What Will Trump Do Next? Lessons from Bush and Obama on how Presidents Learn and Change in Office

TIME:  13:00 – 14:00, 24th May 2017

VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society, 26th Floor, Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP

SPEAKER: Professor William Inboden

Chair: Timothy Stafford, Research Director, The Henry Jackson Society

Timothy Stafford: Good afternoon everybody we will make a start, I know there is added security in the building today because of the heightened terror threat so quite a few people may be stuck in the lobby but we will make a start and they can join. I am delighted to have William Inboden speak to us today whose from the Centre for National Security at the University of Texas but more interesting I think for today’s discussion, a former member of the national security council in Washington. Anyone who has ever spent time in Washington knows it is really the body where you have the chance to interact with the White House the most, a cabinet office within Downing Street so to speak. Therefore particular interest in the topic which is going to be discussed today which is looking back at how Presidents learn in office it is a very different situation in the United States, I am sure all of you know that when the administration takes over and enters the office there is literally nothing there but the phones there is no cabinet secretary to open the doors to Downing Street to welcome you so Presidents do change to learn and change a lot in office, I think particularly from those looking at the United States from the outside, Mr Trump has very little experience so a lot of change is hoped for. So to give his views, Mr Inboden will speak for about 20 minutes or so and we should have plenty of time for questions. So without further ado the floor is yours.

William Inboden: Thank you very much it is a real pleasure to be here. In a previous life I lived and worked here in London for a couple of years, that was in HJS’s earlier days and it is an honour to partner with Dr Mendoza on a number of collaborative projects and some joint events so it is great to see how the organisation has continued to grow and flourish.

The title of my talk today begins with what will Trump do next and that may be what has drawn some of you in here so I will give away the punch line right now – I have no idea. If that disappoints you, you can go ahead and leave now but I will try and give a little more context. In all seriousness the bulk of my remarks are going to focus on Bush and Obama and their time in office but it is with an eye at least pointing to the indicators and factors that can help us to understand where Trump might go next. As Tim mentioned I previously worked for President Bush at the White House on the national Security Council so part of my background that shapes my remarks today is my own first-hand experience. I worked for the President for 5 years and watching him evolve and change on some important policy lines in office but I also bring the perspective of an historian who has studied previous American Presidents from the past so this talk is someway an amalgam of both of those streams.

I am going to start with some observations about how what matters most as Presidents isn’t necessarily the image we have of them or what they say but what they do. So I am going to ask you a couple of questions here which I hope will illustrate this point about the public perceptions we have and the relationships with the policies actually pursued. So which US President did the following, I am going to read several things that this President did:

  • Launched a war without congressional authorisation against a Middle Eastern dictator who he accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction and terrorising his own people;
  • Also engaged in the unilateral force and targeted killings without UN endorsement against suspected terrorists;
  • Made extraordinary claims for executive power as Commander and Chief;
  • Called for the spread of democracy in the Middle East and kept terror suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay

Which President did that?  Obama. Obama did all of those things. Now arguably Bush did some of those things as well but Obama did all of those things but we don’t think about that because we have a very different public image of Obama than we do of Bush. Alright next question, which US President did all of the following:

  • Resisted strong demands to attack Syria over its WMD program;
  • Refused to attack Iran over its nuclear program while instead pursuing multi-lateral negotiations and a diplomatic settlement;
  • Refused to attack North Korea over its nuclear program while instead pursuing multi-lateral diplomacy;
  • Tried to close Guantanamo Bay and signed an agreement with the government of Iraq for the withdrawal of all US Forces

Which President did that? Bush. Bush did all those things and I can give you all the details. In 2007 the Israeli’s brought us intelligence about Syria’s nuclear program, strongly urged Bush to attack it but he didn’t do it. Strong urging of Bush to attack Iran in 2006 once we had seen the advances in its nuclear program, instead he launches the P5+1 negotiations. Strong pressure to attack North Korea after its nuclear tests in 2006, doesn’t do that instead pursues the Hong Kong Sea. Tries in his last 3 years as President to close Guantanamo Bay and then in 2008 signs an agreement with the government of Iraq to withdraw all US forces.

