Trump didn’t just tie his successor’s hands. He handcuffed them to the throttle of a runaway train.
( Foreign Policy in Focus) – The far right would like to impeach Joe Biden, kick him out of the White House, perhaps even throw him in jail. “Lock him up” has been a predictable chant at Trump rallies going back to before the 2020 election. Even Republicans in Congress have joined this chorus.
Bipartisanship? As Donald Trump would say in his New York accent: fuhgeddaboutit!
One day after Biden’s inauguration, QAnon sympathizer Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) introduced HR 57 to impeach the new president on the Trumped-up charge of bribery. As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan proceeded at its telescoped and chaotic pace, impeachment calls came with greater regularity from the Republican Party, with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) demanding the president’s ouster for the high crime and misdemeanor of “ignoring sound advice.”
It’s a curious turn of events when the Republicans lambaste the current president for implementing the policy of their own party’s standard-bearer and doing so in a dysfunctional manner that was a hallmark of Trump’s tenure. And why exactly are Republicans complaining? They’ve already effectively handcuffed the current president—without the bother of actually trying to send him to jail—by forcing him to deal with the consequences of the actions taken by Donald Trump during his four years in office.
Sure, Biden has emphasized the few global issues on which he has boldly departed from Trump’s agenda. The new administration dramatically re-entered the Paris agreement on climate change. It committed the United States to fight COVID-19 worldwide with a somewhat more generous policy on vaccine distribution. It rescinded the “global gag rule” prohibiting foreign aid for family planning overseas. It signaled the end to U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
But in many other foreign policy areas, Biden has had to operate within the parameters established by his predecessor. On Afghanistan, Iran, immigration, trade, and many other issues, Trump implemented radioactive policies that have long half-lives. The Biden administration has been stuck with the job of cleaning up the toxic waste. Worse, in some cases, the president has for political reasons decided to live with the mess.
The Greater Middle East
Afghanistan has been perhaps the most significant foreign policy legacy of the Trump team. In February 2020, the administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban in Doha to end the two-decade war. At the time, about 13,000 U.S. troops provided training, muscle, and firepower to a seriously underperforming Afghan army. According to the deal, the last U.S. soldiers would depart Afghanistan in May 2021. By the time Biden took office in January 2021, U.S. forces were officially down to 2,500 (though in reality there were about a thousand more American soldiers in country).
Biden could have scotched the Doha deal, just as Trump threw out so many of the agreements that the Obama administration signed. He could have once again expanded the U.S. military footprint inside Afghanistan, as some of his advisors recommended. But there was virtually no popular support for another surge, and Biden had never been a fan of more boots on the ground. He’d promised during the presidential campaign to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan, so the 2020 agreement served as a useful rationale.
What the new administration was not happy with, however, were some of the consequences of the peace deal, including the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners without a quid pro quo and the ultimate undermining of the authority of the government in Kabul. The radioactive gift from the Trump administration was to rob the Biden team of any real leverage in its implementation of the deal. The most Biden could do was to delay the withdrawal of troops by a couple of months and hope for some kind of power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the government in Kabul.
Instead, an emboldened Taliban clearly capitalized on the feelings of abandonment among provincial officials in the wake of the 2020 deal to negotiate the handover of one city after another. Sure, Biden could have begun withdrawing American personnel and Afghan colleagues before the Taliban reached Kabul. But the president would have been blamed for jumping the gun and contributing to the demoralization that hastened the Taliban’s ultimate victory. Trump’s ill-planned deal—and his determination to pull out all troops by January 15, 2021 regardless of the “sound advice” of his national security team—set up nothing but bad choices for Biden around what was ultimately a necessary military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Another poisonous gift from Trump has been his Iran policy. Trump backed out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and tried, with additional sanctions and pressures, to ensure that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would never be resuscitated.
The Biden administration has promised to find a way back to the nuclear agreement. But it has yet to come up with a formula in its negotiations with Iranian counterparts on eliminating Trump-era sanctions and providing compensation for their impact while at the same time walking back Iran’s moves to expand its nuclear program. In one good sign, Iran recently concluded an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that preserves previously agreed-upon monitoring.
But there’s no guarantee that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action can be revived. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is hedging its bets. “We’re putting diplomacy first and see where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options,” Biden has said. If diplomacy fails, Biden will certainly deserve some of the blame—but Trump did what he could to make success as unlikely as possible.
Iran is not the only country still suffering under the burden of Trump-era sanctions.
China was hit with a variety of tariffs and economic sanctions during the Trump years, and it retaliated with trade penalties of its own against the United States. To get the tariffs reduced, China signed the “phase one” trade agreement in which it promised to purchase $200 billion more U.S. products in 2020-21. In 2020, China fell short of its targeted purchases by 40 percent. Of course, the global outbreak of COVID didn’t help, as global trade in general plummeted. The numbers for 2021, on the other hand, have been better, with Chinese purchases of agricultural products in particular rising sharply.
