President Donald Trump’s order of a further withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq is the latest foreign policy move on a growing list in his final weeks in office that are meant to limit President-elect Joe Biden’s options before he takes office in January.
The White House has directed newly installed acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller to focus his attention in the remaining weeks on cyber and irregular warfare, with a focus on China in particular, an administration official tells CNN. It is contemplating new terrorist designations in Yemen that could complicate efforts to broker peace. And it has rushed through authorization of a massive arms sale that could alter the balance of power in the Middle East.
The Trump team has prepared legally required transition memos describing policy challenges, but there are no discussions about actions they could take or pause. Instead, the White House is barreling ahead. A second official tells CNN their goal is to set so many fires that it will be hard for the Biden administration to put them all out.
It’s a strategy that radically breaks with past practice, could raise national security risks and will surely compound challenges for the Biden team – but it could also backfire. Analysts and people close to the Biden transition argue the Trump team may act so aggressively that reversing some of its steps will earn Biden easy goodwill points and negotiating power with adversaries.
In other areas, they say the Trump team may be confusing style with substance – that the difference between Trump and Biden isn’t a matter of the end goal, such as a departure from Afghanistan or a nuclear-free Iran, but simply a matter of how each leader wants to get there.
“The idea that Biden is some sort of softy doesn’t correspond with many things,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Pointing to the same baseline goals for a nuclear-free Iran, a withdrawal from Afghanistan and a way to manage the relationship with an increasingly assertive China, Parsi said, “The Biden administration is likely to continue many policies, but just with a different style.”
Other analysts say that damaging Biden’s options might come second to a more important goal for Trump, who has floated the idea of running again in 2024. “I think by seeking to accelerate the process of achieving some of his big foreign policy promises in the next couple of months, Trump is trying to indicate to his base that if he’s elected again, he’ll continue to do exactly as he promised,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
The Trump team’s refusal to work with the incoming team stands in stark contrast with the conduct of previous administrations during transitions. In late 2016 and early 2017, the Obama administration finalized plans for an offensive against the Islamic State but handed over final decisions to the incoming Trump administration because it would be executing the operation and dealing with the aftermath.
Officials in President George W. Bush’s administration had done the same for Barack Obama. Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, said, “I had retained a whole stack of actions that either the Bush administration could take as we left office, or we could hold and let the Obama administration make those decisions when they came into office.”
Acting Defense Secretary Miller announced Tuesday that the US will withdraw 2,500 more troops from both Afghanistan and Iraq by January 15, 2021, five days before Biden takes office.
There are currently about 4,500 US troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 in Iraq.
Miller said the withdrawal “does not equate change” to US policies or objectives.
Some observers, pointing to Trump’s rush to pull troops over unanimous objections from the military’s most senior leaders as well as NATO commanders, question whether the President and his officials are trying to salt the earth for Biden.
“The price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high. Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement to CNN.
Lister sees domestic politics at work. “Trump is messaging to his base that he is achieving precisely what he promised, and secondarily he’s trying to put the Democrats in a tricky situation,” he said. “We’re not going to see in two months a total withdrawal from Afghanistan … so some of this is just symbolism. … Joe Biden can come into the White House in 2021 and put those troops back in.”
China hawks in the Trump administration believe there are actions they can take now that will box Biden in, one administration official said. Steps include sanctions and trade restrictions on Chinese companies and government entities that officials believe will be politically impossible for the President-elect to undo. Axios first reported these moves.
People close to Biden’s transition team dismiss that tough talk, saying that Trump’s China policy has been largely toothless, with the President making concession after concession to President Xi Jinping, until the campaign made it politically expedient to look and talk tougher.
They argue that in contrast, Biden’s approach will be effective because he will work with partners to create what China fears most: an international united front against Beijing. That’s something Biden allies say Trump has been unable to do. If Trump levies extra sanctions, the penalties will simply provide Biden with additional leverage, they say.
What’s less clear: what Miller might do with his mandate to focus on cyber and irregular warfare and what the fallout might be.
Trump has floated the idea of a military strike on Iran but was dissuaded, according to The New York Times. It’s not clear if the administration is considering sabotage, cyber action or other clandestine alternatives. More visible are the administration’s efforts to stymie Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump rejected in 2018.
