The Trump national security team is staying busy in its last days and doing so with the erratic incoherence that has defined President Trump's foreign policy.
The administration is again hiking tensions with Iran, introducing "as many sanctions as possible" before Inauguration Day. Some U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan — but not all, ensuring the incoming Biden administration will have the opportunity to follow in Trump's footsteps of failing to end these wars while promising exactly that. New sanctions are reportedly in the works for China, too, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been dispatched on a symbolically significant visit to an Israeli West Bank settlement. Pompeo's State Department is also pushing to designate the Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen's civil war as a terrorist group, and it has authorized a major new arms sale to the United Arab Emirates, which will further enable the war crimes being committed by the U.S.-backed coalition intervening in Yemen.
This final flurry of activity is emblematic of Trump's approach to foreign affairs: a few nods toward his much-vaunted opposition to "endless wars" mixed with a broader pattern of reckless and counterproductive aggression. After four years, it has become undeniable the Trump administration was never, as supporters and critics alike have claimed, "dovish" or "pro-peace" or "isolationist" (though he certainly isolates us from mutually beneficial international trade, crushing American farms in the process).
Indeed, there was never any such thing as a "Trumpism" of foreign policy, an articulate theory of how the United States should conduct herself on the world stage. There was only ever Trump: ignorant and myopic; easily swayed; greedy and ever eager for "credit" to himself; obsessed with opposition to former President Barack Obama specifically and Democrats generally; and enamored of public popularity, flattery from people he deems strong, and things that go BOOM.
All of this is evident in this administration's lame duck choices. Take the partial exit from Afghanistan: A full departure would be supported by three in four Americans. Trump wants that approval. But his advisers don't want to withdraw, and so he has been persuaded to settle for this half-measure which maintains perpetual war in both nations as the status quo. It is possible that President-elect Joe Biden will now cancel Trump's May 2021 deadline to completely end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan — indeed, Biden has already said he plans to keep a small American force on the ground there indefinitely. That makes re-escalation constantly possible because it keeps our forces in harm's way and continues to assign them some degree of responsibility for Afghan security. Trump may sincerely believe he wants to end U.S. wars, but the fact is he will finish his term without ending a single one. He has continually bent to the advice of subordinates he hired despite their vocal opposition to his stated goals.
Or consider the Yemen situation. Half of the eight vetoes Trump issued over his entire tenure were concerned with prolonging this newest addition to our roster of endless wars. (A fifth killed a bill that would have limited his ability to attack Iran.) When Congress four times summoned that rarest of political beasts — a bipartisan majority, which repeatedly voted against arming and aiding the Saudi-UAE coalition as it starves and explodes Yemeni innocents — Trump slayed it without a second thought.
He likes palling around with the brutal theocrats in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. He thinks the profits American military contractors will make off weapons sales are worth it, even when those weapons are used to bomb school buses full of kids. Designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization is just one more way to keep the U.S. involved in this conflict and make peace talks more difficult. "It will make an already catastrophic humanitarian crisis even worse," as The American Conservative's Daniel Larison wrote Thursday, because it will create "serious impediments" to humanitarian relief work in "Houthi-controlled territory, which is where roughly 80 percent of the population resides." It will also "make it more difficult to reach a negotiated settlement to end the war," Larison writes, which is among Biden's goals.
Indeed, stymieing Biden is a prime feature of all these end-game foreign policy moves. An unnamed administration official told CNN the "goal is to set so many fires that it will be hard for the Biden administration to put them all out." But we didn't need an anonymous source to know that. Trump has never been shy about his antipathy for his predecessor and all Democrats. He seems to relish undoing what Obama did as a win in its own right, regardless of policy content. Given a choice between ending a war and thumbing Obama's second-in-command in the eye, there's no question what Trump will do.
Promising peace may sometimes be politically handy for the president, and he enjoys fancying himself a great diplomatic dealmaker (despite demonstrating ad nauseam with Iran and North Korea that he is clueless about the basic give and take diplomacy entails). But when tasked with picking peace and diplomacy or partisanship and militarism, Trump opts for the latter. He likes arms deals and "tough" dictators and military parades and torture and targeting civilians and extremely large bombs. He does not guide American foreign policy on any basis of admirable principle. "America first" is empty, its vacancy exposed by how Trump has undermined American interests in one arena of foreign affairs after another.
"Great nations do not fight endless wars," Trump said at his 2019 State of the Union address. It's true — and by that measure, his presidency has done precisely nothing to make America great.