Now here is the thing, when I asked the first question and all of you said Bush and I said no its Obama and then vice versa in the second one, all the things I said about Bush is the same about Obama so  you wasn’t necessarily wrong there, Bush also launched a war in the Middle East and made strong executions of executive authority. The point being the common caricatures that we have of American Presidents or other world leaders for that matter are not always fully aligned with the realities of the policies they actually pursue.

The key point of my remaining remarks today is really the following – when changes do take place within American foreign policy, the bigger more important changes are often within an administration during the 8 years of a Presidency when they are between administrations. What I mean by that is the George W Bush of 2008 was very different than the George W Bush President of 2002. The Barak Obama of 2014 was very different from the Barak Obama of 2009. Now there is also still big differences between Bush and Obama over each of their respective 8 years, I don’t want to say the elections don’t matter at all but rather the bigger changes we see in American foreign policy take place under the exact same President who just changes, evolves and grows and adapts when in office. So that is the overarching argument I am making here why I think it is going to be hard to predict where President Trump will go.

So now turning to first to Bush foreign policy and then Obama foreign policy I want to walk you briefly through a pot in the 8 years of the George W Bush administration and I break it down into 4 different phases of his foreign policy. The first stage is what I call nationalist pragmatism and this dates from his first enunciation in January 2001 until September 10th 2001. Briefly the features of this, he comes in and says he is going to have a more humble foreign policy we are not going to do more nation building, focuses on holistic missile defence, a negotiated diplomatic settlement with China, no grant strategic designs. The second phase of the Bush administration I would call America unleashed, this goes from September 11th 2001 up until probably the fall of 2003, roughly a 2 year phase. This is where most of the popular image that we have of Bush, especially in international mind is really cemented. This is where some of the actions and some of the rhetoric creates the image of Bush. It is during the 2 years that it mostly comes to take place.

So the features of these two years are the Bush doctrine which states that harboured terrorists will be treated the same as terrorists themselves, of course the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the opening of Guantanamo Bay, the warning of the access of evil, the nexus of state sponsors of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. During the Q+A time we can talk more about what Bush’s strategy was in this time and what he was trying to accomplish.

By the fall of 2003 a first subtle but eventually quite a dramatic shift in Bush administration foreign policy and so the third phase of Bush foreign policy, I would call the freedom agenda stage and this goes from the fall of 2003 up until the summer of 2006. There is a number of transition points here that I will just sketch out very briefly and again we can talk more in the Q+A. The first of course is the burgeoning crisis in Iraq, 6 months after the initial invasion Saddam Hussain has been toppled, no weapons of mass destruction have been found, there is a growing insurgency and a growing crisis of both stability and political legitimacy in Iraq. There are also moments of opportunity you have the revolutions in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon and this is where Bush becomes his most idealistic this is when he wanted to call for support for democracy and self-governance and rule of law and accountability in the broader Middle East in the Arab world.

This is also 2 years after September the 11th and there had been some initial successes of capturing and killing members of the Al-Qaeda leadership but now Bush was starting to ask deeper questions about what are the real roots of jihadist terrorism, we can’t keep playing whack-a-mole, we can’t keep capturing and killing them because for everyone we capture and kill 10 more are being produced so he wanted to look at the deeper ideological roots of jihadism and saw democracy, self-governance and self-determination as longer term antidotes to that.

The fourth phase of Bush foreign policy I call back to the future or Bush 43 meets Bush 41, these are the last 2 years of the Bush administration from September 2006 to January 2009 and this is when he pursues a foreign policy most closely approximated to his father, of course exemplified by bringing Bob Gates in as secretary of defence who had been very close to Bush 41. What are the transition points here? Well the freedom agenda reaches a real crisis when we see even though they have been some elections in Iraq that political progress had not lead to security and so democracastion was not the only answer to the problems that ailed Iraq. It is probably forgotten now but it was a shock at the time, Hamas won the Palestinian elections in Gaza which also really threw a spanner into the works for the freedom agenda.

You had the Lebanon war break out in the summer of 2006 and the realisation that we needed diplomatic support from some of these Arab autocracies especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia for a political settlement there even as we were trying to push Bush to more democracy. The you have some looming security concerns, our intelligence picks up some major advances in Iran’s nuclear weapons program and decided we didn’t want another hot war going on in the Middle East at the time so decided to pursue a diplomatic settlement there. The North Korea designates its first nuclear weapon in October of 2006 and again a decision to pursue diplomacy there.