For Tehran, a central condition of rejoining the nuclear pact would be to benefit from the economic relief the deal promised but didn’t deliver because of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. Now the White House is building a wall of sanctions meant to prevent that from happening, creating new penalties linked to Iran’s human rights abuses, its support for organizations such as Hezbollah and its ballistic missile program – activities Iran is unlikely to stop.
The web of new measures “will make it more difficult for Joe Biden to lift these sanctions and persuade companies and banks to return to Iran, especially when any sanctions lifted by Biden could be restored by a Republican president in 2025,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Parsi, of the Quincy Institute, thinks the effort to prevent Biden from returning to the nuclear deal will fall short. “I don’t think they can prevent it,” Parsi said, “but they can complicate it.”
He points out that under Trump, Iran has become closer to, not farther from, being able to create a nuclear weapon and that many Democrats will feel it is worth the political cost to return to the international deal meant to prevent that.
“The calculation of the Trump team is that will be too politically costly and that will deter the Biden team from even trying, but a lot of Democrats will be unhappy to see Biden not undo this,” Parsi said. “We’re talking about a nuclear deal that prevents Iran from having a nuclear weapon, and you’re willing to forgo that just because you don’t want to undo some [sanctions] designations?”
Trump’s maximum pressure campaign has squeezed Iran so hard it may end up giving Biden easy leverage, Parsi added.
Several recent US measures have hit the Iranian people, not the government, exacerbating the Middle East’s worst Covid-19 outbreak. Last month, the Trump administration sanctioned 17 banks that Iran used to buy humanitarian goods and medicine overseas. And the White House has blocked Iran’s attempt to borrow emergency funds from the International Monetary Fund to deal with the pandemic.
“I think they’ve taken it so far, it might just be easier for Biden to undo these sanctions,” he said, and gain easy negotiating leverage by doing so.
Gulf arms sales
This month, the Trump administration authorized $23 billion in advanced weaponry sales to the United Arab Emirates that could alter the balance of power in the Middle East – a deal the Biden team has expressed reservations about. The authorization came less than two months after the UAE joined a US-brokered agreement to normalize relations with Israel.
Critics worry the move could set off a new arms race in the region. Democrats charged that it was rushed and didn’t allow Congress time to consider the ramifications.
“That was something the UAE very much wanted the Trump administration to do before leaving office, and they did it very quickly and they notified even a much bigger potential package than what had been expected,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think there’s going to need to be an internal discussion in the new administration about whether they will try to undo all these things.”
Trump’s top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, is expected this week to pay the first visit by a US secretary of state to an Israeli West Bank settlement, capping an administration approach that has bucked traditional US policy and international consensus.
Settlements in occupied territory are regarded as illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this characterization of the West Bank. Pompeo laid the groundwork for this planned visit last year when he scrapped a 1978 State Department legal opinion that declared the settlements “inconsistent with international law.”
While the Trump administration has ignored settlement expansion during his term, Biden has been critical in the past. When Biden visited Israel as vice president in 2010, Israel announced more than 1,600 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem, which he strongly condemned.
On Sunday, Israel Land Authority opened up a two-month window to bid on building contracts for more than 1,200 homes in an undeveloped part of East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope will one day be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Announced in February, the bidding window was hailed by Conservative Israeli politicians, one of whom noted the “irreplaceable opportunity” the remaining weeks of a Trump administration would provide to further expand Israeli settlement.
The window closes just two days before Biden’s inauguration.
The current expansion “would significantly damage prospects” for a two-state solution – which Biden supports - said the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov.
The President-elect is unlikely to change other norm-shattering steps by the Trump administration, including moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Dunne said. “They’re just going to leave them,” she said. “You’re not going to undo everything.”
For months, Pompeo has been pushing to designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels as terrorists despite pushback from State Department and United Nations officials. He may soon be successful, two State Department officials tell CNN, and if so, the move could handicap Biden’s ability to develop his own policy in Yemen, because rolling back a terrorist designation is not easy, the officials said.
Pompeo has received intense resistance from his own diplomats, who have discussed the matter with UN officials on the ground in Yemen. Both groups are anxious that a designation could upend the UN’s work on peace talks in the country.
There are also fears that such a designation could impact humanitarian aid deliveries. One State Department official said Pompeo sees the designation as part of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran and doesn’t care if it puts the Biden team in a challenging position.
“That is just how this cast of characters works,” said one of the State Department officials. “Pompeo will do everything he can to make it hard for the incoming team.”
CNN’s Andrew Carey in Jerusalem and Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne in Washington contributed to this report.