGA suggest the need for restoration, for reversing deterioration and decline, for fixing what’s broken.
In foreign and national security policy, President Donald Trump—following eight years of President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to bolster the credibility of American power against America’s enemies—achieved some significant successes. He also suffered some significant failures. In other areas, he made incremental progress which his successor can advance—if he sees his task as building his own presidency rather than building back the Obama White House.
Trump came into office with limited knowledge of international relations and the complex mechanisms by which policy is formulated and implemented. He did know a thing or two about deal-making, and intuitively grasped the logic of “peace through strength.” On that basis, he increased defense spending—essential because massive defense cuts during the Obama years had left the U.S. military with decreasing readiness and aging weapons.
He was either smart or lucky to appoint a disciplined soldier/scholar as his national security adviser. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s process of analysis and prioritization culminated in the 2017 National Security Strategy. Most significantly, the NSS shattered the rose-colored glasses through which the People’s Republic of China had been viewed since the 1970s.
The new NSS recognized that the regime ruling China views itself as an adversary of the United States, and that it has long been implementing a strategy to transform the so-called international liberal rules-based order—to make it decidedly illiberal, with rules “antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”
The NSS also recognized that Obama’s vaunted “reset” with Russia failed to make Vladimir Putin America’s friend. Though Trump too often defended President Putin, his administration’s policies, bolstered by Congress, have been comparatively muscular.
The Islamic Republic of Iran and the dynastic dictatorship that rules North Korea were characterized as “rogue regimes.”
The former, for more than four decades, has pledged “Death to America!” while covertly attempting to acquire the nuclear weapons that could bring its capabilities in line with its intentions. Under President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the regime agreed to pause—not end—some aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars. This attempt to buy—or rent—the goodwill of Iran’s Islamist rulers never enjoyed the support of Congress or the public and, in May 2018, Trump withdrew from the JCPOA.
He then began to impose sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy and reduced the regime’s financial support for terrorist groups. But the “maximum pressure” campaign was never really maximum, and slightly more than two years has not been enough time to force Iran’s rulers to make serious concessions in exchange for relief. Elliott Abrams, the president’s special envoy for Iran, believes the regime may be nearing that point—if the new administration doesn’t blink.
Trump also made the bold decision to eliminate Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a terrorist organization responsible for killing hundreds of Americans. The ruling mullahs’ long-standing belief that “the Americans can’t do a damn thing!” suddenly seemed questionable.
As for North Korea, Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” a euphemism for doing nothing, achieved nothing. Trump attempted a different approach: personal diplomacy. It, too, fell flat. In retrospect, it was naive to think that Kim Jong-un would be tempted by Trump’s offers to help him lift his people out of poverty. Nor, apparently, did veiled threats of military action prompt the dictator to consider ending his efforts to develop the capability to deliver nuclear warheads to American targets.
Trump took meaningful action against Sunni terrorism in Syria. A small cohort of elite American forces led Kurdish and Arab allies in a campaign that deprived the Islamic State of the territories it had conquered following Obama’s withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.
The most historic victory of the Trump administration was the signing of the Abraham Accords, the first time in more than a generation that Arab states have opened formal diplomatic relations with Israel. The United Emirates and Bahrain were the pioneers. Sudan and Morocco are now following suit.
An end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can now be imagined, but it would require Palestinian leaders to define the “Palestinian cause” not as the destruction of the Jewish state, but as two states for two peoples peacefully co-existing. Hamas, which rules Gaza, will never adopt that position. Mahmoud Abbas, the 85-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank, has been, at best, ambivalent about what a two-state solution could mean.
In 2013-15, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management was hit with a hack targeting the records of more than 20 million Americans. China is believed to have been responsible. The most recent cyberattack on at least six U.S. Cabinet-level departments, likely carried out by Russia, makes clear that the tens of billions spent on cyber defense by both the Obama and Trump administrations have failed to get the job done.
The primary responsibility of a U.S. president is to defend Americans from those intent on doing them harm. In the Trump administration, significant threats, ignored or downplayed by his predecessor, were at least recognized. Accommodation was not the default response.
No one expects Biden to say publicly that Trump’s policies served as a necessary corrective to Obama’s. But perhaps he and his top advisers have learned some lessons over the last 12 turbulent years. It would be premature, not to mention cynical, to rule out that possibility.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for The Washington Times.