Dear President-Elect Trump:         

Your surprise election as president will do more to shake up the political landscape than any other event in the post-World War II period, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan’s selection as president in the November 1980 election. The impact of the 2016 election may well be greatest on matters of foreign and military affairs, where the U.S. president necessarily has the greatest influence and control over operations.

The current presidential dominance in foreign affairs was no part of the original Constitution, which envisioned a more active role for Congress in checking the president. But two factors have combined to consolidate this shift in power. First, the practical need for expedition in response to foreign challenges gives an enormous advantage to a sitting president who is always in office, compared to a Congress that often is out of session. Second, Congress can be two houses divided against itself, such that it cannot formulate a consistent position on foreign affairs that either supports or opposes the president. Individual members of Congress know in their bones that they will be hurt politically in their home states no matter what position they take on military intervention, so they prefer to sit back and let the president do what he wants, only to happily hold him politically accountable if something goes wrong. The cost is often a loss of bipartisan consensus, which leads to excessive adventurism or excessive passivity abroad from an unchecked president.

In this environment, President Obama asserted dominance in the foreign policy arena, and, frankly, made something of a mess of it. To be sure, he was the Commander-in-Chief, but all too often he overrode the judgment of his military personnel, notwithstanding their greater aptitude, knowledge, and experience in these matters. You should not be slavish in accepting their advice, but should at least set a strong presumption on matters of strategy. Ruling out the use of ground forces led Obama to make serious errors in judgments. His mistakes in office have left you with two major deficits.

The first of these is a weakened military establishment incapable of working in multiple theaters at the same time. But no diplomatic effort will be credible unless the United States has some military presence to back it up. Keep the military weak, and it is more likely that provocations by others—not unlike the Russian move in Ukraine—will be called into action. On this score, therefore, I agree with your stated position of “increasing the number of active Army soldiers (from 490,000 to 540,000), growing the number of Marine Corps battalions (from 23 to 36), building up the Navy (from roughly 270 ships to 350), and expanding the number of Air Force fighter aircraft (from roughly 1,100 to 1,200).” Doing this will require some very radical revisions of current manpower and procurement policies, which are long overdue in any event.

The second deficit is the total loss of credibility with our allies based on our systematic inability to back threats with action. Obama’s empty threat over the Syrian “red line” constituted a serious loss in at least three ways. First, it ensured the Syrian conflict would continue unabated with senseless loss of life, and with greater Russian intervention, which somehow did not amount to the “quagmire” that Obama warned Putin would happen. It is amazing the degrees of freedom a tyrant like Putin can have in foreign affairs if he is willing to slaughter innocent people. Second, the Syrian escapade made it clear to our allies that the United States could not be counted on to keep its word when the going got tough, thus requiring them work out a set of fragile alliances, such as the quiet cooperation between the Israelis, Saudis, and Egyptians to preserve their vital interests, in ways that could only increase the odds of some brushfire war that could escalate into a major conflict, as with the struggle between the Turks and Kurds. And third, it emboldens our enemies to take aggressive steps around the world, confident that we do not have the willingness to stop them.

The actions of Putin in Ukraine, the Chinese in the South China Sea, and Iran in the Middle East, including buzzing American naval craft, are all powerful evidence of the loss of American influence around the globe. The situation is especially difficult with respect to ISIS, given the president’s refusal to commit ground forces in the area, thereby prolonging a conflict that shows no sign of coming to a quick end, even if the United States and its allies are likely to prevail. But in the seemingly interminable meantime, Obama’s dilatory policies have resulted in enormous loss of life, and the displacement of millions of refugees that has put political pressure on all our allies in Europe and the Middle East.

Nonetheless, you play the hand you are dealt, which means you have far fewer attractive options than those which were open to Barack Obama when he became president in 2009. By way of example, there was, to be sure, the massive Bush blunder to freeze out the Baathists in Iraq in the aftermath of 2003. But Bush did recover the lost ground through the Petraeus-led surge that brought some long-needed stability to Iraq by the end of 2008, which in turn was frittered away when the United States failed to renew its status of forces agreement in 2011. You now inherit the Obama failure. The knowledge gap in foreign affairs is far greater, so knowing what to do next is necessarily a daunting problem for the outsider. Even so, it is possible to articulate key reform possibilities in major world theaters with some conviction.

First, the Iran nuclear deal has to be rethought and renegotiated. The trade-off in that particular agreement was that the United States and its motley collection of cosignatories—Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany, plus the European Union— would trust unverified statements from the Iranians that they would dismantle their nuclear program in the short run. But in the meantime, Iran continues to sow mischief around the world, often financed with funds from the additional revenues made available to them by the lifting of sanctions. It is exceedingly difficult to return to the status quo ante, given that the network of sanctions in place prior to the deal has been shredded by actions since it was put into place, with at most minority support in the United States Senate and the country at large. The “good” news is that this treaty was reduced in status to an executive agreement that you are in a position to renounce or modify. Initially, modification is the better approach as your administration has to push back hard, cut off funds to Iran, and demand inspection rights over the program, as well as human rights reforms inside the country—an issue on which Obama was inexplicably far too weak.

