WASHINGTON – In the past two weeks, President Donald Trump has notched a string of diplomatic wins he’s highlighting with voters in the run-up to the election, but his report card on the most serious threats to U.S. national security shows an “incomplete.”
The Trump administration will host the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on Tuesday at the White House, where the two nations will formally recognize Israel. Trump officials also brokered an economic cooperation agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, bitter foes in the Balkan wars. And Trump has moved to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and held U.S. talks with the Taliban, which paved the way for fragile all-Afghan peace negotiations that began last weekend.
While acknowledging that these are all positive developments, William Wechsler, director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs, said they must be weighed against a much more “negative” set of actions by the president.
Among those he cites: deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin; the president's love-hate relationship with China; refraining from heavily punishing Saudi Arabia for the gruesome killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and pushing U.S. relations with Europe to a low ebb.
On some of the most troublesome national security challenges facing America — nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea — Trump has failed to make deals. And the pro-Israel agreements with the UAE and Bahrain leave the far more contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict as intractable as ever.
The White House, for its part, casts Trump's recent flurry of foreign policy activity as evidence that long-sought initiatives are coming to fruition. It dismisses the idea he's trying to distract voters from matters such as the president's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, racial unrest and the struggling economy.
“He’s not running on his foreign policy,” Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner told White House reporters last week. “He’s running on his track record as the president who built the greatest economy in our country and somebody who’s going to keep Americans safe and continue to get things done for them.”
Kushner helped broker the UAE and Bahrain agreements, which the White House has labeled the most significant steps toward peace in the Middle East in more than a quarter-century.
Trump critics and experts in the region say that's an overstatement because relations between some Arab nations and Israel already had been thawing over their common opposition to Iran and Tehran's aggression in the Mideast.
Trump disagrees, saying the deals change the dynamics in the region. He predicts that other Arab nations will normalize relations with Israel and that the Palestinians will change their hardline stance against Israel. With an eye to recently being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Trump says the deals are the beginning of a movement that will lead to peace in the Middle East.
“I think that so many great things are going to happen. ... I think the Palestinians are going to end up doing something that’s going to be very smart for them," Trump said last week. “All their friends are coming into this, and they want to come into it — they want to come into it very badly.”
That's far from certain. Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior Palestinian official, called the Bahrain and UAE moves to normalize relations with Israel a “stab in the back” to the Palestinian people and their rights.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said he was “gratified” by the UAE announcement. He said it builds on multiple administrations' efforts seeking broader engagement between Israel and the Arab world. Biden supports a two-state solution to the long-running Israel-Palestinian conflict and has accused both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders of intransigence.
As for problems with Iran and North Korea that have bedeviled presidents for decades, Trump ‘s message is: Just reelect him and he'll solve them.
“If and when we win, we will make deals with Iran very quickly. We’ll make deals with North Korea very quickly,” Trump said last month. “Every one of them will make a deal with us very quickly."
New reports this month from the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency show that both Iran and North Korea have continued to develop their nuclear programs, a sign that the threats have not abated and potentially have gotten worse.
Since Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, he’s stepped up economic pressure against Iran and killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Iraq. Tehran, however, has continued to expand its stockpile of enriched uranium, while insisting it does not want to develop a nuclear weapon.
Biden said he’d re-engage with Iran on the nuclear deal that Trump jettisoned and look to craft a new multilateral agreement that would extend the original limitations on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, provided Tehran is willing to cooperate on inspections.
Trump also has not made progress in getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program despite three high-profile meetings with Kim Jong Un. The IAEA says North Korea appears to still be enriching uranium, which could potentially be used in a nuclear weapon.
Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said things currently are calm with North Korea, but Pyongyang has a tendency to dial up pressure during U.S. presidential election seasons. About a month after President Barack Obama was elected, North Korea conducted a long-range missile test and then a nuclear test.
“If North Korea behaves true to form, then we should expect to see some sort of provocations -- maybe not before but after the election,” Cha said.
Also on the nuclear front, the Trump administration has not finalized any deal to replace or extend the last remaining U.S.-Russia arms control agreement. Trump had been waiting to see if he could persuade China to do a three-way agreement, but Beijing expressed no interest. If the treaty expires in early February, there would be no restraints on U.S. or Russian nuclear weapons — the two largest arsenals in the world.