In Syria, President Trump, like Obama earlier, seems not to have realized that when the U.S. withdraws, its enemies advance and fill the vacuum. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Something unprecedented happened last month. A resigning National Security Advisor, Ambassador John R. Bolton, was forced out by a cabal of TV commentators and foes of Bolton and US President Donald J. Trump. Then, for perhaps the first time, Bolton publicly repudiated the president for his foreign policies. Meanwhile, the prominent American attorney, Alan M. Dershowitz, correctly declared Bolton's purge a "national catastrophe."
Indeed, Bolton's purge has serious national security implications for the future of the US. Kudos to him for courageously sacrificing his job if he felt the president was marching in the wrong direction. Bolton's pain may well have been caused by his no longer being able to endure Trump's "Obama moments."
"Obama moments", "Strategic Patience" vs "Strategic Savvy."
In 2017, those moments were defined as "leading from behind" an "absence of strategy" and "policies that have produced only failed states, Islamist-fed chaos, growing terrorist attacks in Europe, and catastrophic debt." To that, add, a lack of resolve, and a tendency to make imperfect compromises and concessions to foreign foes. Obama's own aides coined, as his doctrine, "strategic patience" .
By contrast, at the start of 2017, under the guidance of intellectual warriors, Defense Secretary General James Mattis and NSA General H.R McMaster, President Trump started his term with several "bangs." First, he punished Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad with a successful attack on a Syrian airfield for his presumed use of chemical warfare on his own civilians.
This assault by President Trump had tremendous significance: perhaps the most memorable "Obama moment" by former President Barack Obama was his 2013 back-step from his own red line against chemical warfare. He called back destroyers headed for Syria's shores, and presumably instead made a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to remove all chemical weapons from Syria,
After that aerial assault, Trump dropped a MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) on the Taliban in Afghanistan. This decisive move was followed by the dramatic use near North Korea's coast of a large armada of naval ships, coupled with moves on the North Korean dictator by the U.S. Army, Air Force and Trump's own vocal pressure.
In short, a new captain was steering the ship of state and his team did not put off problems in the manner of several past U.S. administrations. Instead, the new team met problems head-on, sending a clear message on the need to stop a maniacal North Korean leader from further developing his nuclear weapons and delivery systems that, as in Guam, were already capable of reaching American shores.
Signaling the end of "strategic patience," these moves seemed to debut an emerging new Trump doctrine that could be dubbed "strategic savvy" -- implying clever diplomacy, resolve, courage and the judicious use of both economic instruments as well as military force. Bolton, then a TV commentator and Chairman of Gatestone Institute, a role has since resumed, was possibly impressed by the president's "pro-American"-ness, as indicated in an interview published in March 2019:
"I would describe myself as pro-American," Bolton said. "The greatest hope for freedom for mankind in history is the United States, and therefore protecting American national interest is the single best strategy for the world." He said that America has slowly constrained its range of action, through foolhardy entanglements with international institutions such as the United Nations, and naive bilateral agreements that promised too much to America's enemies in exchange for too little.
Trump's Successful Domestic Policies.
Trump deserves applause for his success in building the Mexican border wall and spurring, in fewer than three years, the jaw-dropping growth of the U.S. economy by well-conceived economic policies, such as deregulating the obstacles to growth, and initiating difficult adjustments with America's strategic trading partners.
The reason for Bolton's September 2019 disagreements with the president seems to have been the Bolton's growing objections to Trump's gradual return to the old unworkable Obama policies of strategic patience and retreat. A seasoned diplomat, Bolton also displayed the rare courage to fight back against media lightweights who falsely depicted him as an "uber hawk" and "war monger."
In some areas of foreign policy, such as strong support of America's democratic ally Israel, Trump and Bolton agreed, as they did on arming Ukraine with Javelin missiles, and keeping Iran well at bay.
Trump's Obama moments in Syria.
In Syria, however, President Trump, like Obama earlier, seems not to have realized that when the U.S. withdraws, its enemies advance and fill the vacuum. Casualties of this retreat included Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, who resigned apparently in objection to it, just as Bolton would resign months later, evidently over the president's invitation to the Taliban to come to Camp David, while excluding the US-allied Afghan government, and on the week of the commemoration of the 9/11 attacks on the US. Like Mattis, the patriotic Bolton sacrificed his job because of the foreseeable negative consequences to US national interests.
With America's Kurdish allies now left by Trump to be slaughtered by Turkey, as is currently under way, the U.S. troop withdrawal from also has a detrimental impact in the Ukraine, as countries negatively reassess U.S. reliability.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at that time launched what appeared to be a feint in the direction of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, as he had done once before in 2015. Putin's real objective then seems to have been a new and bloody joint attack together with Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad and Iranian Revolutionary Guards against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib. A few male Muslims interviewed in Belgrade explained that the Russo-Syrian offensive had intensified after it became clear that Trump's response towards the new Russian-Syrian carnage seemed to have been just an angry tweet.
North Korea: Back to Strategic Patience.
After thunderously demonstrating strategic savvy with Kim Jong Un in 2017-2018, Trump has meanwhile been as strategically patient with hm as Job. After the show of strength came summitry.
