In a world-shaking victory that has defied almost every poll, pundit and statistics-based prediction, Donald Trump has now been elected the 45th president of the United States. The victory is stunning. He had been labelled as a misogynist, racist and xenophobic. As his aficionados indulge in revelry, and as Hillary Clinton’s supporters weep, often publicly, Trump must be thinking of mustering the finest foreign policy team he can find. After all, Trump is now face to face with a world in disorder, and he had promised to set it right. The mandate given by the American people is as much economic as it is about repairing US foreign policy.
Buried deep in the rambunctiousness of his electoral campaign is some extremely important statements by Trump about where and how the US has tripped in dealing with the world at large. In a seminal foreign policy speech on 27th April 2016 he claimed: “America no longer has a clear understanding of our foreign policy goals and lacks a coherent foreign policy. One day, we’re bombing Libya. The next day, we’re watching that country fall apart.” He also referred to the US making mistakes in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
In particular, Trump would need to decide what to do about the following burning issues, not only because these have imposed a great cost in life and treasury on the US but also because President Trump would have considerable leeway in addressing them. Most urgent on his table would be the questions of how to deal with an irate Russia, an imploding Middle East, a fast-sinking Afghanistan, and a Pivot to Asia-Pacific going horribly wrong. How to deal with a sulking Turkey and a livid Saudi Arabia, manage Indo-Pak relations, and revive the moribund Israel-Palestine talks would come later.
Russia is smarting over the sanctions imposed by the US that have dented its economy. Trump knows that these sanctions would neither win back Crimea nor dislodge Russia from eastern Ukraine. Worse, Russia has stalemated the US’ meddling in Syria. However, the US has been recklessly egging a wary NATO towards Russia’s borders. If the US and NATO keep doing this, they may earn the dubious win of self-fulfilling the US’ prophecy of Baltic States’ instability. Ratcheting up this brinkmanship another notch, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has declared that a cyber-attack by Moscow can trigger the collective defence clause.
Trump’s more difficult test would come in the Middle East, which is part smoldering, part burning. Take Iraq. Prior to 2003, Iraq had neither experienced a single suicide bombing nor witnessed even a vestige of al-Qaeda. Since then, some 12,000 Iraqis have been killed by more than a thousand suicide bombs. Iraq now hosts an al-Qaeda that has metamorphosed into ISIS. Every military success in Iraq produces new enemies. Robert Fisk says that had the Iraqis’ case been made in the UK Chilcot inquiry, “Dante’s circles of hell would certainly have caught the measure of the suffering of Iraq and Syria.” In the ultimate damning verdict, Kadhim al-Jabbouri, the Iraqi who brought down Saddam Hussain’s bronze statue in April 2003, recently said: “Saddam has gone, and we have one thousand Saddams now”.
If Iraq has been devastated over the past 14 years, Syria is being laid to ruin blow by blow, in slow motion. Astonishingly, the US’ Defence Intelligence Agency’s report of 2012, circulated to the CIA, the FBI and the State Department, noted that insurgency in Syria was driven by the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the Obama administration decided to turn a blind eye to this report, even as it continued to fund, train and arm the so-called Syrian Opposition, consisting primarily of Sunni jihadists, to weaken the pro-Christian Assad regime. Candidate Hillary Clinton had clearly stated that she would establish no-fly zones in Syria that would have brought the US eyeball to eyeball with Russia. All eyes are now on President Trump because it was he who said: “We have made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than before.”
At least on Russia, Syria and Iraq, Trump has some leverage and room to maneuver, but on Afghanistan, he would face his toughest challenge. The US, after 15 years of fighting and spending hundreds of billions of dollars, has neither won the war, nor stabilised Afghanistan, and has been unable to find a way to get out of the morass. The country lies ruined, and the slow-motion train wreck proceeds. Incredibly, few US politicians and analysts seem to realise that the worst part of the entire debacle is not the ruination of Afghanistan, it is the de-stabilisation of a much larger, a much more vital country on its eastern border, namely Pakistan. The US’ Afghanistan adventure has created touch-points with Pakistan that are plunging US’ ties with the troubled country at a time when Pakistan needs its fickle friend the most.
Trump would also need to decide whether to go ahead with Obama’s 2012 Pivot to Asia-Pacific initiative, and if yes, then with which of its ingredients. Aimed at containment of China, the pivot essentially comprised two legs. With Trump’s victory, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), against which he had inveighed endless times, would be put on the backburner, if not permanently shelved. The other leg was using access to the Philippines to threaten Chinese trade routes. With President Duterte’s sensible decision to eschew playing second fiddle to the US’s China containment desire, the pivot is in considerable trouble.
Donald Trump has earned his name and fortune for making successful deals. His deal-making ability would now be tested as much by a gigantic, bureaucratic and turf-protecting US establishment as by the chaos that has been engendered by the very same establishment in the first place.
Welcome, President Trump.