The Downsides to President Trump’s ‘Dare Me’ Doctrine

12 minute read

President Trump says he didn’t need to consult anyone before scrapping this week’s meeting with the Taliban at Camp David. “I took my own advice,” Trump said on the South Lawn of the White House as he was departing on Monday for a campaign rally in North Carolina. It was also, he told reporters “my decision” to set up the meeting in the first place. The whiplash episode—an unprecedented summit between Taliban leaders and Afghanistan’s president secretly scheduled at Trump’s request, then abruptly cancelled—has likely tanked months of negotiations to bring the U.S. role in the Afghan war to an end.

The Afghanistan breakdown is just the start. When Trump took office he inherited a long list of hard challenges around the world. For decades, American leaders had tried and failed to solve costly and destabilizing crises, from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and China’s flouting of international trade rules, to conflict between Arabs and Israelis, and Iran’s sponsorship of low-intensity conflicts throughout the Middle East. The foreign policy establishment in both parties had failed to solve those problems and some of them were getting worse.

Trump interpreted his predecessors’ record with these intractable problems as a license to disrupt. He broke with allies and embraced adversaries. He neutered the internal policy process that every president since Eisenhower has relied on. He issued policy changes via tweet, with little or no consultation. With the collapse of the Afghanistan talks, it’s worth asking whether Trump’s unorthodox approach has proved any better at solving the world’s problems, whether he’s made them worse, and what the costs have been.

To his supporters, and a handful of contrarians, Trump’s approach to challenges is refreshing. But at the very least, it is clear that Trump has spread uncertainty around the world in ways that a traditional conservative would find unsettling. Analysts at JP Morgan Chase released a report on Sept. 8 that tracked stock market volatility after Trump’s tweets. Called the “Volfefe Index,” after the unexplained typo “covfefe” Trump tweeted in May 2017, the bank found that Trump’s tweets on trade and monetary policy have increasingly moved U.S. interest rate markets, once a cornerstone of international economic stability.

To his critics, Trump’s actions on the world stage are foolhardy and damaging to the interests of Americans and their allies. “As a result of Trump’s actions, there’s very little trust out in the world for the credibility and reliability of the United States of America as a government,” says Wendy Sherman, a former U.S. ambassador who served as North Korea policy coordinator in the Clinton Administration and lead negotiator on the Iran deal for the Obama Administration.

It would be one thing, she says, if the President’s approach had worked. “The problem is the President hasn’t been able to close any deal—whether it’s with the North Koreans; whether it’s in Afghanistan; whether it’s with the Chinese; whether it’s with Iran; whether it’s with trade agreements; there is nothing that’s come to closure and therefore U.S. national security is at greater risk today than it was when he became president,” Sherman says.

How has Iran reacted to Trump’s unilateral moves?

On Iran, Trump has tried to knock Iran’s leadership off balance by tearing up the Obama-era nuclear deal in May 2018, ratcheting up sanctions, and pressuring Iran to withdraw its support for militant organizations around the Middle East. Rather than relying on diplomacy to build unified global pressure on Tehran, Trump has opted to go it alone, confronting Tehran with military and economic pressure and breaking with European and other nations. The financial sanctions and other measures have plunged Iran’s economy-sustaining oil exports to historic lows. Increased numbers of U.S. troops have deployed to the region.

The intention, the President said, was to drive Tehran to negotiate a better deal that would constrain its proxy militias, missile capability and nuclear proliferation. Instead, on each front, the opposite has happened. So far, Iran’s replied by intensifying it’s destabilizing actions.

This summer, the U.S. accused the Iranian government of being behind six attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and launching rockets at several U.S.-linked facilities. The volatile situation nearly ignited into wider war when Iran shot down a high-flying reconnaissance drone. Trump said he had authorized launching airstrikes on three sites in Iran but called it off at the last minute because he was concerned about killing innocent Iranian people.

Since then, Iran has seized multiple foreign-flagged tanker ships, including one on Saturday. Tehran has also increased its nuclear enrichment up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% allowed under the nuclear deal and surpassed a 300-kilogram limit for low-enriched uranium.

Despite the U.S. pullout, Iran initially complied with the 2015 nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, while it sought to salvage a deal with its remaining signatories: Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France.

But after those efforts proved fruitless, Iran pressed ahead with its nuclear program. The nuclear deal had brought Iran’s nuclear program under tight international controls, but freed it from heavy sanctions. Now that the sanctions are back on, Tehran says it doesn’t see the logic in abiding by the rules.

What has come of Trump’s engagement with Kim Jong Un?

Trump has also turned his impulsive style of diplomacy toward the intractable problem of North Korea’s nuclear program. American presidents have for decades sought a nuclear deal with North Korea only to be frustrated at every turn. Unlike previous presidents, however, Trump has believed his personal skill as dealmaker would be enough to secure an agreement. He began his presidency taunting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling him “little rocket man,” but has since praised him for his “beautiful vision” for North Korea and the “beautiful” letters Kim writes to Trump.

Trump has repeatedly said the U.S. loses nothing by engaging in the on-again, off-again negotiating process because crippling economic sanctions on Pyongyang remain in place. But North Korea’s nuclear capability gets stronger by the day. Thousands of centrifuges produce highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium. North Korea is now believed by western intelligence agencies to have a dozen or more nuclear warheads.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s military has continually tested short-range ballistic missiles or other projectiles capable of hitting South Korea, Japan, along with U.S. military bases and territories in the region. In August, alone, there were seven such tests. Trump says he’s OK with it as long as it doesn’t involve long-range missiles that can hit the United States. “I have no problem,” Trump told reporters Aug. 1 after multiple tests. “We’ll see what happens. But these are short-range missiles. They’re very standard.”

