A leaked memo from former UK ambassador to the US Kim Darroch claimed that US President Donald Trump left the Iran deal as an "act of diplomatic vandalism." It has been characterized as a form of spite against Barack Obama's 2015 deal with Iran, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This raises a question about how much of the Trump administration's major policies have been driven by personality as opposed to thought-out policy initiatives.
The former ambassador described Trump as insecure, inept and incompetent. It was not clear if that assessment was based on meetings with Trump or unique personal knowledge, or just watching Trump at public settings. In general, the US president has been critiqued for his mannerisms and comportment, which do not fit with the perceptions of how presidents historically behaved.
Trump's decision to leave the Iran deal has now been portrayed as "spite." The question this raises is how many major decisions, such as dealing with North Korea, China, or even leaving Syria and embracing Israel, are driven by personality.
Radical policy reversals have been a hallmark of the Trump administration.
There is a "Trump doctrine" that has taken shape since Trump took office. In the beginning it consisted of a skepticism by the administration as to the US role in the world. Moving away from the George H.W. Bush "new world order," it sought to reduce the US footprint abroad, and called on other countries to pay for things like NATO and foreign wars. The major hallmarks of the Trump administration have been radical policy reversals, such as moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, ending support for UNRWA, leaving UNESCO, or deciding to wrap up support for the Syrian rebels and even leave Syria. From trade wars to threats against Turkey for detaining a US pastor, this has been a kind of gunboat diplomacy, although with more talk and less guns.
It is incredibly difficult to know how much of this is part of a Trump "world order" analysis or mostly spur-of-the-moment. Trump appears to like personal gestures, and judges his gut instincts to be the right policy choice. This has been on display in meetings with the North Korean dictator, but also his sudden decision to reverse policy on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
Because Trump is perceived as a kind of one-man-band on policy, some foreign leaders believe that all they need to do is get to Trump to change his mind. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gambled on this, first in 2017, then in the December 2018 phone call that may have led to Trump's Syria withdrawal decision, and this year over the S-400 affair. This is a problem because it appears to undermine US officials. For instance, US Syria Special Representative Jim Jeffrey had just wrapped up a talk at the Atlantic Council about US policy last December when Trump was mulling a decision to leave eastern Syria. It appears that anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were not consulted, despite having overseen major US commitments to eastern Syria.
It is difficult to have a policy when people feel that the person at the top might change things in mid-stream. For instance, after former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster departed in the spring of 2018 and replaced by Mike Pompeo and John Bolton respectively, the US has worked more purposely to confront Iran.
Evidence that Trump's policies are sort of anti-Obama can be found not only in the Iran deal, but also the decision to launch airstrikes on the Syrian regime. He appears to feel the need to draw a redline or reverse the bad deals of the previous administration. This is how US politics tends to work in more recent years. Foreign policy always changes with each administration, but not as radically as under Trump.
However, Trump signaled in his debates in 2016 that he opposed how the US government was operating, saying that NAFTA was the "single worst trade deal," and that the Iran deal was a "one-sided transaction."
If his decision to leave the Iran deal was just to spite Obama, then why if it was clearly a policy goal during the debates in 2016 did he wait until 2018 to pull the plug? It appears that the Trump doctrine is more substantive than just "spite," but that it certainly is undermined by his own tendency to reverse course. This is part of growing into the presidency. The chaos of the first year of the Trump administration was largely reversed in 2018. The boat was righted by having on hand Bolton and Pompeo. Now, halfway through 2019, the administration has also reduced some of its braggadocio, and the major media, which was shocked by Trump's behavior in the past, has gotten used to some of it.
Trump appears driven by a desire to chisel his name into the history books on some major policies.
Trump appears driven by a desire to chisel his name into the history books on some major policies, such as the Jerusalem issue. He wants to call the bluff that enemies abroad will be "angry" by US policies, because he believes that the US can act purely in its own interests, the way many other countries tend to act. The problem with the Trump administration's instincts here is that they seem to reverse course and not press forward with some policies, leaving a sense of chaos, or a sense that "we can just wait this administration out."
Deep down, the ship of state can't change course as quickly as Trump would like it to. That is why he has been stymied in his efforts to deal with US immigration policy. The US can leave organizations like UNESCO or rip up deals like the Iran deal, but what replaces them? In the end, for anything to be more than just a short-term policy reversal, the US has to show it achieved something, and it has to make sure that Trump stays focused on these issues. That's the goal of the people around Trump. The next year will tell if they can achieve what they want.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.