So those I think were the 4 phases of Bushes foreign policy, he was the same person at all times but becomes in some ways a different President. Across all those 8 years I think there were some continuities of Bush foreign policy, the principal of holding nations accountable for harbouring terrorists, a willingness to take unilateral and preventative action against terror threats, the strategic calculations of the internal conditions in a state will very much shape its external behaviour and then what we might called a pragmatic multilateralism. I think Bush is inaccurately caricatured as just a unilateralism of the hidden stories of the Bush administration and the tremendous personal relationships he built with a lot of other world leaders in Japan, UK, Australia and Denmark.

Shifting now to the Obama administration and the Obama Presidency, similarly I see four phases of Obama administration foreign policy as with Bush. To recap some of the principles that Obama came into office with and then we will look at how some of these evolved. He outlined a number of principles and goals during his 2008 campaign of improving Americas image, of strengthening multi-lateral relationships and alliances, shifting the so called war on terror in two ways – first he thought Bush had been too global, too ambitious with the war on terror so Obama said there is no more of that we are just going to be going after Al-Qaeda and then Obama wanted to shift from a military war framework to a more legal policy framework. Of course Obama’s famous promise to negotiate unconditionally with rogue regimes and dictators, his promise to exit Iraq, get the military completely out of Iraq war but also to increase our troops in Afghanistan and try to win Afghanistan as the so called good war. The strategic assumption that policy/progress in the Middle East after all depends first and foremost on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process and then a real de-emphasis on democracy and human rights promotion because that was seen as American heronry and annoying to other superpowers. So in practice this meant Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo Bay, to do an outreach to Ira, to pressure the Israeli government, to end all settlement activity and so forth.

So what does this actually look like in practice, what are the four phases of Obama foreign policy. The first one I call hope for change, picking up on his campaign policy of hope for change, hoping for change, similar to the first stage of Bush this one really just does not survive in office it goes from inauguration day to roughly about the fall of 2009.  This involves his famous outreach to Iran, his Cairo speech to improve the American image in the Muslim world, a lot of pressure on Israel, the so-called reset with Russia, reducing almost ending our missile deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic, of course he takes office in the midst of the financial crisis and pursues initially a G2 condominium with China, he sees China as America’s great economic partner to help bring stability to the international economics system. The withdrawal of a major surge of troops in Afghanistan whilst starting a draw out of troops in Iraq. That only lasts really until the fall of 2009.

I call the second phases of Obama’s foreign policy which goes on for about 2 years from the fall of 2009 to 2011, I rather cheekily call that Bush’s third term. This is when Obama’s foreign policy goes most close to resemble the Bush foreign policy. What causes the change, protests in Iran a year later of course you have the Arab awakening, you have Obama learning about the severity of terrorist plots against the United States, much more than he knew about in his campaign. Even in the midst of his outreach to Iran you have the revilement of a new Iranian richment plant, then you have China responding to the friendly, outreached hand of G2 partnership, you eventually have China bite that hand and slap back of the US and become much more aggressive when building a campaign on the South China Sea. During this time we see a massive escalation in drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and affiliates and other suspected terrorists. Again just as the unilateral and preventive use of force, again terms we usually associate with Bush, Obama is doing quite a bit. Of course you had him promising to close Guantanamo Bay within a year, once he realises that Guantanamo Bay may be a problem but the least bad option is to keep it open and to keep quite a few detainees there.

The next year you had him pressuring Mubarak to step down as the Arab spring was unfolding, then you have him launching the Libya war which again has some eerie resemblances to the Iraq war where you again you have an America President making strong assertions on authority if you can’t get congressional authorisation. It is really a war of choice against a Middle East dictator with a history of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism so a lot of parallels with the Iraq war. This is also when you have stepped up pressure against Iran including covert cyber warfare, sanctions and threat to military force. Amidst all this you have plummeting approval ratings for the United States in the broader Muslim world, so again another feature of the Bush administration.

