Four weeks after his inauguration, President Donald Trump seemingly manages to make big news by the minute.
During his unlikely rise to leader of the free world, he’s also promised to restore America’s global prestige.
How’s he doing so far?
A panel of four experts debated this question Thursday night at the University of Denver’s Newman Center, sponsored by the Counter Terrorism Education Learning Lab (CELL), a Denver-based non-profit focused on security issues.
ISIS, Israel and Iran
President Trump has promised to make eliminating ISIS a priority, support Israel and challenge Iran.
The four experts, who’ve all worked in high level national security jobs in several different presidential administrations, agree these are among the stickiest foreign policy problems to solve.
Juan Zarate, former deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism during the George W. Bush administration, says the global challenge is bigger than ISIS.
“I worry about what comes next,” he said.
Michele Flournoy, President Barack Obama’s undersecretary of defense, is concerned about what she sees as erratic messaging from the Trump administration about its foreign policy initiatives. “Unpredictability on the part of the United States is not a strategic asset,” she said.
Christopher Hill, dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at DU and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, was concerned about President Trump’s recent suggestion that he was OK with either a one or two state solution to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Thinking out loud is a nice thing but you have to be a little careful,” Hill said.
Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff to CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta during the Obama administration, credited the new president for two stances.
“Getting tough on Iran is right and standing by Israel is right,” Bash said.
But he’s concerned about the way the Trump administration has operated in the month since it started governing the country.
“I think the mode might be chaos,” Bash said. “Believe me, a real crisis is going to happen. When it does you don’t want chaos to be the mode to respond to it.”
Bash was most concerned about President Trump’s handling of Russia during his campaign and the early days of his presidency.
“He has at every turn refused to criticize Vladimir Putin. Something is going on,” he said.
Flournoy joined many in the country who’ve called for a thorough investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. election.
“What exactly did they do and why?” Flournoy asked.
Bash answered by saying, “They wanted America to back off and it worked. They got what they wanted.”
He was referring to increasingly aggressive actions by Russia including its 2014 incursion into Ukraine, which the Obama administration spoke out against but didn’t meet with any military response.
All the experts agreed that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal for his foreign policy strategy is returning Russia to its previous place as a powerful nation, which has been in decline since the fall of the USSR in 1991.
“He’s going to make Russia great again,” Flournoy said, echoing a major slogan of President Trump’s successful 2016 campaign.
Hill agreed for calls to get to the bottom of Russian involvement in the U.S. election but also underscored the need to get along with Russia.
“There does need to be some effort at diplomacy,” he said.
Perhaps most sobering of all is Hill’s belief that North Korea will have nuclear weapons at its disposal within four years.
“There are no good options for dealing with North Korea,” Hill said.
But the best of a bad set of choices is to push China to rein in their communist neighbor and see if the U.S. has any “tricks in the bag” to slow down North Korea’s effort to create a functional nuclear arsenal.
While all four experts expressed concern about the Trump administration, they also see signs of hope. “You’ve already seen learning,” Zarate said, pointing out that the president has already agreed to defer to his appointees on the subject of the U.S. use of torture, even though he personally thinks it’s OK.
But Zarate also sees more turbulence ahead for U.S. foreign policy.
“It’s going to be rocky,” he said.