On the world stage, many foreign policy experts say President Donald Trump has slashed and burned his way through international agreements and commitments on climate change, trade, troop deployments, public health, nuclear weapons and more.
But for the mother of an American hostage held overseas, the outgoing U.S. president has been exactly the global “advocate and ally” she’s needed.
“Obviously there’s only one measure of success in this situation, and we haven’t had it yet because Austin is not home,” said Debra Tice, speaking about her son, a 39-year-old former U.S. Marine who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 while working as a journalist. He has not been heard from since.
However, U.S. officials believe the Texan is alive and likely in the custody of either the Syrian government or a government-aligned militia. Trump has taken an active interest in the case and sent presidential envoys to Damascus to engage directly with President Bashar Assad’s regime, most recently in August, when Trump’s representatives discussed Tice’s disappearance with the head of Syria’s intelligence agency.
Tice said her family’s contact with U.S. officials during the Obama administration was dominated by “a constant shuffling of the cards” – being passed from official to official without clear purpose, and with little apparent strategy to secure her son’s release. By contrast, she said, Trump has made “Austin’s release a very high priority. He really has in his heart an intolerance for Americans being held against their will.”
An American is detained or goes missing abroad:What happens next? Call Trump?
A complicated record
Trump got a “hell of a lot more” wrong than he got right, said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. diplomat and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
He threatened war with North Korea and Iran, and picked trade fights with Canada. He publicly attacked American allies and praised ruthless dictators. And as he leaves office, many fear he is ordering a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan that will come back to haunt the next administration.
The U.S. on Sunday formally withdrew from the Treaty on Open Skies, an agreement that allowed Russia and 34 participating nations to carry out reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories. It was intended to reduce the risk of an accidental war.
In Trump’s waning days:Pentagon to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Iraq
But some foreign policy experts, ex-diplomats and even Trump’s harshest opponents concede that for all of his “America First” nationalism and unorthodox style, Trump’s various overseas initiatives have produced limited, qualified successes.
Streamlining the way American hostage cases are handled and improving communications with families is one such example, according to Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has spent decades trying to bring home Americans wrongfully held overseas.
Regarding NATO, Trump undermined the military alliance viewed for decades as integral for U.S. and European security. He made a point of truculently calling out rich allies who for years have failed to meet their share of NATO spending. Many, in fact, had been increasing their contributions before Trump’s presidency.
But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has credited Trump’s relentless complaints about the issue with having an impact.
Trump’s Israel policy has been criticized for measures that deeply favored Israelis over Palestinians, such as moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Palestinians also claim as part of their future capital.
But Trump also presided over historic “normalization” agreements signed between some Arab states and Israel.
“We have to give credit where credit is due,” said Shira Efron, a Tel Aviv-based policy advisor for the Israel Policy Forum, an American Jewish organization that works for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We can fault Trump for mismanaging the public relations around it. We can question his motivations,” Efron added, mentioning that the deals are linked to arms sales. “But it is possible these agreements could be the start of something positive for the Middle East.”
‘Getting tougher on China’
While Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including his continuing alienation of China, has been criticized, other moves were necessary and there are areas where Trump is deserving of more credit, some analysts and experts say.
“In certain areas I think his instincts were right,” said Lewis Lukens, who spent three decades in the U.S. foreign service, including stints as the U.S. ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau and as the acting ambassador to the United Kingdom. Lukens was abruptly fired in 2018 by Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the U.K. after speaking positively about former President Barack Obama during a speech to English college students.
“Getting tougher on China and trying to really address some of Beijing’s trade practices and military expansion in the South China Sea. That needed to be done,” he said, referring to complaints that China makes it extremely difficult for American companies to compete on a level playing field. China is controversially building military bases on artificial islands in disputed sea territory as part of its pursuit of offshore resources.
There is now bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that China is a growing economic and national security threat to the U.S. And president-elect Joe Biden may keep some of Trump’s hardline China policies in place even if he adopts a less controversial tone.
‘His first love’: Why Biden may be a foreign policy president despite domestic crises
Nuclear threats: No new wars
Lukens, now a senior partner in London for Signum Global Advisors, a public policy consultancy, said Trump was also correct to point out that the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, including the U.S., did not nearly go far enough in addressing Tehran’s ballistic missile program or support for regional militias.
‘Treating us like garbage’:Many Iranian Americans feel fed up with Trump
“What I have an issue with is the execution,” he said, noting that there’s been no indication whatsoever that Trump’s unilateral decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement has accomplished what was intended: reigning in Iran.
On the contrary, a report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, concluded this month that Iran’s uranium stockpile is now 12 times larger than permitted under the nuclear accord that Trump abandoned. It’s a dramatic increase that may partly account for why, according to a report in The New York Times, Trump recently asked his senior advisers whether he had options to take action – military strikes – against Iran’s main nuclear site in the coming weeks.
On perhaps the most dangerous threat he faced – North Korea’s nuclear arsenal –Trump veered from bellicose threats to fuzzy diplomacy. He held three high-profile summits with North Korea’s dictator-leader Kim Jong Un aimed at denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, which Tufts University’s Fletcher School Korean studies professor Sung-Yoon Lee characterized as yielding “less than nothing” and ultimately “dangerous” because it has bought Pyongyang time to develop its nuclear weapons program while “being nice and saying: ‘Let’s meet.'”
The summits produced little beyond photo-ops.