And then you also have the announcement of the so-called pivot to Asia, efforts to strengthen ties with our allies in Asia rather than cosying up to China, increasing American military presence in Asia and really the adoption of a hedging strategy towards China. All are very similar to the Bush strategy as it had been in Asia.

Finally in May of 2011 you have Operation Neptune which was of course the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden and brought him to eternal justice. But again unilateral force with America being a partner nation with Pakistan.

The third Obama stage I call leading from behind and I am picking that phase up from the Obama administration itself, this goes roughly over the next two years from late 2011 on and up to 2014. A number of transition points here, the Arab Spring turns into the Arab Winter, the peaceful demonstrations in Syria turn into the very bloody and costly Syrian civil war with no American involvement, Egypt gets taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Bengasi attacks reveal the failures of Americas Libya intervention in terms of no follow up plan for state reconstruction and stabilisation. The Afghanistan surge draws out, the Taliban becomes a resurgence. The final demise of the Russia reset as Putin returns and acts like Putin particularly with invading the Ukraine and putting pressure on a number of American allies. This is where you see Obamas policies of not intervening in Syria, a rather muted response to Russians interference in the Ukraine especially refusing to arm Ukrainian rebels, a renewed diplomatic outreach to Iran and reduced pressure on Iran, the draw down in Afghanistan, major cuts to the defence budgets.

What is less appreciated at the time is this is where you really see the end of the Asia pivot, this is where there is also the line that personnel is policy, the Asia pivot had really been a pet project of secretary Hilary Clinton. When she leaves and John Kerry comes in as Secretary of State, he had very little interest in Asia, his main focus was the Middle East especially trying to cut a nuclear deal with Iran and trying to agree a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. So that is why in Kerry’s first year in office throughout 2013 he visits Asia once and the Middle East about 28 time, don’t quote me on those numbers but it is something absurd there which shows you the new policy priorities.

The final stage of Obama administration foreign policy is the last two years of the Obama administration, 2014 through to the end of 2016 and I call this locking in a legacy. The changes we see well one we see the third Iraq war in 2015 with the rise of the Islamic State and we are still of course at war in Iraq. You see the continued avoidance of Syria and the Ukraine and you see two very ambitious and I would argue problematic gambits, one the Iran nuclear deal and second the diplomatic opening to Cuba. If you talk to former Obama administration officials and ask them what they see as their big legacy items, they usually point to the Iran deal and to the Cuba opening. So those are what I would see as the main phases of Obama’s foreign policy.

So what do you we make of all this, especially what it might or might not tell us about were President Trump might go. First looking at why Presidents might change more in their own administration than between administrations, why is there such a disjunction between what we might hear on their campaign trail and how a President might act in office. There still is a bi-partisan American tradition of some sort of foreign policy continuity so it is one thing to be a candidate but when you actually come into office and you inherit a certain set of grand strategic principles, going back to the Second World War and perhaps even beyond, those strategic concepts can fence Presidents in a little bit and limit their latitude to do a fundamental rethink of Americas role in the world.

Similar a second reason would be the structure of government. The way the American national security system is built and organised actually institutionalises those strategic principles, maintaining military dominance to deter peer competitors, protecting and promoting an open global training order, generally supporting some values in the expansion of democracy, maintaining a fairly robust alliance structure with friends across the world. So those are the principles we have a number of institutions that are committed to that.

The third reason is the structure of the international system itself, international order is very much shaped by having the US as one of the primary superpowers and Hegemons, certainly the way the UN is organised, the way that NATO is organised, IMF, the world bank, all institutionalised  a leading role for the US. The other thing that also constrains Presidents on how much they can fundamentally change America’s posture.

There is also the realties and the responsibilities of governing, campaign rhetoric aside once a President takes office he assumes not just a lot of responsibilities but a number of important roles and titles. So we all know the President is the Commander in Chief, the President is also the Diplomat in Chief, the President is also the Chief Law enforcement officer, the President is also the first customer of the intelligence comity and all those roles bring with them high responsibilities which can be very sobering for Presidents. We saw this very much with Obama when he had much different rhetoric on his campaign trail about terrorism but then once he gets in office, once he realises that he is the front line in preventing any further attacks in the United States, once he starts getting that intelligence, he himself and his staff have said it was a very sobering experience for them.

