What 100 days of foreign policy says about Trump as a leader
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: We take a look at the foreign policy accomplishments and setbacks during the first 100 days of the Trump administration.
Hari Sreenivasan will bring us two viewpoints.
But we begin with this report from correspondent Margaret Warner.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.
MARGARET WARNER: That mantra typified President Trump’s world view as a candidate and as a newly inaugurated president.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.
MARGARET WARNER: The slogan was a signal that Mr. Trump planned to focus his presidency on improving Americans’ economic prospects here at home, not getting embroiled in messy conflicts overseas.
But, in his first 100 days, global crises have challenged Mr. Trump with frequent and treacherous tests. One of Mr. Trump’s early dilemmas, an April 4 sarin gas attack that killed more than 80 Syrian civilians in a town held by opponents of President Bashar Assad.
The president’s response? On April 7, 59 Tomahawk missiles were fired on a regime air base identified as the chemical attack’s launch site. It was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government in the country’s six-year civil war.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: That’s a butcher. So, I felt we had to do something about it.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Trump’s campaign hopes for a fresh start with Russia had already dimmed amid investigations into Moscow’s alleged election meddling. The gas attack by its ally, Assad, inflamed matters further, prompting tough words from U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
NIKKI HALEY, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: Assad has no incentive to stop using chemical weapons as long as Russia continues to protect his regime from consequences.
MARGARET WARNER: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did go to Moscow a few days later. But after a two-hour meeting with President Vladimir Putin, he emerged to say relations were — quote — “at a low point.”
Mr. Trump also has shifted on America’s commitment to the NATO alliance, which he derided during the campaign.
But on April 12, standing with NATO’s secretary-general, he had this to say:
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.
MARGARET WARNER: Perhaps the gravest challenge thrust on Mr. Trump came from North Korea’s February 12 firing of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, followed by five others, and apparent preparations for a sixth nuclear test.
North Korea’s aggressive pursuit of these weapons has bedeviled the president’s three predecessors, but it’s become too urgent to ignore.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: North Korea is a big world problem, and it’s a problem we have to finally solve. People put blindfolds on for decades, and now it’s time to solve the problem.
MARGARET WARNER: After meeting at his Florida estate with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the president is counting on Beijing to pressure Pyongyang to abide by U.N. resolutions.
Still, Washington has made clear all its options are on the table, moving an aircraft carrier group to the waters off the Korean Peninsula, and deploying an anti-missile defense system to South Korea. Two other military fronts remain active as well.
In the fight against ISIS, Mr. Trump has added more forces in Syria, and kept up airstrikes there and in Iraq. And, in Afghanistan, as the Taliban gains ground, the U.S. targeted ISIS caves and tunnels this month with the so-called Mother of All Bombs.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.
HARI SREENIVASAN: To dig deeper into the president’s overseas record to date, I’m joined by James Carafano. He’s currently vice president at the Heritage Foundation. He had a 25-year career in the Army and writes extensively about U.S. foreign policy. And David Rothkopf is the CEO and editor of “Foreign Policy” magazine and the author of “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear.”
James Carafano, let me start with you.
As Margaret pointed out, the president has in these 100 days pivoted from campaign mode certainly towards the center on a lot of different issues. While he was campaigning, he repeatedly criticized President Obama for even the possibility of taking military action in Syria, but here he is, faced with the reality on the ground, and he sends 59 Tomahawk missiles in.
Is this a one-off?
JAMES CARAFANO, Heritage Foundation: I think it is.
First of all, I think there’s nothing more worthless than 100 days’ measurement in foreign policy. You kind of jump up — you jump into foreign policy in kind of the middle of where things are, so you don’t start with a fresh start.
And many, many issues, Syria, North Korea, almost every big foreign policy issue on the table today isn’t going to get resolved in 100 days. So, 100 days kind of tells you nothing.
But I think there are indications in what the Syria mission said. So, the president isn’t interested in an aggressive foreign policy that could overextend and create high risk. He’s not interested in regime change or nation-building.
But he is interested in protecting U.S. interests in key parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, Western Europe and Asia. And in the Middle East, the administration is trying the stabilize the refugee population, stabilize Iraq, defeat ISIS and al-Qaida.
And Assad in a sense was destabilizing the region and expanding the war with a chemical weapons attack. And so the 59 cruise missiles were a pretty serious message to President Assad that you are conflicting with our interests, and here’s a warning to just back off.
HARI SREENIVASAN: I take your point that 100 days, a lot of times, you’re walking into the middle of existing foreign policy, but candidates are also to blame for making promises that they maybe can’t keep.
That said, if this is a one-off, is there a consistent and cohesive Trump doctrine of foreign policy that’s emerged in these 100 days for you?
