Trump’s Chance to Reverse Obama’s International Retreat

President-elect can restore sanity to U.S. foreign policy by knowing enemies from friends

President-Elect Donald Trump will inherit a strategic mess in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East — the three major geopolitical power centers of the world where the dominance of a single hostile power could imperil the United States. The Trump administration must understand the source of the problem before the United States can successfully solve it. If, as Sun Tzu wrote more than 2500 years ago in his classic “The Art of War,” “You know neither your enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

President Obama has succumbed in every major battle internationally for the past eight years precisely because he has violated this axiom. Obama has conciliated America’s most noxious adversaries everywhere while putting distance between the United States and its oldest and most reliable allies.

Trump has called out rather than coddled an increasingly illiberal, arrogant, belligerent China for its predatory behavior.

Nothing encapsulates the perversity of the Obama administration’s dangerous mindset more than undermining Israel while enabling Iran and other implacable adversaries of the United States. Obama delivered a crushing blow to Israel last week by allowing the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution “demanding that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem.” This dangerous and dishonorable betrayal is part of the president’s eight-year campaign to confine Israel to its pre-1967 borders, which will render Israel indefensible with a strategic depth of less than 10 miles at multiple vital points.

President Obama has cast his lot with Israel’s mortal enemies, who strive implacably to achieve by the phantom of international law what they cannot achieve in the battlefield, eliminating the very existence of the Jewish state, replacing it with an Islamist tyranny. By doing so, Obama not only rebuffed the entreaties of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, but also an authoritarian but pro-American Egyptian President al-Sisi who also considered the resolution a boon to our radical enemies in the region.

Contrast Obama’s shabby treatment of Israel with his servile solicitude for an Iranian regime that Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, General James Mattis, has targeted as the “single most dangerous threat to peace and stability in the Middle East.” The administration still views Iran as a friend rather than a foe — despite the venomous anti-American rhetoric of the militant Iranian mullahs and their actions to match. General David Petraeus once offered a devastating critique of the president’s determination to collaborate with Iran against ISIS in Iraq, warning that “Iranian power … is foremost problematic because it is deeply hostile to us and our friends … it is also dangerous because the more it is felt, the more it sets off reactions that are also harmful to our interests — Sunni radicalism … and the prospects of nuclear proliferation as well.”

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Walter Russell Mead hits the mark squarely, calling Obama’s nuclear deal the Great White Whale — the distilled essence of his ill-conceived and ill-fated policy of trying to transform Iran from an adversary into a strategic partner. The Obama administration capitulated to Iran on all the major issues. Even in the unlikely event that Iran abides by its unverifiable provisions, the agreement puts Iran on the autobahn to crossing the nuclear threshold while tranquilizing us to the danger. Iran has not only kept its entire nuclear infrastructure, but has received hundreds of billions of dollars of sanctions relief for its hard-pressed economy in exchange for counterfeit restrictions on its nuclear program. The agreement imposes no limits whatsoever on the Iranian regime’s use of this huge cash infusion to intensify its relentless endeavor to undermine Israel and Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbors. Nor is the Iranian deal enforceable. The so- called snapback provisions that theoretically will restore the sanctions in the event of Iranian non-compliance depend on the unanimous approval of Britain, China, France, Russia, Germany, the United States, and the European Union. The Brooklyn Nets will win an NBA championship before that happens. As former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz warn, America’s traditional allies have concluded that the “U.S. had traded temporary nuclear cooperation for acquiescence to Iranian nuclear hegemony.”

By heeding Sun Tzu’s proverb, President Trump will make an impressive start in cleaning up the strategic mess he inherited in the Middle East and beyond. He can restore moral and strategic clarity to American foreign policy, devising and implementing clear, credible, reliable criterial for distinguishing friends from foes, threat from opportunities. He can reverse Obama’s imprudent policy that has made it safer to be an American adversary than an American ally. President Trump can treat an illiberal China’s drive or hegemony in East Asia, Putin’s aspiration to reverse the outcome of the Cold War, and Iran’s drive to impose a Shiite caliphate on the Middle East as the paramount dangers to putting America first — rather than his predecessor’s prioritization of global warming and the arrogance of American power. He can embrace rather than apologize for American exceptionalism.

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Trump vows to defeat rather than deny or rationalize the threat of radical Islam. He vows to abrogate rather than embrace a deal with Iran at our expense that will trigger a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region. He vows to rebuild rather than dismantle the American military vital to vindicate the national interest and ensure even a modicum of provisional justice in international politics. He has designated an ambassador to Israel committed to ensuring the survival of a decent, democratic Jewish ally with defensible rather than suicidal borders.

Trump has called out rather than coddled an increasingly illiberal, arrogant, belligerent China for its predatory behavior. He has appointed a “mad dog” as secretary of defense rather than a poodle as secretary of state. If Trump also heeds the wise advice of his best advisers about Putin being an enemy requiring robust deterrence, including thwarting his ambitions to subvert Ukraine’s independence — the United States will have taken the necessary first steps to making America secure again.

So far, Sun Tzu would give Trump generally good marks for knowing both our enemies and ourselves.

Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”

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