Trump seems to have believed he could talk Kim into cooperation like a real estate client. Thus, he praised the bloody and merciless Stalin-like Kim as having "a great personality," rejoiced at the "good chemistry" between them and other comments that were possibly equally unpresidentially embarrassing to Ambassador Bolton.
As Bolton warned, "Under current circumstances, he [Kim] will never give up the nuclear weapons voluntarily." Is Trump unaware of how the North Korean officials have made a practice of wining, dining, entertaining and hoodwinking American negotiators as they build their nuclear arsenal?
Under President George W. Bush, for example, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was apparently so eager to have an agreement with the present North Korean dictator's father, that Rice engaged in what then Vice President Dick Cheney called, "concession after concession." In what looks like desperation, Rice even took North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Again over Bolton's objections, Trump agreed to North Korea's major demand -- the cancellation of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, with no North Korean reciprocity. There was also another problem.
South Korean President Moon-Jae-in has not been making things easy for President Trump. His visit to North Korea was just a sad exercise in self-abasement.
Turning Point in Iran.
A major turning point came when the Iranians attacked allied shipping in the Persian Gulf and shot down a U.S. drone. Trump's decision not to respond militarily -- and his pulling back U.S. planes that were ready to bomb targets in Iran -- reminds us again of the fecklessness of Obama. Furthermore, his failure to retaliate against Iranian attacks on allied shipping in the Gulf and on a Saudi oil producing enterprise, is tantamount to encouraging future Iranian military actions against allied assets in the Persian Gulf.
Trump seems to be signaling that he thinks all differences can be solved by negotiations -- by him. However, President Richard M. Nixon, and all U.S. presidents since, would most likely have punished Iran for using military force -- with perhaps one exception -- Barack Obama.
Before Trump continues his attempt to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran's leaders, he might consider that, like the North Koreans, they will not stop their bomb-making. Period. So keep the sanctions, let the regime crumble and use force if and when necessary. One of Trump's greatest achievements took place when he scrapped the disastrous, unsigned "Nuclear Deal" with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) that actually paved the way for Iran to have as many legitimate nuclear weapons as it liked.
Troika of Tyranny: Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
There has also been worsening condition of Venezuela, part of what Bolton dubs "the Troika of Tyranny" in the strategic backyard of the US, the Caribbean. Venezuela, a formerly wealthy OPEC country, flush with oil, has in 20 or so years devolved into a failed state, whose people now live under unbearable conditions of starvation and want -- a sinkhole of drugs, crime and Hezbollah terrorists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the help of Cuba, have flouted America's Monroe Doctrine by giving military aid to Venezuela's "socialist" regime and propping up the regime of its illegitimate president, Nicolás Maduro Moros. Not even the arrival of Russian and Chinese "advisers" and the delivery of military aid there, however, appears to have moved Trump. Significant action to oust Maduro has yet to be seen. Tweets and empty threats have, unsurprisingly, not worked.
Trump's "Obama moment" Emboldened Erdogan
The crescendo of the Russian-Syrian offensive in the summer of 2019 can now be seen in the tens of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing their country and trying, through Turkey, to reach Europe. The new Syrian exodus, however, only seemed to provide Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the excuse to issue repeated threats, blackmailing the EU and America that he could flood Europe with 3.6 million refugees from Turkish camps.
Lessons of the Gipper
President Trump might do well to follow the recommendations of military and foreign policy experts, who know history, strategy and geopolitics inside-out. What the president is displaying now is an unfortunate course correction with policies reminiscent of the worst decisions of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. Trump is perhaps starting to realize that he eventually will have to deal with the challenge that Erdogan presents to the U.S. He is no longer America's strategic ally, as could be seen when he chose to purchase Russian weaponry incompatible with the requirements of NATO, to which he was theoretically committed.
Above all, Trump would be well advised to work towards some reconciliation and productive relationship with what now appears to be an emerging Bolton wing of the GOP.
In Ronald Reagan's late 1983-84 election campaign, when he was besieged by Democrats calling him a warmonger, he nonetheless refused to project the image of a president seeking peace at any price, and invaded the island of Grenada that had just deposed a brutal Leninist regime during a bloody coup against its prime minister.
The American people do not necessarily elect candidates exclusively engaged in a search for peace. They were doubtless hoping that the new president would drain all the swamps. Bolton is correct: Americans support presidential candidates who are not appeasers, but defenders of American values, vital national interests and human rights -- particularly in its own backyard. It is not too late for President Trump. He is no shrinking violet -- but he does need to wake up.
Dr. Jiri Valenta is a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan. A former tenured professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, he also served as coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies for the Master's program for intelligence officers of all armed forces. A member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, he is the recipient of the Jan Masaryk Silver Medal for his directorship of a post-revolutionary think tank in the Czech Republic. A recipient of several distinguished fellowships, he is the author of several books, some based on on-site research and covering Grenada, Nicaragua and Cambodia. For the last decade, he has worked with his wife, Yale School of Drama graduate Leni Valenta.