JAMES CARAFANO: Well, there is. And I say that because I worked on the presidential transition team and talked to the candidate doing candidate briefings and worked with ambassadors during briefings at the convention in Cleveland.
So I have been watching these guys a long time. And there is a focus. And there are three regions of the world that are vitally important to the United States where peace and stability is really important, Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East. And the administration is primarily focused on returning peace and stability to those three areas and dealing with the kind of challenges that are on — that everyone says are the big — Russia is the great destabilizing influence in Europe.
In the Middle East, it’s ISIS, and it’s al-Qaida, influence of Iran. And in Asia, it’s the relationship between the United States and China and North Korea. And that’s where the administration is putting its focus.
HARI SREENIVASAN: David Rothkopf, James outlined a foreign policy that seems to be fairly clear. Is that clear for somebody who didn’t help President Trump write this?
DAVID ROTHKOPF, CEO and Editor, “Foreign Policy”: No.
I don’t think there’s anything clear about Trump’s foreign policy. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything like a policy about Trump foreign policy.
It has been marked by reversals. First, he was against the one-China policy. Then he was for it. Yesterday morning, he was against NAFTA. Then he was for it. He was pro-Russia. Then he has gotten a little bit cooler on Russia.
But, secondly, there have been a whole series of inconsistencies in his policy. Is he concerned about Europe, the support for right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen or the support for Brexit suggests that he’s not clear on what is actually in the interests of Europe or the United States there.
The Syria strike, while encouraging on some levels, actually doesn’t seem to be in the context of any kind of coherent policy. And you do see ratcheting up elsewhere. We have also seen him embrace dictators and authoritarians, from Sisi in Egypt, to the Erdogan regime, where he called up Erdogan to congratulate him on his undermining of democracy.
In terms of North Korea, again, there’s been bluster. There’s also been incoherence. He hasn’t been able to locate where his carrier battle groups have been. He was instructed, as he himself said, by the Chinese leader on the nuances of all of this.
And, of course, on top of that, you have the blemish, and this very serious blemish, of appointing a national security adviser who lasted 24 days in office and may well end up in jail, appointing Steve Bannon, who supported white supremacist views,to the National Security Council, and then asking him to step down, and not having virtually any of the senior positions at the State Department or the Defense Department filled right now.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David, I won’t accuse you of not having a laundry list prepared on this answer.
But I think something that David, and, Jim, both, you can agree on is that foreign policy problems are complex, when they often require allies.
So, David, I want to ask, what are the sort of — the sequence of events, the missile strikes into Syria, sending the carrier group toward the Korean Peninsula, the largest non-nuclear bomb into Afghanistan, what’s the message that sends to our allies and adversaries, David?
DAVID ROTHKOPF: Well, I think if they were in the context of a coherent policy, they might send a message that we’re likely to be more forceful.
The problem is that if you strike Syria and then you don’t follow up, or you strike Syria and then you play footsie with the Russians, or you send a carrier battle group, but you don’t actually know where it is and you don’t know what you’re going to do to follow up with it, then it sends the message that is more like bluster.
It’s a little bit more like Trump on the campaign trail, talking big, but not really having a clear plan about how to deliver.
HARI SREENIVASAN: James Carafano, I don’t expect any human to take an office of the presidency and know everything about everything.
JAMES CARAFANO: Right.
HARI SREENIVASAN: But, as David points out, when the president has a meeting with Xi Jinping, and he’s actually being schooled on North Korea from the Chinese president, or Angela Merkel is telling him that he cannot have unilateral deals with a E.U. member nation, what does this say about the people that he has surrounded himself with who should be briefing him perhaps a lot better when he walks into these meetings?
JAMES CARAFANO: Well, I think the commentary we had is typical is kind of the unserious commentary and analysis that we have had with the Trump presidency.
If you want the focus on a whole bunch of points that you want to pick up, which are — kind of reflect the showman and the public discourse, that’s fine, but ignores kind of the serious part of the president.
So, there’s a showman part and there’s a serious part. And when the president does the serious part, he acts very serious. And I — two data points on this. We get an average of about five foreign delegations a day visiting the Heritage Foundation since the election.
And I have talked to every minister who has been in town. I have talked to even heads of government like President Sisi, and that have met with the president and met with his senior team.
And, uniformly, they come back to me — and these are our allies across Europe and the Middle East and Asia — and they say they think this is a serious administration. They do feel reassured on that.
And if you actually look at the team he has around him, H.R. McMaster, Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson, Vice President Pence, Ambassador Haley, it’s actually a really, really good team. And it’s a team that works together. And, more importantly, it’s a team that the president takes really seriously and works with. And they have confidence in the president as well.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, James Carafano, David Rothkopf, we will have you back the try to finish this. This could take all show.