So those four would be the main reasons why we do see some continuities and why there may be some similarities but why do Presidents change their foreign policies, if those are the reasons for continuity then what are the reasons for change? These are going to be the factors we look at with Trump as we are trying to figure out where is President Trump going to go for his next 3 years and 8 months in office if he lasts that long.

So I am going to point to five main factors, the first is education. No amount of experience can actually prepare someone to be President and upon taking office Presidents just have a lot or learning to do they need to get educated. Every President will tell you this, just learning and adapting to changed circumstances. President Trump has already indicated this, many of times he has said wow this is a harder job than I thought it would be, the North Korea nuclear program is much more complicated than I thought. He is disarmingly candid if you will about some of these things but every other President would tell you the same thing, no matter how many degrees I had, no matter what job I held before, nothing prepares you for this and you just have to learn whilst in office. With that learning changes come.

The second is intelligence, not the kind of intelligence up here but intelligence with a capital I. This somewhat relates to learning well in office but also what Presidents learn from the intelligence committee, once they start getting their daily briefings from the CIA and the Director of national intelligence. Once they start gaining access and overseeing covert action programs, the world looks very different and every President from the creation of the intelligence comity would say this. In addition to all the new classified and sensitive information they gain, Presidents also gain a new appreciation for America’s capabilities particularly with covert action programs. As I said Obama and Bush both exemplified this and of course Trumps relationship with the intelligence community is complicated to say the least but we have already seen some signs that the intelligence briefings that he is getting is changing his response to the world.

The third reason why Presidents change in office, politics, sometimes a change of power in congress, changes in the President’s approval ratings and political capital these can bring either new resources or new constraints on foreign policy. We saw this with Bush’s very low approval ratings in 2006, they were a little constraint as was the democratic takeover of congress in November of 2006. Obama experienced some similar political realities and Trumps pretty low approval ratings right now may also be constraining him somewhat.

Fourth- allies, and by this I don’t just mean allied nations but I mean foreign leaders. This is the most underappreciated aspects of how and why American Presidents change. From overseas from here in London it may look like the United States is this dominant superpower who does what it will but never underestimate just how influential foreign leaders are on US Presidents. I used to laugh when I saw the British press picking up on poor Tony Blair calling him Bushes poodle. For those of us working with Bush in the White House, Blair was the opposite he was the single most influential foreign leader on Bush’s office in all sorts of tangible and intangible ways, speaking on Middle East peace, counter terrorism, on the UN, on climate change, things like this. So when you look at a number of Trumps shifts already these come in response to conversations with foreign leaders. Why did he back away from his pledge to completely scrap NAFTA because of conversations with President Trudeau, why is he know prioritising the North Korea nuclear program over a trade war with China, because of his meeting with President of Japan. So again looking at Foreign Leaders and their inputs on American Presidents is very different from during the campaign, it is tremendously influential on why Presidents change.

Finally this one is almost a cliché but it must be said, events. When the world changes, so do American Presidents. Why did Bush go from phase 1 to phase 2 of his foreign policy on 9/11. The 2008 financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the North Korea nuclear tests. These crisis, these new strategic shocks are just new realities in a world that American Presidents need to deal with and they inevitably reveal that either a previous policy line wasn’t working or perhaps that policy was working but it wasn’t sufficient, perhaps it wasn’t even a policy line we had at all and we need to create a new one. We at least need to have a new emphasis. So even though the President is often called the most influential man in the world but most American Presidents often find that they feel powerless and they feel prisoners and captive to the tectonic forces of global affairs and crisis of world events.

So with that all ticked off I would be happy to take any questions or follow up comments, thank you.

Timothy Stafford: Thank you very much indeed, perhaps I could have the very first question. If you surveyed Trumps initial foreign policy on the views he outlined in the campaign, where do you see the first round of vulnerabilities? Is it this idea of having a relationship with Russia which is going to be very heavily tested by domestic politics, with the Democratic blaming the Russians for the election, having a more pro-Russia line wasn’t a Republican view to begin with. Will it be having a different view to the Iran nuclear deal, is it going to be European leaders weighing in on Muslim bans and things like this is it these initial questions in the Trump posture that are going to have to shift?

