President Trump is disrupting a foreign policy establishment truism dating to the days of the Marshall Plan. For places such as Syria, North Korea, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories, the White House is making clear that the U.S. has no interest in embarking on the expensive nation-building missions that have characterized American conflicts of the postwar era.
Mr. Trump’s skepticism of U.S. aid programs is no surprise given his long pre-White House record and his comments on the campaign trail in 2016, but he has taken that opposition a step further in office by pre-emptively announcing that U.S. taxpayers won’t be on the hook even in ongoing crises such as the Syrian civil war and North Korean nuclear activity.
“We won’t have to help them,” Mr. Trump told reporters in Singapore after his landmark summit in June with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when asked about U.S. aid to build up the North’s primitive economy.
“The United States has been paying a big price at a lot of different places, but South Korea, which obviously is right next door, and Japan, which essentially is next door, they’re going to be helping them. … So they will be helping them,” Mr. Trump said at the time.
In the past week, the Trump administration has announced that it was ending funding to the U.N. agency that provides services to Palestinian refugees — reportedly over the objections of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and confirmed the cancellation of $300 million in military aid to Pakistan to express displeasure over Islamabad’s record on fighting terrorist groups.
In many of the hot spots where American forces are or have been engaged, the Trump administration has reined in U.S.-led reconstruction efforts and demanded that other countries step up. Case in point: the administration’s decision late last month to cancel $230 million earmarked for rebuilding Syria as the country’s devastating 7-year-old civil war appears to be winding to a conclusion.
Mr. Trump last month considered but decided against rescinding some $3 billion that Congress had allocated to the U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department. The plan was to return the money to the Treasury.
State Department officials, at the direction of the White House, have shifted the roughly $200 million set aside for Syrian reconstruction toward other department priorities. The bulk of the funds to aid in Syria’s recovery will be derived from a $300 million allocation from allies in the U.S.-led coalition, including $100 million from Saudi Arabia, to fight Islamic State and other jihadi groups.
“Many coalition partners have made pledges and contributions in recent months, and the United States appreciates all partners who have stepped up to support this critical effort,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Friday while announcing the plan to shift funding.
Rex W. Tillerson, as Mr. Trump’s first secretary of state, spearheaded the effort to dedicate U.S. funds toward Syrian reconstruction. The reconstruction and aid effort in Syria, as well as other areas of the world, have flamed out since his departure in March.
Analysts Andrew Miller and Seth Binder, writing this week on the law and security blog Just Security, said the Trump administration’s determination to preserve a $1.3 billion annual aid package to Egypt while cutting back spending for post-conflict Syria and in impoverished Palestinian territories represents misguided priorities.
“It is not unreasonable to seek to recalibrate the U.S. investment in the region,” they wrote. “But the administration will neither save taxpayer money nor put American interests first by selectively targeting civilian assistance programs to Syria and the West Bank and Gaza.
Questioning the template
The post-World War II Marshall Plan had long been seen as a template to U.S. foreign policy, using American aid and trade clout to rebuild allies and enemies alike to restart the European economy and promote a U.S.-led international economic order.
But administration supporters say Mr. Trump is introducing a needed element of “tough love” by forcing recipient nations and regional countries directly affected by crises to step up their own efforts. The special inspector’s sharply critical reports on U.S. aid and reconstruction spending in Afghanistan have provided aid skeptics with repeated ammunition in their arguments.
In its announcement Friday that it will soon end U.S. payments to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, the State Department cited in part what it said was the agency’s failure to “mobilize adequate and appropriate burden-sharing.”
“The fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years — tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries — is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years,” the State Department said. “The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”
National security and foreign policy analysts acknowledge that the policy shift could reduce Washington’s leverage in shaping events in the aftermath of global crises. But Mr. Trump’s supporters say the president is playing a longer game as he tries to flesh out his “America first” domestic and foreign policy.
In regard to the Syrian aid cutoff, “the point is that it is not a sign of the U.S. disengaging in the region,” said James Carafano, head of the national security and foreign policy sector at The Heritage Foundation.
The decision on Syrian reconstruction funds “is reflective of the larger U.S. strategy, which I think a lot of people have lost sight of, except the president,” he told The Washington Times.
Mr. Carafano said that “$200 or $300 million is not going to transform Syria into the land of milk and honey.”
But some critics say playing the long game could sacrifice critical near-term priorities.
“It is ridiculous, shortsighted and … an incredible mistake,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“There is no strategy” for Syria, she said in an interview. “There has not been a strategy from the beginning.”
Private aid groups say the administration’s attitude toward long-established aid programs has cast a cloud over their future.
“What is a tipping point?” Michelle Nunn, head of Care USA, recently told HuffPost. “How many times does Congress have to push back before the administration starts to work in a more cooperative way?”
As with Syria, Mr. Trump has repeatedly indicated that the U.S. will take a back seat in any program to rebuild North Korea’s fractured economy if Pyongyang follows through with efforts to denuclearize. That would leave Japan, South Korea and other U.S. allies to bear the fiscal burden.
“I think that South Korea and I think that Japan will help them very greatly,” he said in Singapore, citing in part how far the U.S. is from North Korea. “I think they are prepared to help them. They know they’re going to have to help them.”
A new stamp on policy
The approach has been consistent virtually from the day Mr. Trump entered the Oval Office, despite opposition from some of Mr. Trump’s early appointees and from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill who have long supported foreign aid programs.
The Trump White House sought to cut U.S. payments to the World Bank for multilateral aid projects by half in its proposed fiscal 2018 budget. U.S. contributions to groups such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development were reduced by a third in the Trump budget plan, according to figures compiled in June by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Aside from funding, administration officials moved to merge the State Department’s Economic Support Fund and separate development assistance funds into a single account and then cut the combined account by nearly 50 percent.
“A reasonable case can be made to trim some fat … but the Trump administration’s initial budget proposal goes too far. It reflects a lack of understanding of the important role that economic statecraft plays in U.S. power projection,” Matthew Goodman, senior economic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in June.
But with Russia, Iran, Turkey and other players demanding a say in the Syrian reconstruction drive, U.S. interests in the region may take a hit.
“We have been down this road before,” said Ms. Pletka, citing President Obama’s precipitous drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. The growth of al Qaeda in Iraq and later the Islamic State out of that power vacuum in Iraq “was the gift of the previous administration,” she said.
Seven years later, U.S.-backed forces are poised to do it all over again after defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield. “What we will see is the return of ISIS [or] the sons of al Qaeda … and a lot of misery and death” in Syria, Ms. Pletka said.
“I do not believe Mike Pompeo, [Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis and [National Security Adviser] John Bolton don’t [complain about] this,” she said. “They are smart guys. This is the president.”
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