The most startling quote from President Trump’s notably vituperous press conference last week was not his jousting with the press the way Nixon, in his last days, had jousted with the likes of Dan Rather. Instead, it was the remark that provided the New York Times with its headline the next day: “I inherited a mess”. This was not one of Trump’s many lies. Rather, it showed just how bad his judgment is on foreign policy, even if there are many voters who agreed with him about a point he had been making since the Eighties, which is that the government makes disastrous foreign policy choices all the time. For Trump, gloom and doom is a reflex reaction; for the population as a whole, I take it, it is because they have such a short term memory that they forget how bad things have been and also have a very poor imagination for conceiving just how very bad they could become again.
Actually, the foreign relations of the United States are in better shape than they have been at least since before 9/11, and whether Bill Clinton (and Madeleine Albright) could pull off moving the borders of Eastern Europe all the way back to the Russian border was not at all clear, and so the post Soviet decade before 9/11 was more dicey than we now remember it. Boris Yeltsin was a very difficult person to manage. So you have to look back to the Twenties, which is a hundred years ago, for a comparatively peaceful period, although that decade was just a hiatus in the Long War of the Twentieth Century that included the two World Wars and the Cold War.
Look at what Obama accomplished. He began with two wars, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, and at odds with his European allies, those mostly having disapproved of the invasion of Iraq. To use a now popular term, he reset his relation with the Arab world in his Cairo speech and did that as well with the Europeans. After scuffling with his own generals for a few years over what to do in Afghanistan, he left behind only token troops to help the Afghans in their war with the Taliban, and kept those adversaries at bay for the duration of his two terms. He kept the United States out of Syria, which would have turned into a quagmire, insisting only that Assad get rid of chemical weapons, which he did only reluctantly when told by the Russians that Obama meant business about this issue. Obama was forced to respond to ISIS when it overran large parts of Iraq and Syria, and did so by a combination of measures that proved more successful than anything George W. Bush had done. Obama used special forces and other advisors to help a refit Iraqi Army which quickly proved a match for ISIS, which was indeed a JV team in that its military ambitions far overshadowed its military capabilities. ISIS is now on the run, holding on to parts of Mosul and to the ISIS capital of Raqqa, from both of which it will probably be dislodged in the next six months, the territory divided up between Sunnis and Kurds and so without an American occupation force to draw the ire of any enemy troops still in the field or else to become the object of new unrest.
The proof of this assertion that Obama’s foreign policy has led to a period of relative tranquility, disturbed only by the operations against ISIS, is what has happened during the past month, which is nothing. The adversaries of the United States are not in a position to take advantage of the fact that the national security apparatus is in disarray, no one leading the National Security Council and most of its positions unfilled, not because of Democratic opposition but because Trump has not found names to fill the slots and also because many professionals have preferred to return to their home agencies rather than cope with the chaos at the agency. Yes, North Korea has greeted the new administration with a missile launching, but that is the way it greets every new administration. The Chinese have not done anything provocative in the South China Sea, perhaps because they do not want to endanger long term and stable trade relations with the United States, preferring to bide their time about expanding their control over what they regard as their natural sphere of influence until the Trump Administration settles down or goes away. Mexico and the Europeans adopt the same posture. Let Trump quibble with his own people about whether there should be a fence or a wall, and whether it should be paid for by tariffs that would cost American consumers money because of increasing prices for goods imported from abroad. The European immigration crisis has abated because of the agreement with Turkey to stop exporting immigrants, and so liberal or traditionally conservative European governments may be able to weather the storm of this year’s elections, what with their xenophobic candidates.
Of course, something may explode. The George W. Bush White House was not well prepared to deal with 9/11 even though that took place far further into his first term, warnings of the intelligence community disregarded. But there are mighty few at the head of the Trump ship who could take charge in a real emergency. Hope the Obama stability lasts long enough for Mike Pence, who at least seems responsible on foreign policy matters, however radical he is on domestic and social issues, to take charge.