Blackwill report shines a light on the dark corners of Trump's foreign policy

An exhaustive study by a highly respected US expert raises questions as to who is making the real decisions in the White House

The White House in Washington DC.

Shortly before Robert Mueller's report was made public the Council on Foreign Relations published a document by Robert Blackwill, titled Trump's Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem. Mr Blackwill used a scale of A to F grades to evaluate US foreign policy on 18 points. These includes China, North Korea and Russia to the Middle East, Venezuela, trade and climate change treaties.

In an interview with Fox News late last year, Mr Trump gave himself an A+ rating. He has also described himself as a “stable genius” on Twitter. But the report gave him a D+ based on his “realistic approaches to China and the greater Middle East”. In truth, this is a higher grade that anything the US media and national security experts would give him.

So, if the US president really is reckless, naive and ill-informed, who is drafting those “realistic” policies? Are they improvised and personal, or are they being collectively drawn up by the Trump administration? How does this affect the relationship with the US of allies and foes alike? Is the world safer or being placed in danger by Mr Trump’s leadership?

Mr Blackwill is considered a brilliant US foreign policy mandarin. He served under both Bush administrations, as special assistant for European and Soviet affairs, director for European affairs at the National Security Council, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, and was US ambassador to India from 2001 to 2003. He cites contributions by foreign policy veterans including Henry Kissinger and Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haas, but concludes that the analysis and findings of the report are “my responsibility alone”.

He states that the Trump presidency is “chaotic” and that his character is “flawed”, yet Mr Trump has adopted “breakthrough” policies, including those in China and the Middle East, as the report states. Mr Trump does not co-ordinate with, consult, or even notify his rapidly changing team in the administration, yet we do not know whether history will remember him for strategic advances with China, Russia, or relations with Europe.

While Mr Trump has repeatedly thrown a spanner in relations with European allies in Nato, he has remarkably shored up defence capabilities on the continent, and this is one of many examples of incoherence in policy that the report cites. Russia is another example. While Mr Trump got an F grade from Mr Blackwill for his Russia policy – the report criticising him for seeing no danger from Russia – he has still fortified Ukraine in the nation's backyard.

Mr Trump received an F for his performance, decision making and use of Twitter to announce important policies. The report says “finding any attractive feature of Donald Trump’s personality is difficult … His views on women and people of colour are a disgrace … He bullies … He makes fun of the disabled … He slurs the reputations of those who have worked loyally for him”.

Is the world safer or being placed in danger by Mr Trump's leadership?

Mr Trump’s personality clearly causes embarrassment for many Americans and concerns for foreign leaders. He “has insulted many of the leaders of America’s closest friends, including Emmanuel Macron of France, Angela Merkel of Germany, and Theresa May of the United Kingdom, but at the same time, he has regularly praised autocrats”. Despite all this, what ultimately matters, according to Mr Blackwill, is the effectiveness of US policies and their compatibility with national interests.

The report addresses in detail US policy in the Middle East, especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Israel.

Mr Blackwill has controversial views in parts of his report. A key example is the issue of Mr Trump's announcement of his intention to pull US troops from Syria in a now-infamous tweet, which triggered the resignation of then Defence Secretary James Mattis. Mr Blackwill believes Mr Trump was right, that keeping US forces in Syria puts them at risk, that state-building in faraway places has failed, and that protecting Syrian Kurds from the regime of Bashar Al Assad or Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan must not be high on the US agenda.

Regarding the Russian and Iranian presence in Syria, Mr Blackwill writes: “Iran and Russia are in Syria to stay, and the United States can do nothing about it.” He acknowledges that pulling troops from places such as Syria and Afghanistan carries risks, but that “systematically avoiding such incalculables is a recipe for sclerotic policies that cling to the status quo far past their effectiveness”.

Mr Blackwill gave Mr Trump a B+ for his Syria policy and C for his Iran policy. While he supports the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, Mr Blackwill implicitly criticised what he described as Mr Trump’s “regime change” policy in Iran, expressing concern that the US may have to take military action against Iranian nuclear sites, if Tehran resumes its military nuclear activities.

Mr Blackwill adds that the situation in the Middle East requires the president “to find a strategic compass to chart the way in the decade ahead, but such an enduring approach to any issue is not Trump’s strength”.

He also writes: “Saudi Arabia needs the United States at least as much as the United States needs it … this mutual dependence is an enduring strength of the bilateral relationship.”

Mr Trump's policy on the Kingdom gets a B+ from Mr Blackwill – the same as his relationship with Israel. But Mr Blackwill is concerned about the possibility of war between Israel and Iran that could drag in the United States. He gives his full blessing to Mr Trump's unrelenting support for Israel, agrees with his move to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem, but expresses concern over the implications of US support for the Israeli policy of annexing the Golan and other territories. He also recognises that "diplomacy is not a tool of President Trump's foreign policy".

The report is remarkable, citing 356 references to back up its conclusions. It is a necessary reading of the mysteries of US foreign policy making, and how it is shaped by the moods of a president who refuses to listen to anyone but himself. It also raises the important question of whether Mr Trump is really behind these policies, or whether the establishment beyond his administration has a hidden, yet immensely influential hand, and perhaps even a final say?

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National