William Inboden: It is a very good question I am going to have to clarify what you mean by vulnerability, do you mean a vulnerability to the United States and being hurt by the policy or a vulnerability of Trump himself realising oh I need to change?

Timothy Stafford: Yes I think a vulnerability in a lack of sustainability in policy, like things he said this is the way we are going to do it and he is not going to be able to flesh that out and sustain that position.

William Inboden: Ye I think the biggest one’s will be his trade deals, we have seen him back away from a lot of his campaign on trade and international economic policy, I think he has just realised that a number of policies he was calling for will actually be very damaging to the American economy and he knows that damage to the American economy is very bad to his political prospects. So again that is why we saw the change on NAFTA, he earlier said he was going to abolish the import/export bank and now he has backed away from that. Even though he withdrew from the trans-pacific partnership that had already effectively failed in congress that was more an easy, cost free fulfilment of the campaign pledge when all the international markets had already factored in the US wouldn’t be in that. I think the biggest vulnerabilities is his economic policy but I think some of the others you mentioned as well.

Timothy Stafford: Ok great well lets have some questions here.

Question 1 : I feel I have to comment on you I can’t let you get away with it. Regarding his election I think it is all fine internally, Iran seems to run with it but the real test is what does the IRCG do in Syria after the peace settlement? If they get a piece of Syria that will cause problems for them with the Americans and that is exactly what President Trump is trying to say to Saudi Arabia and to Israel, we need to confront Iran in its regional expansion. Can you imagine what will happen if they try to open a base in the Mediterranean under the cover of the Russian base? I think we have got to understand that Trump will continue his policy unless he is surprised in a good way that Iran’s foreign policy has changed and pull out of Syria, then they will change but that is a win-win. Question – DPRK I spent 3 weeks in China just now and I have been struck by the amonosity between the Chinese and North Koreans, isn’t this the main crucial crisis of the administration so far and will there be any end to it?

William Inboden: I cannot make any firm prediction on how and when the North Korean crisis is going to be resolved, if it even will be resolved. The first North Korean nuclear test took place as I mentioned earlier in October of 2006, I was working in the national Security Council staff and one of my jobs there had been contingency planning and that summer, we knew they had been working on a nuclear device but we wasn’t sure what and in the summer I was working on the contingency plan with a number of other colleagues, I wasn’t the main person on this and what do we do when they actually set off a nuclear device. In the midst of all that I got engaged and married and on our honeymoon in October of 2006 I am literally sitting on the beach in Bora Bora, completely disconnected from cell phone, Blackberry and we look down the beach and see this couple walking towards us and they eventually come up to us and we hear that they are American and this was unusual because most of the tourists there were French at the time. We were chatting with them and they turned out to be a honeymoon couple from Tennessee and they were asking us were we were from and it eventually came out that I was working for the White House on the national Security Council and they said to me oh what do you think about the North Koreans setting off that bomb 4 days ago – I had not heard that.

If you would of told me in October of 2006 that 11 years later I would be sitting here in London and the North Korean nuclear arsenal would have expanded from that one initial device to anyone between 20-50 they have and they would have effectively gotten away with this under 3 American Presidencies I would have been stunned. All the lines we were looking at the time for a preventative strike of some sort, they just seemed too risky and too catastrophic and yet the fact we didn’t take a more severe action means we have a major, major problem on our hands. So where is this going to go, again I can’t make any firm predictions. I will say that when I have visited China I have picked up the same hostility, the Chinese can’t stand the North Koreans so why do they keep supporting them like this. It is because in China’s mind the worst two possible outcomes are either a unified Korean peninsula that is democratic, capitalist and orientated to the West, right now North Korea serves as an irritating, inconvenient but valuable buffer state so that is one worst case scenario for China. The other worst case scenario for China is the complete collapse of North Korea and 20 million North Korean refugees flooding into China and being again very destabilising there as well as loose nukes, a humanitarian and security crisis. That is why China keeps propping up the North Korean regime that is why they keep evading sanctions, that is why they keep sending them hundreds of millions of dollars of fuel aid. It is a very cynical calculation on China’s part but that is how the world but that is how the world looks to them it is the least bad option. Until that world can be changed by use of force by the United States and collation partners it might take a more dramatic action like Japan and South Korea, really threatening to go nuclear themselves or it might take North Korea taking the next step, I don’t think North Korea is going to nuke Los Angeles, but the real concern would be North Korea proliferating its nuclear devices as we saw them do with Syria in 2007.