In addition, the U.S. military has dramatically scaled down large-scale joint-military exercises involving thousands of troops on the Korean peninsula with ally South Korea. The “war games,” as Trump called them, are carried out to maintain readiness to fight in the event of conflict. The drills have largely been computer-simulated since Trump’s first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 18.

There’s also been a falling out between American allies South Korea and Japan. The two nations ripped up an intelligence-sharing deal last month after a trade dispute. The deal, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, was set up in 2016 as a way for the two nations to keep a closer eye on North Korea and China. “This will make defending Korea more complicated and increase risk to US forces,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a Aug. 25 tweet.

Where does the collapse of talks leave U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

The latest chapter of Trump’s “Dare Me” doctrine imploded on Sept. 7, when Trump publicly scrapped—on Twitter—a secret plan he’d ordered to have Afghanistan’s president meet with Taliban leaders at Camp David.

Trump said he cancelled the meeting in the wake of a deadly car bomb attack in Kabul on Sept. 5 that killed a U.S. soldier and at least 11 other people. It was a summit Trump had impulsively asked for, with little pre-planning, based on his faith in his negotiating prowess and his penchant for making a dramatic and historic show, a U.S. official familiar with the matter says.

Multiple U.S. officials told TIME the meeting was on shaky ground to begin with. To set up the secret summit, the U.S. government sprung into action behind the scenes, sparking logistical demands for translators, vehicles, extra security and travel documents for Taliban officials. As word of Trump’s idea started to seep into a broader circle of national security officials, some objected to the idea that Trump would bestow implicit recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political force and negotiating partner with a role to play in determining Afghanistan’s future and governing it.

By using Camp David, Trump may have seen himself following a trail blazed by President Jimmy Carter when he brought Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together in 1978 to negotiate Camp David Accords. “Sadat and Begin were national leaders; the Taliban leaders represent terrorists who harbor other terrorists,” one U.S. official familiar with the Camp David plans says. Also, the timing of the meetings struck many as distasteful, coming the week of memorials marking the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which were planned in Afghanistan by Al Qaeda while the Taliban was running that country.

Trump campaigned on bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and other foreign wars. But he’s struggled to bring closure to the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. In fact, Trump has sent around 5,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan since he became Commander in Chief.

A year ago, Trump named Zalmay Khalilzad as his special envoy to Afghanistan, and since last winter, Khalilzad has attended lengthy meetings with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. After rounds of negotiations, Khalilzad had hammered out a tentative agreement for a partial cease fire in exchange for reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by about 5,400, down to about 8,600, a level similar to the number of troops there when Trump became President in 2017.

A second senior U.S. official says that Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani didn’t like the terms and wanted to derail the deal, and the Kabul attack provided a way to convince Trump he would look weak if he went along with what Khalilzad had negotiated. What’s more, says the official, National Security Advisor John Bolton had soured on the effort and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s support was getting weaker. “Ghani was looking for a way to kill this deal, and he had Bolton in his corner, and Pompeo was not very enthused,” the official says.

The plan to meet reflected Trump’s “inattention to allies (including the Afghan government), disdain for policy process, obsession with spectacle, and the special kind of political and moral tone-deafness,” Bill Burns, former deputy secretary of state and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, tells TIME, adding that the aborted meeting was “another example of the narcissism, indiscipline, impulsiveness and wishful thinking which has shaped President Trump’s brand of diplomacy.”

Pompeo defended Trump’s idea to host the Taliban at Camp David on “Fox News Sunday,” saying it was a “perfectly appropriate place” for the meeting, adding that Trump made the decision to invite both Ghani and Taliban leaders in order to look them “in the eye” to determine if they could reach a final agreement. “It’s almost always the case,” Pompeo said, “that you don’t get to negotiate with good guys.”

Now the talks are on life-support. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re dead,” Trump said Monday on the South Lawn. U.S. officials and allies are concerned that the Taliban will be emboldened to ramp up attacks in order to gain leverage in any future negotiations, and that what was a potential channel for diffusing the conflict has now been closed. After Trump’s tweet, the Taliban’s spokesman in Doha put out a statement saying the Taliban had come to an agreement and Qatar was going to announce it, adding that Trump’s tweets were “unbelievable” and “certainly damaged his credibility.”

What’s the long-term impact?

The most dire predictions about Trump’s unorthodox and unpredictable approaches to foreign affairs haven’t materialized. His record in tackling the world’s hardest problems is hardly better than his predecessors, but his allies claim there is still time for his approach to pan out.

But critics say that bet is coming at a price. They fear uncertainty and instability could quickly turn to crisis. And in the meantime, they say, allies are losing confidence in the U.S. Officials in Australia, Japan, and South Korea, as well as Afghanistan, are privately questioning whether they can still count on the U.S. to keep its defense commitments to them. “Our allies aren’t sure what the policy is on any given day or who is leading the policy,” says Heather Conley a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Trump promised voters he’d shake up Washington and end the stale practices of the past. He’s done that. But now the country and the world has to account for what happens when the U.S. adds to global instability, rather than acting as a bulwark against it.

—With reporting by Kim Dozier, W.J. Hennigan and John Walcott

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