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Trump's foreign policy: One thing to know

Correction: An earlier version gave the wrong date for the chemical weapons attack against a rebel-held town in Syria.

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”

CNN —  

Some of the most ferocious critics of President Trump’s foreign policy are leading Republican thinkers and writers such as military historians Max Boot and Eliot Cohen, along with Michael Gerson, who was President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter.

In venues such as Foreign Policy, The Atlantic and The Washington Post they have described Trump as “utterly incompetent” (Boot) and as running a foreign policy defined by “blunder, inattention, miscomprehension or willfulness” (Cohen). They’ve also pointed to his “fundamental unfitness for high office” (Gerson).

And those are reviews of Trump’s foreign policy record by some of his fellow Republicans.

But what the critics don’t acknowledge is that Trump and his national security team have actually scored some real foreign policy wins in the past year that have been sometimes obscured by Trump’s penchant for bloviation, bluster and belligerence. (And I don’t mean self-described Trump wins, such as the “travel ban” whose effects on containing terrorism in the States will likely be negligible, as lethal terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11 have invariably been the work of self-radicalized US citizens and legal residents.)

Red line

The first win is that Trump enforced a real “red line” against the use of nerve gas in Syria by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, something that Obama had failed to do. On April 4, 2017, the Syrian regime used sarin, a nerve gas, against civilian targets in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing more than 80 people.

Trump called the attack an “affront to humanity” and said that it “crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies … that crosses many, many lines – beyond a red line.”

Two days after the sarin attack, American warships launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield, the first direct military action that the United States has taken against Assad’s regime.

Assad hasn’t used chemical weapons against his own people since Trump ordered those cruise missile strikes in April. The enforcement of the important international prohibition against the use of nerve gas is certainly an achievement for the Trump administration.

A flurry of cruise missile strikes, of course, doesn’t make a Syria strategy, and the precise contours of Trump’s game plan for Syria going forward are not clear — at least not publicly.

What is clear is that ISIS is almost completely defeated in Syria and is largely eliminated from all of its havens in Iraq. The defeat of ISIS has been a long time coming, and most of the anti-ISIS campaign took place under the Obama administration. But the Trump national security team helped to hasten the defeat of ISIS in two ways.

First, Trump decided to equip the anti-ISIS Syrian Democratic Forces – a largely Kurdish militia – with mortars, anti-tank weapons, armored cars and machine guns. Those forces captured ISIS’s de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa, in October.

Second, Trump allowed American ground commanders greater latitude to carry out operations in war zones such as Iraq and Syria without consulting higher up the chain of command. Pentagon brass had long chafed at what they considered to be the micromanagement of military operations by the Obama White House.

Greater stability in Iraq and Afghanistan

As a result of ISIS’s defeat in Iraq, the country is more stable than it has been for more than three years. I traveled to Iraq earlier this month and the Iraqis I spoke with were cautiously optimistic that the recent gains against ISIS might help to produce some kind of lasting peace.

In late August Trump announced a plan to bring some modicum of stability to Afghanistan, where the Taliban have asserted more control in the past year or so. In addition to sending a mini-surge of several thousand more troops to the country, Trump made it clear that the US commitment to Afghanistan is long term and “conditions-based.” Trump did not impose any timetable for withdrawing US forces from the country, which was the counterproductive approach that the Obama administration had taken.

The Afghan government has welcomed this long-term American commitment to Afghanistan.

The big bet

As important as they are, these successes don’t amount to a vindication of Trump’s overall foreign policy and there are still a great many open questions about his approach to the world.

In the Middle East, Trump has placed a big bet on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old future king of Saudi Arabia, whom the Trump administration has eagerly embraced.

MBS, as he is widely known, has launched “Vision 2030,” a wildly ambitious plan to wean the Saudi economy from its total dependence on oil and end the quasi-socialist Saudi state in which most Saudis work for the government and pay no taxes while getting free health care and education as well as subsidies for electricity and gas.

