Donald Trump is now the subject of an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. Congress. He has committed a range of potentially impeachable offenses. But the Democrats have decided to focus the impeachment investigation on one aspect of the president’s foreign policy. Trump tried to persuade a foreign government, Ukraine, to dig up evidence of corruption connected to one of his Democratic challengers, Joe Biden. This is a direct violation of campaign finance laws.
Trump has not tried to deny his actions. He released a partial transcript of his phone call with the Ukrainian president, which he continually described as “perfect” even though it provided sufficient evidence of his wrongdoing to warrant an investigation. The very next week, Trump turned around and asked China to also help in investigating Biden and his son Hunter. And instead of following the rule of law and cooperating with Congress, Trump has instructed everyone in the administration to refuse to testify and ignore any subpoenas. This is a clear case of obstruction.
So, Trump is not letting the impeachment inquiry alter his approach to foreign policy. He has continued his highly personalistic approach of reaching out to leaders and making the deals that best help not the United States or U.S. allies but Trump’s own political and economic standing. He continues to focus on using his foreign connections to improve his chances in the 2020 elections. He still hopes to get a Nobel Peace Prize for a successful deal (for instance, with North Korea). And he is still making baffling decisions in an effort to keep favored autocrats on his side.
Consider his recent phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Against the advice of many in his administration, Trump agreed to withdraw U.S. military personnel in northern Syria and effectively gave Turkey the green light to launch cross-border attacks on Syrian Kurds. Even Trump’s Republican Party supporters in Congress were aghast at the president’s willingness to abandon the Kurds, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
Why does Trump do what Erdogan wants him to do? In addition to wanting to avoid a conflict with a NATO ally, Trump argues for ending U.S. wars and bringing U.S. soldiers home. That is certainly popular among U.S. voters these days. But then, shortly after the announced withdrawal from Syria, Trump authorized the deployment of an additional 2,000 troops to Saudi Arabia (on top of the 1,000 troops sent earlier in October). In fact, the Trump administration has deployed 14,000 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East since the spring. Compare that with the 1,000 troops that Trump is withdrawing from northern Syria.
Taken together, Trump’s moves provide more evidence that his foreign policy is focused on rolling back Iran’s influence. Saudi Arabia is Iran’s chief adversary in the region, and the two countries are fighting what amounts to a proxy war in Yemen. Trump might see Turkey, predominantly Sunni, as a potential ally against Iran, although Ankara and Tehran have increased their cooperation in recent years.
Before the impeachment scandal broke, Trump seemed to be exploring ways of resolving various disputes with Iran – for instance, through the good offices of Pakistani leader Imran Khan. But bringing the regime in Tehran to heel has been a more consistent obsession of Trump’s.
Perhaps the president is figuring that whichever way the Iran crisis goes, it will distract attention from the impeachment hearings. If Trump manages to resolve tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, then he can present himself as an indispensable peacemaker – and make the case that Congress should stop its impeachment “witch hunt” for national security reasons. If all attempts at peacemaking fail, Trump can lead the country into a war with Iran – and rely on the rally-around-the-flag effect to bolster his reelection prospects.
For the time being, Trump is emphasizing his capabilities as a dealmaker. “We have a lot of countries in a very good position right now, despite the ‘witch hunt,’ which hurts our country and it hurts America,” he has said. “But Iran wants to do something. North Korea wants to do something, and China would like to do something.”
Foreign policy has gotten the president into hot water. Now he is emphasizing that foreign policy will save his presidency. But it’s not clear whether other countries will cooperate.
Trump has been continually promising a trade deal with China. A partial agreement is now in place that suspends a U.S. tariff hike in exchange for Beijing buying some more U.S. agricultural products and promising to address issues of intellectual property rights. China knows that the U.S. president is increasingly desperate to show some sign of progress in trade negotiations – to calm the U.S. stock market and strengthen his claim that U.S. economic health depends on his presence in the White House. But Beijing also knows that impeachment and the 2020 elections increase its leverage. So, it’s not going to agree to just anything.
North Korea is also not willing to accept any old deal from the United States. In Stockholm, North Korean representatives expressed frustration at the U.S. negotiating position. The Trump administration has reportedly offered the lifting of sanctions on coal and textile exports in exchange for closing down Yongbyon and halting the production of highly enriched uranium. Although such an offer departs from Washington’s previous all-or-nothing approach, North Korea is likely looking for more substantial changes in the sanctions regime. In the meantime, Pyongyang has been testing short-range missiles and a new submarine-capable missile.
Trump knows that any sign of weakness is like blood in the water for the sharks of the international community. Foreign leaders will try to take advantage of that weakness, as Erdogan has apparently already done. As the impeachment inquiry gathers force, the U.S. president will be sorely tempted to demonstrate that he is not weak – by dispatching U.S. military forces, taking a hard line in trade negotiations, and continuing to put heavy demands on allies.
Trump’s impulsiveness is already becoming more pronounced. If he was an unpredictable president before the impeachment hearings began, he has become only more erratic. The bumpy road of U.S. foreign policy is about to get even bumpier.
Hankyoreh, October 12, 2019