National Security

The Foreign Policy To-Do List

What to do after obliterating the Islamic State.

Harold Hutchison · Dec. 16, 2016

After his inauguration, Donald Trump’s first priority has to be taking care of the Islamic State, and by taking care of, we mean bombing the [crap] out of those terrorists and sending them running. That addresses some immediate needs on the foreign policy/national security front, primarily by backing up the new tone with some action. But what’s the priority after that?

What should the Trump administration do to handle the rest of U.S. foreign policy, especially given our nation’s glaring needs on the national security front? How do we handle Russia, for instance? How do we deal with Iran? Can we restore our relationship with Israel?

In this case, Russia ought to come first. Let’s be under no illusions about that relationship: Russia and the United States are frenemies. That makes Russia the easiest to deal with on some fronts. Low oil prices thanks to the fracking revolution help box Russia in by denying hard currency. Russia is trying to modernize its military, but has to have strong exports to finance that buildup. With oil at around $50 a barrel, and with fracking and new discoveries promising more supplies (potentially sending the price even lower), Moscow is hurting financially.

This opens up a huge playbook. Trump’s push for abundant, cheap energy will tighten the vice on the Russian economy, allowing the U.S. to deal with its rival without taking a harsh tone. Trump honestly can say he’s looking out for the American economy — all the while offering to work with Russia in areas where there are mutual interests, like fighting radical Islam. We may never get past the frenemy stage with Russia, but a rival on relatively friendly terms may pay dividends down the road.

Granted, we may need to engage in some geopolitical quid pro quos with the Kremlin in order to address some of our other problems, like Iran and Turkey. In both cases, the threat of radical Islam and Islamism are areas of mutual concern. America had 9/11, and Russia had Beslan. In this case, the selection of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state is a blessing.

As the CEO of a huge multi-national corporation, Tillerson knows how to cut deals. And when it comes down to it, cutting deals and maintaining or repairing relationships with other countries is a secretary of state’s job. It also doesn’t hurt that the nominee for secretary of defense is nicknamed “Mad Dog” and is on record as saying it’s “fun to shoot some people” (when discussing the Taliban).

One area where deal-making would be beneficial is with Iran, an irrational actor with whom decisive action may need to be taken. By working with Russia, Iran could be cut off from future acquisitions of advanced weapons like the S-300 surface-to-air missile system, making it easier to take down or debilitate its nuclear weapons program. It’s not a perfect outcome, but after eight years of Barack Obama’s mismanagement of our foreign policy, some of our decisions will entail picking the least unpalatable choice. The need to prioritize might also be a problem. The need to defend the Baltic republics due to their NATO membership means another deal may have to be cut. We may not be able to fully reverse the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Fully deterring Iran, though, will be very difficult, largely due to their irrationality. One option may be to permanently base American forces in Israel. A fighter wing and an armored brigade would send an unambiguous message to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas: America not only stands by Israel, but will fight alongside her if necessary.

Another place where the application of “The Art of the Deal” with Russia could help is in Syria, where the appalling results of Obama’s foreign policy are on full and gruesome display. While the Islamic State is a big part of the refugee problem, Bashar al-Assad is, too. Between the sanctions and a clear military edge over Russia (their carrier’s air operations seem to involve a lot of splash landings), Russia might be persuaded to take Assad in and replace him with a leader who may be a strongman, but who hasn’t used chemical weapons on his own people. This is where Obama’s failure to back up the “red line” rhetoric with action will bite us. The Syrian people will have traded one strongman for another, as opposed to having a shot at democracy.

Russia may not be our best friend. But sometimes, frenemies can at least work together and co-exist as friendly rivals instead of the geopolitical equivalent of “Mean Girls.” If Trump can do that for eight years, the world will be a safer place.

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