Zakaria: The disaster of Trump's knowledge-free foreign policy

Updated 10/18/2019 6:39 PM


NEW YORK -- Has there ever been a foreign policy move that has produced more crises more quickly? Regardless of whether the cease fire holds -- the Turks describe it as a 'pause' in their operations -- President Donald Trump has allowed Turkey to unleash its forces on Syria, resulting in the abandonment of the Syrian Kurds and the empowerment of Bashar Assad, Vladimir Putin and the Islamic Republic of Iran.


Trump was acceding to Turkey's wishes, but now he has also poisoned America's relations with that country. He has hit Ankara with sanctions and threatened to "totally destroy and obliterate" its economy. The U.S. military had to bomb its own weapons stockpiles to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands and airlift troops as the forces of Turkey -- a NATO ally -- moved in.

Washington's allies in the region have been dumbfounded by the move; Republicans in Washington, normally slavishly supportive of the president, have denounced it harshly; and American soldiers have expressed deep revulsion at the betrayal of the Kurds. On Oct. 9, Trump urged his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not to invade Syria, in a letter so poorly written that many initially thought it was a parody. Erdogan launched the operation anyway.

Trump's moves in Syria are part of a Middle Eastern policy that, as Martin Indyk explains in Foreign Affairs, is in total disarray. Indyk, who has held virtually every senior Middle East job in the U.S. government, describes how, in case after case, the Trump administration dispensed with regional experts, reversed long-standing policy and assumed that its knowledge-free approach would yield innovative new results. "In fact," says Indyk, the administration "understands so little about how the Middle East actually works that its bungling efforts have been a failure across the board. As so often in the past, the cynical locals are manipulating a clueless outsider, advancing their personal agendas at the naive Americans' expense.

"Almost three years into his term, Trump has nothing to show for his efforts to counter Iran or promote peace in the Middle East. Instead, his policies have fueled the conflict between Iran and Israel, alienated the Palestinians, supported an unending war and a humanitarian crisis in Yemen and split the Gulf Cooperation Council, possibly permanently."

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The policy toward Syria does seem particularly unhinged, but it is actually part of a pattern of erratic moves elsewhere. Trump's initial approach to North Korea was to dispatch three aircraft carriers close to its borders and threaten "fire and fury like the world has never seen."

Within months, he was summiting with Kim Jong Un, whom he praised lavishly, and announced that they were "in love." He canceled joint military exercises with South Korea -- claiming that they were too expensive anyway -- and seemed willing to withdraw American troops from the country. Since North Korea never really reciprocated with policy concessions, the love affair seems on hold.

Policy toward Iran is similarly erratic. Overruling his secretaries of state and defense, he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and then ratcheted up pressure on Iran by tightening sanctions and designating its Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Tehran has responded by violating some of the deal's nuclear restrictions and lashing out across the Middle East -- downing a U.S. drone, attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and striking Saudi oil facilities.

Confronted by this pushback, Trump refused to retaliate militarily and even flirted with the possibility of meeting with Iran's president. In fact, tensions continue to rise with no resolution in sight.


The hallmark of Trump's foreign policy is a disdain for experts and professionals and a lack of interest in history or past policy. When asked during the campaign to name experts whom he consulted on foreign policy, he replied, "My primary consultant is myself."

The policies we are witnessing from Ukraine to the Middle East are a direct consequence of the triumph of gut over brain, of emotion over intelligence and of personal ambition over national interest. And some of the pushback in recent weeks has been the revolt of experts, finally fed up with the mess.

Watching the Syria debacle, one cannot help but think of F. Scott Fitzgerald's description of two rich, arrogant and intellectually uncurious characters in "The Great Gatsby":

"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

© 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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