The resignation of General Michael Flynn is a clear sign that the new administration’s policies are still in a fluid state. However, out of the current fog, comes some identifiable directions and trends. After several weeks, focused on filling the new Cabinet through Senate confirmation hearings and fulfilling some initial campaign promises through Executive Orders, the Trump Administration has settled down to the more durable and challenging task of formulating long-term policies. In some instances, this has involved more serious deliberations and early actions on crucial national security and foreign policy issues.
In his first Executive Order as President, Donald Trump ordered Defense Secretary James Mattis to conduct a 30-day review of the US war strategy against the Islamic State (ISIL) and Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq. That initial study will be completed within a couple of weeks, and until the study has been presented to the President and the National Security Council, the United States will maintain the current combat profile, centered on the ongoing siege of Mosul and the preparations for the assault upon the ISIL capital of Raqqa in Syria.
After an initial telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump has also put further deliberations on US-Russia relations on hold, pending plans for a first face-to-face summit meeting with the Russian leader sometime in the “next months.” President Putin was quoted proposing the he and President Trump could meet in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.
Some of President Trump’s top advisers, including Defense Secretary Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, have expressed greater caution about the “reset” of relations with Moscow, but Trump continues to insist that he has great “respect” for Putin.
While the actual reset of US-Russian relations remains in limbo for the moment, President Trump made a major move to put United States relations with China on solid ground. This came about through a series of well-timed and effective diplomatic signals from the White House, culminating in a February 9, 2017 lengthy telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The US-China relationship is one of the most important strategic topics on the foreign policy of the US. China reacted harshly, when President-elect Trump took a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and subsequently sent out a twitter message that he might reconsider the longstanding “flexible one China” policy, maintained by every American President since Richard Nixon and the initial opening to China. As the result of that pronouncement, there was no personal communication between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping since Xi called to congratulate Trump on his victory. And some key Trump advisers, including White House Trade Council chairman Peter Navarro and Special Assistant to the President Steven Miller, have advocated tough new trade sanctions, including high tariffs, against Chinese goods coming into the United States.
But other leading Trump advisers persuaded the President to take a different approach to one of the most important bilateral relationships. The shift began right after Rex Tillerson’s confirmation as Secretary of State. Tillerson urged the President to announce that the US would maintain its “flexible one China” policy. Presidential adviser Jared Kushner backed Tillerson. Before his resignation, and precisely on February 3, National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn held a phone conversation with Chinese State Counselor Yang Jiechi, China’s most important foreign policy adviser to President Xi. The same day, Kushner met privately with China’s Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai; and later in the day, his wife, First Daughter Ivanka, and their daughter Arabella, attended the Lunar New Year celebration at the Chinese embassy. Arabella stole the show when she recited a Chinese poem in near-perfect Mandarin.
The White House announced on February 8 that the President had sent a letter to President Xi Jinping, congratulating China on the New Year, which was then released to the public. That letter was hand-delivered to Ambassador Cui by National Security Adviser Flynn and Deputy National Security Adviser K.D. McFarland, a one-time aide to Dr. Henry Kissinger.
On the morning of February 9, 2017, Rex Tillerson, one week on the job as Secretary of State, met privately with President Trump at the White House and the two men agreed that the President would announce that the Administration would adhere to the one-China policy. That night, the lengthy telephone call with President Xi took place.
The timing of the Trump-Xi call was precise. It came one day before President Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House and then at his Florida Mar a-Lago resort. Had the US-China relationship remained frozen as the Trump-Abe meeting took place, it would have been read as a strong anti-China statement. Instead, during a brief press availability following the White House Trump-Abe meeting, the US President made clear that he saw no conflict between good US-China relations and a strong US-Japan partnership. He emphasized that such a positive trilateral collaboration benefits everyone in the Asia-Pacific region.
Top Trump aides also made clear, during the Abe visit, that the new Administration has no objections to improved Japan-Russia relations. President Barack Obama had pressured Prime Minister Abe to cancel his scheduled mid-2016 visit to Sochi, Russia to meet with Putin during an April 2016 summit meeting on nuclear arms control in Washington.
At the same time, during a visit to Asia, involving stops in Tokyo, Seoul and Bangkok, Defense Secretary Mattis made clear that the US fully maintained the security partnership with the two Asian states, and would work closely with both nations to prevent North Korea from starting a war in Northeast Asia. While taking a strong stand on behalf of the security partnership, Secretary Mattis also made clear that the US had no immediate plans to boost US forces in the South China Sea or the Persian Gulf, in response to Chinese and Iranian aggressions.
The reopening of talks with China was handled with a degree of diplomatic finesse that Trump critics would have deemed impossible. It also demonstrated that the President, while holding strong personal views on a wide range of national security issues, including trade and economic issues, is willing to listen to his top Cabinet officers and modify the Administration’s positions, based on sound logic and informed opinion. He earlier pledged to Defense Secretary Mattis that he would defer to the retired Four Star Marine General’s judgments on vital military policy issues, including the use of harsh interrogation methods that exceed the Uniform Code of Military Conduct.
President Trump also has made clear that he is intent on repairing the US-Saudi relationship, which was badly damaged by President Obama’s overtures to Iran and general approach to the Middle East, even beyond the signing of the P5+1 agreement. In 2009, when mass protests erupted throughout Iran, following tainted elections, President Obama refused to give any support to the Green Movement, even after re-elected President Ahmadinejad ordered a brutal crackdown. That failure, as well as President Obama’s refusal to give support in early 2011 to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, when mass protests erupted in Cairo and Alexandria, further damaged the US image throughout Arab capitals.
On February 12, President Trump’s new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo visited Riyadh, following a Friday visit to Turkey, to give the George Tenet Medal to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in recognition of his “excellent intelligence performance, in the domain of counter-terrorism and his unbound contribution to realize world security and peace”. Prince bin Nayef has led the Kingdom’s war against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and he survived an Al Qaeda assassination attempt in 2009.
The Pompeo trip was aimed at sounding out key US Middle East allies on the regional situation and the revised US plans in that area.