Since the end of World War II, the United States has played a disproportionately large role in guiding world affairs. It has unquestionably been the most powerful nation on earth. Its dominance reflects a number of factors including economic and military strength. But in addition to these, most countries have been happy, or at least willing, to accept American leadership because it was largely seen as guided by broad principles of fair play and the rule of law. American leadership was the least of evils. The United States has benefited a great deal from this good will.
But as the old saying goes: power tends to corrupt, etc. Being able often to bend other countries to our will (as long as others still saw us as driven by widely shared principles of fair play), the U.S. increasingly exploited this influence to encompass policies or actions others were not so happy to comply with. To take a fairly recent example, the wisdom of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or the Iran Deal) to stop Iran’s development of its nuclear capabilities for at least ten years was not shared by the other parties to the agreement (the P5+1–the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China, plus Germany–and the European Union). All signers of the agreement except the United States continued to abide by it. But the U.S. dollar is the primary currency used for international payments and the U.S. threatened to punish (cut off from the use of the dollar and trade with the U.S.) any country that did not observe its unilateral trade sanctions on Iran. The non-U.S. signers attempted to set up alternative ways for paying for trade with Iran that did not use the dollar but found the reach of American threats hard to avoid. On January 5, 2020 Iran announced that it would stop complying with the agreement and resume its nuclear development program. It is not clear why Trump considers this better for American security than the (at least) ten-year suspension in the Iran Deal he tore up. See: Economic-Sanction
President Trump has also used up a lot of “good will capital” with his Trade wars. He began by withdrawing the U.S. from the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States). The TPP further reduced tariff and non-tariff restrictions on trade, while expanding and modernizing coverage for the digital world. As, or perhaps more, importantly, the TPP provided a model and positive encouragement to China to adopt Western trading rules as a condition of joining the TPP in the future. The remaining signatories went forward with a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which went into effect a year ago with the U.S.
But Trump’s counterproductive trade strategies didn’t stop there by a long shot. In addition to economically harmful tariff protection of inefficient American industries (e.g. steel, washing machines, etc.), Trump has angered many of our friends in Europe, Japan and elsewhere by threatening tariffs in situations that do not seem to be justified by the World Trade Organization’s rules. In the process he is ignoring and weakening the WTO, which has played such an important role in the gradual trade liberalization that has dramatically lifted living standards around the world following WWII. He even tore up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and replaced with a new agreement that is not unambiguously better. See: The-shriveling-of-US-influence
But once bullies taste their power, their appetites tend to grow. While elected with promises to end our forever wars and reduce our military commitments around the world, Trump has done neither. This is not the occasion for exploring why (I don’t doubt Trump’s sincere desire to achieve both of those goals, but his ignorance of history seems to have made him vulnerable to flipflopping in the face of pressure from the neocons, such as Secretary of State Pompeo, he has surrounded himself with). Rather it is to review his rapid descent into a major bully, to the detriment of American influence and security.
On January 3, President Trump ordered the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force in retaliation for an attack a week earlier on an Iraqi air base in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. civilian contractor and injured four U.S. soldiers and two Iraqis.
The drone that launched two missiles that killed Gen. Soleimani at the Baghdad International Airport also killed the Iraqi leader of the PMU, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a close Soleimani associate, and eight other Iraqis. According to the Pentagon, “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” According to Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Prime Minister of Iraq, Soleimani was on his way to see the PM in order to discuss moves being made to ease the confrontation between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
The White House stressed that Soleimani’s planned attack was “imminent” thus justifying it without having to first inform Congress. Bruce Ackerman argues that Trump’s failure to obtain Congressional authorization for the attack justifies a third article of impeachment. See: Trump-war-against-Iran-impeachable-offense Iraqi PM Mahdi claimed that the attack on Iraqi soil was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a violation of the agreement between the U.S. and Iraq for stationing American forces in Iraq. Though Congress was not informed in advance, the Israeli government was told of the planned attack, according to some reports. In these circumstances, it is very difficult to know which reports are authentic and which are deliberate (or sometimes inadvertent) fake news.
In order to assess the likely impact of all this on our standing and support in the rest of the world, I like to evaluate American actions from how they might seem standing in someone else’s shoes. How would Americans react, for example, if our government had invited, say, French troops for training in the U.S., and the French Army blew up a Russian general on his way to meetings at the UN (or reverse the roles between the French and the Russians) without our permission?
But this note is not about whether this assassination was legal or good policy. For that see the following article from The Economist: Was-Americas-assassination-of-Qassem-Suleimani-justified? It’s about the rise of American bullying in the world and its impact on our standing and ability to influence friends and enemies in ways that serve our national interest. What followed in the days after Soleimani’s assassination is mind boggling.