It was a tough problem with the Obama administration it had been neglected and it is now a problem for the Trump administration, trying to figure out what to do on it.

Question 2: Thank you for your remarks today. You said something interesting about how the perception of Tony Blair by the British public as opposed to the White House at the time and that spurs a thought in my mind in that the image of the American President regardless of what his foreign policy actions actually are, is often governed worldwide by how people feel about him in a celebrity manner. Given the negative impressions prevailing on Trump, how much does that limit and constrict his foreign policy mobility in nation after nation?

William Inboden: I think that is a pretty significant constraint and I am only partly reflecting on that from what we saw with President Bush. In full disclosure I love President Bush, I was honoured to work for him, I considered myself very loyal to him, sure I saw a number of his flaws as anyone who worked for him did, he would tell you about his flaws too he is quite humble about himself. What we did see when I was working there was when Bush had very low approval ratings overseas that really constrained the movement of Americas allied leaders to support the US. When Merkel came to power in Germany her and Bush had a very good relationship and she was quite supportive of Bush on a number of things but there was only so far she could go because her public opinion, her domestic political pressures were really anti-Bush and so I think Trump may be encountering a similar dynamic as he is getting to know foreign leaders. His public image is a little different in Israel and the Saudi’s seem to like him but that is how those constraints see to work.

This is where the contrast between Bush and Obama is really telling were the dirty little secret of the Bush administration is most foreign leaders liked Bush, he followed up on what he said he would do, he valued their input, he would listen to them and yet most foreign public didn’t care much for Bush and that is why you had this paradox of actually he has great friendships with foreign leaders and yet there was a real constraint to public opinion. Obama was just the opposite, the dirty little secret of the Obama administration was most foreign leaders detested him, they found him weak, they found him indifferent, they found him arrogant, very difficult to meet with personally but foreign public for the most part loved him, he still is this international celebrity so created this reverse effect of foreign leaders saying oh I can’t really do business with the guy but my people love him so I want to get a photo taken with him at least. In turn that created some of its own benefits and pressures as well.

Look the ideal situation for an American President is everyone loves you, at least all the good guys love you. The foreign public love you and the foreign leaders love you. President Trump thus far is in danger of having the worst of all worlds, foreign leaders not caring for him and foreign public not liking him either and that will just really constrain his freedom of action.

Question 3: What puzzles me is the unilateral embrace of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Sunni world and castigating the Shia after all the people who were in the planes in 9/11 were Saudis. All people who are suicide bombers are not Sunni’s so what I don’t understand is why put in a wedge and increase the divide between Iran and Sunni’s?

William Inboden: So the first thing I will say on Trump foreign policy is, this is going to sound more like the snarky professor than I mean it to be so this is going to sound like a snarky professor but anyway Trump doesn’t know what he is doing. He literally doesn’t, he is still trying to figure this out. Raise your hand in the room when Trump was elected and became President, I sure was. You know who was most surprised that Trump was elected President – Trump. He did not expect this at all we know this from a number of first-hand accounts so he had not prepared himself at all for becoming President, he spent the two and half months of the transition still dealing with the aftershocks of becoming President and he is now still waking up in the morning looking in the mirror saying am I really looking at the President of the United States and not the star of the apprentice? He is just making this up as he goes along, he is trying to figure it out as he goes along.

He does not have a strategy of Sunni first against Shia or something like that, he is just sort of winging it right now. He has a few impulses, he has some advisors who are feeding him in different things and one of those impulses is the Iranians are no good – why does he think the Iranians are no good – one Obama seemed to get on ok with the Iranians and if Obama did it I am going to do the opposite. Second – the Iranians are behind some pretty nasty terrorism and broader activities in the Middle East and he at least sees that. Probably the third would be Trump does have an affection for Israel and Israelis and the Israelis don’t like the Iranians so those are the main inputs there. It is not like Trump is bringing a really sophisticated Sunni-philia to his strategy. The other thing he is a human being like the rest of us and is very susceptible to flattery and the Saudis know how to roll out the red carpet and make the President feel like a king and that is exactly what they did. That in turn is why he stopped saying some of the more hostile things about Islam in general as we have seen before, now he is like oh Saudis and Muslims I can do business with so that is what I think is really going on.