‘Faded away into a dark nightmare’: North Korea says Trump’s diplomacy has failed
Max Abrahms, a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University, said that for all Trump’s tough and sometimes non-sensical talk on China, Iran and North Korea, he has not started anynew wars.
Afghanistan: Closer to ending ‘endless war’
In Afghanistan, Trump has actually moved closer to ending America’s longest military conflict by reaching a conditional peace deal with the Taliban and supporting separate peace talks between Afghanistan’s government and the militant Islamic group.
Few impartial observers believe Trump’s drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by January will benefit Afghanistan itself. In fact, it’s likely to boost the Taliban’s bloody insurgency and further destabilize the region. But it’s in keeping with Trump’s pledge to end “endless wars.” It’s also consistent with polls that show most Americans want a leader who focuses on needs at home, not overseas projects.
“Leaving Afghanistan is the most important foreign policy objective of the remaining days of the Trump administration, and it should be the Biden administration’s first priority if Trump fails to remove all U.S. forces,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based security think tank.
But more, not less, foreign intervention may be in the cards if the records of Biden’s advisers is anything to go on.
Anthony Blinken, Biden’s nomination for Secretary of State, was a key national security adviser to Biden when the then-Senator voted to give President George W. Bush’s administration authority to launch a military attack against Iraq. He advocated for U.S. involvement in Libya’s now chaotic civil war. Blinken previously argued the U.S. should be open to a “broader and riskier” military intervention in Syria to oust Assad.
Biden’s pick as National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, is regarded as an exceptionally smart, dedicated and experienced multilateralist who shares the hawkish foreign policy instincts of his former boss at the State Department, Hillary Clinton.
Secretary of State:Biden to name Antony Blinken as America’s top diplomat
Abrahms believes that Trump’s contribution to destroying the five-year grip that ISIS had on large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria is also under-recognized.
Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, and author of “Counter Jihad: America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria,” has calculated that the Obama administration had liberated about 50% of ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria “before handing off the war effort to Trump.”
Abrahms said that Trump did not, as has been repeatedly claimed by the Washington foreign policy establishment, “essentially just maintain the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism strategy” in Syria and sit back and watch as ISIS “imploded.”
He said Trump’s withdrawal of support for Syrian rebel groups battling Assad’s regime, and a separate but related action to remove some U.S. troops fighting alongside Kurdish anti-ISIS fighters in Syria, hastened the terrorist organization’s demise. He said Trump’s move effectively enabled Assad to refocus his armies on thwarting ISIS militants.
Hostages: ‘He wants them home’
At least 40 Americans are currently being held in 11 countries, according to data released this month by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, an organization that advocates for Americans held hostage abroad and is named after a journalist who was murdered by the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Syria during the Obama administration.
The White House claims it’s secured the release of 56 American “hostages” in 24 countries over the last four years. However, some of these “hostages” were imprisoned by governments (albeit wrongly, or on thinly-disguised political charges) and counting overseas imprisoned, missing or kidnapped Americans is not an exact science.
For a mixture of privacy, logistical and definitional reasons it’s also not easy to make direct comparisons between the number of overseas captives freed under the Obama administration versus those released while the Trump administration has been in power.
Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, said during a Nov. 16 forum on global security that reuniting families with Americans wrongfully held overseas is a “pure distillation” of the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy.
“I think that he is personally offended that either a government or a terrorist organization would take an American hostage and so he’s made it literally one of the top priorities,” O’Brien said in comments streamed online. “He doesn’t care why they were there, what they were doing when they were taken hostage. He doesn’t care about their background, he doesn’t care about their political affiliation, their religion. If there’s an American that’s taken overseas, he wants them home,” he said.
Trump’s critics claim he is drawn to the issue because it makes for good politics, reinforces his image of himself as a deal-maker, and affords him opportunities to claim tangible victories in the international realm when they have been few and far between.
‘I have been living a nightmare’:Iran releases American Navy veteran Michael White
“Here’s the problem,” said Richardson, the ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“The president turned hostage release into political grandstanding and personalized it to the point where his photos-ops, I believe, caused many countries to say ‘Oh, this is how we get their attention,” Richardson said. “I think that’s harmful,” he said.
Trump has used the Oval Office and political rallies as a backdrop to photo-ops with Americans he’s helped to free from Turkey, North Korea, Iran and elsewhere.
Some families coping with the detention of their relatives overseas say the Trump administration has not been tirelessly working on their behalf or all that engaged.
David Whelan is still desperate for answers about why Trump has not raised his brother Paul’s imprisonment in Russia with President Vladimir Putin. Paul Whelan has been jailed for nearly two years on what his family says are bogus espionage charges.
“They go after the windfalls. I shouldn’t say easy wins, but it can feel like that,” he said.
Tice may be delighted by Trump’s attentiveness to her son’s case but she released a scathing statement last month about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he said he tried to “compartmentalize” hostage issues from foreign policy. “Unfortunately for Austin,” she said, “Mike Pompeo is undermining the president’s crucial outreach, refusing any form of direct diplomatic engagement with the Syrian government.”
Diane Foley, whose son James was murdered by ISIS in 2014 and who runs the foundation that bears his name – said that “as you might expect, people who have had their loved ones come home in general are very supportive of the Trump administration. Those who have not are hopeful because he tends to emphasize it.”
However, Foley said overall Trump’s prioritization of American detainee issues represents, for the majority of families, an improvement – even if it was the Obama administration, not Trump’s, that established a coordinated hostage response unit and a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs position that’s improved family outreach.
“All I’m saying is Trump has helped,” she said.