WASHINGTON — Donald Trump took the presidency vowing to bring his deal-making savvy to American foreign policy, yet his love for grand gestures and personal diplomacy has fallen short with North Korea, China and the Mideast.
Now Afghanistan can be added to the list.
In a series of tweets on Saturday night, the president dispatched with a secret plan to host Taliban and Afghan leaders at his Camp David retreat this weekend ahead of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He wanted to talk directly with Taliban negotiators, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Sunday on CBS, one of five TV interviews.
“I want to look them in the eye,” the president said, according to his top diplomat. That would be reminiscent of his approach to China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, but with just over a year before the 2020 elections, Trump’s personal brand of diplomacy has few successes to point to.
“So far, his foreign policy bluster has produced little,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “North Korea is not backing off nuclear weapons, Iran is proving resilient and defiant, and the ‘Deal of the Century’ looks more like a stillborn baby.”
The White House rejects that assessment, saying that major foreign policy achievements have historically taken more than just months to pull together.
“The president isn’t afraid to try and tackle hard problems whereas most politicians run away from them,” said Judd Deere, a White House deputy press secretary.
The Afghanistan move capped a tough week. On Friday, the president’s envoy to North Korea talks said negotiations have been stalled for months. On Thursday, Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt announced his intention to depart; the vaunted Israeli-Palestinian peace plan he’s been working on has yet to be unveiled. The U.S.-China trade war drags on.
Pompeo defended the president’s setbacks as signs of strength, the early price to pay for taking on intractable issues.
“It’s going to take more than words,” Pompeo said. “He walked away in Hanoi from North Korea, they wouldn’t make a deal that made sense for America. He’ll do that with the Iranians. When the Chinese moved away from a trade agreement they promised they would make, he broke off those conversations too.”
If the president wants to rack up some wins, here’s where he’ll have to shift the momentum.
AfghanistanTrump campaigned on a vow to pull U.S. troops from intractable conflicts, a description exemplified by the Afghan war, where American forces have been mired for almost 18 years. But while Trump raised U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan early in his term to about 14,000, the Taliban forces are now at their strongest levels since being ousted from power a generation ago. Even many Republicans fear that a withdrawal could give the fundamentalist group a pathway to power, or allow al-Qaeda or Islamic State to regroup.
For now, the administration says, talks are over and the U.S. envoy brokering the would-be deal, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been recalled to Washington. Pompeo said the administration will keep working hard to forge an agreement, but Trump may have to decide if he starts a draw-down without winning any Taliban concessions.
North KoreaAfter a year of heightening tensions over North Korean missile and nuclear tests in 2017, Trump made a historic gamble to meet Kim Jong Un in Singapore. With a short, vague agreement in hand, the two leaders went on to have two more meetings. They met in Vietnam in February, and in June, Trump stepped across the border into North Korea for a brief time, the first American president to do so. Since then? Nothing.
Trump’s special envoy for North Korea talks, Stephen Biegun, said Friday he’s ready to engage, “but we cannot do this by ourselves.” Since the last Trump-Kim meeting, North Korea has ignored U.S. entreaties to negotiate and has instead conducted a wave of short-range missile tests banned by the United Nations, while complaining about U.S.-South Korea military exercises. With the two sides unable to reach an agreement on what “denuclearization” even means, analysts say Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile production has continued.
Middle East Peace
A day before his inauguration, Trump tasked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with producing the “deal of the century”: peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Kushner labored in secret, shuttling across the Mideast with the president’s former top lawyer at the Trump Organization, Jason Greenblatt.
On Thursday, with the peace plan yet to come, Greenblatt said he intends to step aside in the near future, although he’s expected to stay at the White House at least until the plan is revealed. Over two years, Trump made a series of concessions that bolstered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda — including moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and recognizing Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights — while doing nothing to lure Palestinians to the table. The administration said a peace plan is still forthcoming, but Palestinians have already ruled out talks with Trump’s team.
IranMore than a year after Trump quit the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, the Islamic Republic is feeling the pain of ever-tightening sanctions. But that hasn’t been enough to force them back to the negotiating table, as Trump says he wants, and the U.S. has won little support for its “maximum pressure” campaign.
American allies have been so alarmed at the administration’s approach — even as they decry Iranian behavior in the Middle East — that they’ve largely declined to join a U.S.-led initiative to strengthen security in the waters of the Persian Gulf, a bottleneck for global oil supplies. When Trump did reach out to allies — saying he’d back French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to extend a “letter of credit” to Iran, secured by oil — his aides quickly walked those comments back.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Trump could still meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly gathering in New York later this month, but Iranian leaders have said they aren’t interested in a “photo op,” a veiled reference to the president’s three meetings with Kim.
ChinaTrade wars are “easy to win,” Trump has said, but so far winning has been scarce when it comes to China. Expectations are low for a round of trade talks expected to take place in early October. That’s left the latest round of U.S. and Chinese tariffs in place, with the U.S. poised to raise various levies on Oct. 1 and on Dec. 15, when China plans additional tariffs as well.
With a stalemate continuing, Trump’s aides have argued he has the power to force American companies to leave China, as he suggested in August. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund estimates that the current and upcoming tariffs will shave about 0.8% off global gross domestic product growth in 2020.
U.S. efforts to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro early this year appeared to have momentum, with more than 50 nations recognizing National Assembly leader Juan Guaido and, initially, cutting contacts with Maduro’s regime. But that momentum has stalled. Venezuelans have suffered under brutal inflation and a scarcity of basic goods and medicine, despite living in a country with the world’s biggest oil reserves. Maduro has maintained the military’s support and efforts to rally the often-divided opposition in the streets have fizzled.