MBS is also liberalizing Saudi society. He has curbed the powers of the feared religious police, and has plans to allow women to drive and to open up once-banned movie theaters.

At the same time MBS has abandoned Saudi Arabia’s traditionally conservative foreign policy by launching a war in Yemen, which has turned into a fiasco, and blockading neighboring Qatar, which has devolved into a standoff with no end in sight.

MBS also deposed the previous Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Nayef, and has arrested hundreds of businessmen and royal family members who represent alternative power centers to his increasingly dictatorial rule, charging them with corruption.

It’s not clear how Trump’s big bet on MBS will ultimately play out, but the fact is that Trump embraced the young prince early in his administration. And over the past year MBS has amassed enormous amounts of power in a country that is a key American ally.

Similarities with Obama

Trump often underlines his many differences with Obama but in the realm of national security there are, in fact, some important continuities between the two administrations.

The Trump administration has continued the Obama doctrine of avoiding big, conventional wars in the Middle East. Instead, the Trump team has kept in place much of the counter-terrorism architecture that Obama developed, including his overall approach to the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and his reliance on Special Operations Forces and drones rather than on large-scale conventional forces to achieve American military goals.

In Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, Trump continues the drone campaigns that were a signature of Obama’s administration.

Despite Trump’s sometimes-inflammatory rhetoric about NATO, Trump’s team has remained strong supporters of the alliance, which continues to play an important role in Afghanistan.

The Trump team has also called for NATO members to spend more on defense — the goal is 2% of each country’s GDP – which is exactly what the Obama administration also called for, albeit somewhat more diplomatically.

Trump himself may make nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but his national security team takes many of the same positions on Russia that Obama did.

Trump’s National Security Strategy, published on December 18, states that Russia is “using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies” and criticizes Russian aggression against its neighbors by saying, “With its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in the region.”

And this strategy document reflects real policies. On Friday the Trump administration announced its plans to arm the government of Ukraine with anti-tank weapons to help it fight Russian-backed separatists.

North Korea, China and terrorism

Despite Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, the North Koreans are continuing their nuclear weapons program. The Trump administration, like the Obama administration, hopes that China will influence Kim Jong Un to behave responsibly while simultaneously ratcheting up sanctions on his regime.

Also, as the Obama administration before it, Trump’s National Security Strategy worries that China “is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own,” and warns that Chinese “land reclamation projects and militarization of the South China Seas flouts international law, threatens the free flow of trade, and undermines stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region.”

Obama’s response to Chinese expansionism in Asia was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact between a dozen nations that excluded China. Despite his national security team’s concerns about Chinese ambitions, Trump withdrew from the TPP, seeming to misunderstand it as simply a trade deal rather than also an effort to contain China.

Trump, like Obama, has not sent any additional prisoners to Guantanamo, instead relying on federal courts to try terrorists. Like Obama, he also has not pushed for coercive interrogations to resume.

The hyper-nationalists who once ran the show at the Trump White House – including Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka – are largely gone. As a result, the White House is no longer pushing the cartoonish view that Islam is the cause of terrorism.

Wins and losses

To be sure, the Trump administration has scored some self-inflicted foreign policy losses such as the withdrawal from the TPP and, most recently, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel instead of Tel Aviv.

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The Trump administration didn’t secure any kind of concession from the Israelis, such as obtaining a commitment to freeze the building of settlements in Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem, in exchange for this gift. The Jerusalem decision has also ensured that any efforts by the Trump administration to revive the moribund peace process will likely be ignored by the Palestinians going forward.

But the fact remains that the Trump administration has helped to speed the demise of ISIS, bringing a measure of stability to Iraq and also reducing the scope of the terrorist threat that the group poses. At the same time, Trump has initiated a plan in Afghanistan that reduces the possibility that the country could slip back into an anarchic state conducive to groups such as ISIS securing a large presence in the country.

And Trump’s national security team largely continues many of the policies they inherited from Obama, whether on Russia, the “war on terror” or North Korea.