Keep in mind that following America’s invasion of Iraq that started on March 20, 2003, the U.S. and its coalition partners returned sovereignty to the Iraqi government at the end of June 2004. I was there as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority (I was the Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq reporting to the U.S. Treasury). As we boarded helicopters to waiting planes at the Baghdad International Airport (of recent fame) many of us recalled images of the last American helicopter lifting off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon when the U.S. ended its participation in the Vietnam War. Over the next seven years American and coalition troops remained in Iraq under terms agreed to in a Status of Forces agreement with the Iraqi government. Following the ups and downs of troop surges and draw downs American forces were kicked out after Blackwater security contractors killed 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2010.
With the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) American troops were invited back under new, less formal terms. “Instead, the current military presence is based on an arrangement dating from 2014 that’s less formal and ultimately based on the consent of the Iraqi government, which asked the parliament on Sunday to pass urgent measures to usher out foreign troops…. ‘If the prime minister rescinds the invitation, the U.S. military must leave, unless it wants to maintain what would be an illegal occupation in a hostile environment,’” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Getting-us-troops-out-of-iraq-might-not-be-that-hard-say-experts
And how did POTUS, the great negotiator, respond to the Iraqi Parliament’s vote: “President Donald Trump threatened to impose deep sanctions on Iraq if it moves to expel U.S. troops…. ‘We’ve spent a lot of money in Iraq,’ Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington after spending the holidays at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. ‘We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. … We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.’” Trump-threatens-iraq-sanctions-expel-us-troops
However, the Pentagon promptly announced that it was repositioning its troops in preparation for withdrawing them. Reuters released a copy of a letter on US Department of Defense letterhead addressed to the Iraqi Defense Ministry by US Marine Corps Brigadier General William H. Seely III, the commanding general of Task Force Iraq, which read in relevant part: “In deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CITF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement…. We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.” reuters.com/article/
Within hours, the Pentagon stated that no decisions had been taken and that the letter had been sent by mistake. “U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Monday that a leaked letter from the U.S. military to Iraq that created impressions of an imminent U.S. withdrawal was a poorly worded draft document meant only to underscore an increased movement of forces.” Iraq-security-pm Or maybe they forgot to consult POTUS or maybe he changed his mind. Are you confused yet? See: Amid-confusion-and-contradictions-Trump-white-house-stumbles-in-initial-public-response-to-Soleimanis-killing
In response to Iran’s threat to retaliate for killing General Soleimani “Trump tweeted on Saturday that the United States has targeted 52 sites for possible retaliation, including “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” The outcry over this clear war crime was immediate. “Secretary of Defense Mark Esper… put himself at odds with President Trump on Monday night by definitively telling reporters that the U.S. military will not target cultural sites inside Iran on his watch, even if hostilities continue to escalate in the wake of the U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport last week. ‘We will follow the laws of armed conflict….’” See: Esper’s-split-with-trump-over-targeting-iranian-cultural-sites-is-a-nod-to-the-laws-of-armed-conflict Trump quickly backed down. Perhaps discussing these decisions with his staff before twitting them would be a good idea.
These are but a few examples of a bully on the loose. “Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told NPR that he was scheduled to deliver an address when the U.N. Security Council meets Thursday [Jan 9] but that he was told the State Department had informed the U.N. that there was not enough time to process his request for a visa, which he said he first submitted 25 days ago.” Iran-foreign-minster-javad-zarif-denied-visa Under the 1947 U.N. headquarters agreement, “the United States is generally required to allow access to the United Nations for foreign diplomats.” Once again, we are violating our commitments. Iran is demanding that all future meetings of international bodies be held outside the US. The IMF and World Bank are also headquartered in the U.S.
The American and coalition partners now in Iraq are there to support its fight against ISIS. This benefits us, our partners, and Iraq. The traditional tools of diplomacy (persuasion), rather than the threats of a bully, would ultimately be more effective. The respectful consideration traditionally given to the views and positions of the United States in international bodies –such as global satellite spectrum allocation–global warming agreements–security agreements–or any other multilateral agreement in which we have an interest, is rapidly vanishing. Assuming that the Trump administration can de-escalate the current tensions with Iran, something quite possible with sufficient diplomatic skill–see: The-soleimani-killing-could-draw-the-us-deeper-into-the-mideast-but-it-doesnt-have-to–our general loss of good will is the real cost of excessive bullying and it will hurt us considerably.