In addition, the best form of economic warfare (to use a not-so-tactful term) is to gain allies overseas by entering into trade deals with them. These deals should, in addition to their economic benefits, improve diplomatic cooperation, which in turn could lead to a more coherent foreign policy with stronger alliances. Most urgently, with respect to Iran, you should unilaterally open the spigot on the sale of American oil, natural gas, and clean coal to the rest of the world. Putting on sanctions will invite the Iranians to find clandestine sources of supply from other nations, Russia included, for which they will pay premium prices.

But these same self-interested nations will not turn down low-cost, high-quality supplies in order to entrench the Iranian government. The U.S. firms can sell their product at a profit overseas, so the threat to Iran, and indeed Russia, is long term. If there are adverse consequences to our allies, such as Saudi Arabia, direct forms of military support can be used to offset their revenue losses while strengthening our political hand. The whole purpose here is to avoid using military force to take out the Iranian efforts, but on that score we have to make it clear that so long as no verification takes place, the United States will not categorically oppose Israeli efforts to neutralize the threat. The Iranians need to face a bit of uncertainty.

Second, the successful recalibration of the Iranian nuclear situation should do much to restore some semblance of stability to the rest of the Middle East. Once Iran no longer poses an existential threat to Israel, it should be possible to continue to secure serious gains in the rest of the Middle East, especially with Israeli-Palestinian relations. The first step in this regard is to abandon the chicken-without-a-head negotiating style of Secretary of State John Kerry, who never learned the simple lesson that if you bring neither gifts nor threats to the bargaining table, no one will pay the slightest attention to your private pleas or public pronouncements. But in this instance, we do have a clear message, which is that we shall support the maintenance of the unhappy status quo ante for the foreseeable future.

The great advantage of the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005 was that it proved that it would be suicidal for Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank. Israel was correct, in my view, to think that it could not maintain control over 1.3 million Palestinians in order to preserve the fragile position of 8,500 Jewish settlers. But the bloody and costly wars with Hamas, most recently in 2014, make it clear, first, that there will be no hope of a permanent peace settlement so long as Hamas remains in power, ready to strike again if the opportunity presents itself. To turn the West Bank over to Fatah is an open invitation for Hamas to take control there as well, as soon as the next election or coup takes place. A resurgent Hamas or its allies could then invite in foreign troops, most notably from Iran, in order to force Israel to maintain a permanent mobilization of forces that could destroy its economic strength. The American position should condition all aid to the Palestinians in the West Bank on an increased amount of low-level cooperation between the two sides that would ensure the maximum amount of Palestinian self-government consistent with Israeli security. And on the vexed position of the Israeli settlements, the United States should seek a return to Elliott Abrams’ agreement that was effectively scuttled by Hillary Clinton in June 2009 shortly after she began her term as Secretary of State. Given the relatively stable situations in Egypt and Jordan, a return to that status quo should be an achievable short-term objective.

Third, the situation in Europe has to be shored up. American troops and tanks have to return to the Baltics and Poland. The various nations under NATO have to be explicitly reminded of their obligations of mutual aid and support under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, namely that an “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”—one that justifies the use of force in defense until the United Nations intervenes, which given Russia's veto power in the Security Council, means never.

American resolve can be built up only if you have a clear-eyed view that Putin is, as Paul Gregory always reminds us, an evil man who is all too willing to subjugate, torment, starve, and kill his own people in order to secure Russian regional dominance while lining his own pockets with vast wealth. Putin has played Obama for a child in virtually every arena, and that has to stop. Moving first avoids the mistake that the United States has made in Syria and Iraq, and it puts us in a position to demand more from our European allies, most of whom have not met their own NATO target of spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on national defense. The issue involves both tact and firmness, but if the status quo remains, Putin with his usual sly cunning and public bombast will move to fill the void.

Fourth, the situation in the South China Sea needs to be addressed immediately. Over the past ten years, China has become far more lawless, and its unilateralism against its neighbors will be rewarded unless it is effectively countered. Right now, the leadership on this issue seems to be in the joint efforts by Japan and India to develop some alliance to counter the manifestly illegal actions of the Chinese of using the artificial construction of a fake island to claim control of large expanses of international waters. The situation has become more complex because recently elected populist President Rodrigo Duterte may lead the Philippines in a pivot away from the United States to China, that could cause other nations to follow suit. The question is whether he would have done so if the United States had projected a stronger image. The United States has to continue patrolling in areas where the Chinese claim dominance, and do so with sufficient force so that we once again become a credible ally and a formidable foe.

In dealing with these issues, I have not mentioned a word about your selection of Secretaries of State and of Defense, although both are critical to the overall success of the operation. But if these principles are close to correct, the policy principles should help guide the selection of the key leaders needed for the restoration of American credibility in foreign and military affairs. The stakes are too high to permit serious blunders.

Sincerely yours,

Richard A. Epstein


overlay image