Significantly, that “phase one” agreement didn’t lift any of the tariffs on Chinese goods, just reduced some of the rates. Tariffs on 66 percent of Chinese products remain in place, amounting to about $350 billion. That’s cost the United States around 300,000 jobs, not to mention the $28 billion in subsidies Trump sent to farmers to offset the initial drop in Chinese purchases of soybeans and other foodstuffs.
The Biden administration shows no sign of reducing or eliminating those tariffs. Indeed, it has piled on more economic sanctions against China over its policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. It expanded a Trump-era prohibition on U.S. investments into Chinese companies connected to defense or surveillance technology. Meetings between Chinese and American officials have failed to establish common ground on trade or any other issue for that matter.
The bottom line is that Trump helped move the needle in Washington against China, so that anti-Chinese policies now have strong bipartisan support. Biden would have difficulty lifting tariffs and sanctions even if that’s what he wanted to do.
But even where such animus doesn’t exist, like Europe, Biden hasn’t pushed hard to lift penalties. Although this summer the administration finally ended a 17-year trade war with Europe over subsidizing the aerospace sector, Biden has not lifted the tariffs Trump imposed on European steel and aluminum.
When asked after the G7 summit in June about these measures, a clearly exasperated president said, “A hundred and twenty days. Give me a break. Need time.”
His response is disingenuous. He could have lifted those sanctions on day one. In fact, protectionism strikes a chord in certain sectors of the Democratic Party, and Biden doesn’t want to lose blue-collar voters.
Trump made protectionism great again. Biden is loath to push against this tide.
Trump’s protectionism also extended to border policy. He spent much of his four years in office doing whatever he could to cut the numbers of people entering the country and, where possible, deporting people who were already here.
Biden pledged to reverse the ugliest of Trump’s policies. He stopped the construction of the infamous wall on the southern border. He ended travel bans for people coming from majority Muslim countries. He recommitted to protecting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which covers undocumented young people who came to the United States at a young age.
But Trumpism lives on throughout the U.S. court system. In July, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the Biden administration must stop accepting new DACA applications. In August, the Supreme Court ordered the administration to reinstate Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program, which forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while awaiting a decision on their status. In putting asylum-seekers at risk, the program clearly violates international law.
It gets worse. The Biden administration is not happy with the above rulings and is seeking to challenge them. Yet in other immigration matters, the Justice Department continues to prosecute Trump-era cases.
“Over the past six months, the U.S. government has backed the expiration of certain visas, pushed for tougher requirements for investors seeking green cards, and supported the denial of permanent residency for thousands of immigrants living legally in the U.S.,” Anita Kumar reports in Politico. “Former administration officials and immigration lawyers say Biden’s hands may be tied in certain cases—that the government may not necessarily agree with the specific policy but that the Justice Department may have to defend Trump-era policy because of requirements in law and the time needed to review all the cases.”
Trump didn’t just tie his successor’s hands. He handcuffed them to the throttle of a runaway train.
Not a Rule-Breaker
Trump made some changes that Biden has accepted without reservation. The previous president created a new focus in Asian policy that he called “Indo-Pacific,” which brought together the United States with Japan, India, and Australia to form “the Quad” (not to be confused with the Squad). Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell has continued to prioritize India in the new administration’s containment of China, which had been a major Trump focus (to the extent that he could focus on anything).
The Biden administration has also embraced Trump’s “Abraham Accords” that secured new diplomatic relations between Arab countries and Israel (but at the expense of Palestine). Meanwhile, Biden shows no sign of attempting to reverse such Trump innovations as establishing the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
Of course, Biden is in a policy space whose parameters were established long before Trump came along with his sledgehammer. Biden is not exactly a rule-breaker when it comes to international affairs. The new administration has increased Pentagon spending and reaffirmed military commitments to NATO and allies in the Pacific. Biden has resurrected the old approach of “strategic patience” with North Korea. Aside from some proposed increases in foreign aid, he has largely ignored the Global South. It turns out that the new president is comfortable working within the constraints of the status quo ante.
Trump was a true rule-breaker who did manage to do quite a lot in the international arena, where he had far greater leeway to make changes beyond congressional control. Much of that activity was destructive, because Trump proved quite adept at smashing things. Indeed, Trump smashed things—the Iran nuclear deal, détente with Cuba—not just because of a peevish desire to destroy his predecessor’s legacy but as part of a scorched-earth policy to FUBAR the federal government for generations to come.
As a result, Biden will spend much of his term picking up the pieces—and that’s a whole lot harder when you’re in handcuffs.