Don’t mistake this for a grand strategy of privileging the Sunni world or Shia world or anything like that. Eventually some sort of strategy may emerge particularly with some of the more sophisticated people on his team such as Secretary Tillerson, Matias and McMaster but they are now trying to manage this because they know that leaning too far on the Sunni side, they know that the US is going to be working with Shia, especially the Iraqi government. So that is why they are probably going to be gently behind the scenes drawing Trump back from a too much embrace of the Sunni powers.

Question 4: Inaudible… end up in a situation in the world doing the right thing if they were allowed to continue?

William Inboden: Should we follow the Roosevelt model of having three or four terms? On the one hand if you follow the logical sequencey of my argument, yeah by the time a President has been in 8 years he has learned the job pretty well, is experienced and has seasoned hands around him and knows how to be a diplomat but against that there is another factor – after 8 years these guys are exhausted. They are completely exhausted and burned out it is a completely gut wrenching job or so I have been told or so I have seen, I have not been President and that will not be happening.

There is the fact that the American constitution now limits Presidents to two terms, I still feel pretty strongly that two terms is enough for anyone. Ideally what we would have is whoever the incoming Presidents are can try to come into office with a little more humility, understand their predecessor of whatever party he or eventually she may have been, try to do the right thing and pick up some good things what the predecessor was doing before. Not be too rash in any initial steps the President takes until he is able to fully learn the job.

Question 5: Question inaudible

William Inboden: I will make a brief comment on the Muslim Brotherhood policy in South East Asia under President Trump but again I don’t think he has given a lot of thought to Pakistan per say although as he now considers the position of the American force posture in Afghanistan that is going to have very direct consequences for US/Pakistan relations. As a generalisation most international public opinion is not very friendly to Trump, India is an exception there. I did a recent conference after Trump had been elected with a number of Indian officials and they were kind of like oh let’s give this guy a chance, we think we can do business with this guy, there is the Indian tradition of pragmatism. All I can say is if we continue to see a deepened and strengthened US/India relationship under Trump and if we continue to see an American force presence in Afghanistan under Trump that is going to put a very interesting squeeze on Pakistan. I do know that McMaster and Mathias and Tillerson are all quite sceptical of Pakistan so I think the previous policies of the US providing a lot of aid and assistance to Pakistan  I think it may be changing. I think we may be entering a near term very rocky time in the US/Pakistan relationship but I hope that in turn will put pressure on the Pakistani government to reform and be a little more accountable to its people.

Timothy Stafford: I know there are quite a few people wanting to ask questions so if we could do a round of quick questions and answers. I will take the questions in threes.

Question 6: I am from Iran and I am a Sunni from Iran. We are 30% of the population of Iran and there has not been even one minister in the last 30 years from the Sunni population. I believe that there is a lack of threat understanding of the situation of the Middle East has on the West. I am a journalist I read day and night I have not seen an honest and correct analysis of what is going on and how the people of the Middle East think about Europe and America. You said the Americans changed the behaviour of the Iranian regime but it was Iran who changed the behaviour of America and here and produced 6 million refugees from Iran, 12 million refugees from Syria and I wonder how you can stop so many refugees from coming here and stopping the terrorist attacks which happened yesterday.

Question 7: In Washington and London politicians come under a lot of pressure from human rights campaigners. You have mentioned Iran, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and now Syria. My question is do you think that policy makers in Washington and London are ever going to learn that trying to impose our version of human rights and democracy on other people doesn’t actually work and makes things ten times worse for the people concerned?

Question 8: Trumps first foreign visits have seen him reach out to leaders of the main inaudible.. how do you think the role of religion in foreign policy is evolving?

William Inboden: Just a few very brief thoughts on this. The first is on the comment on the back around not much misunderstanding between the Middle East and the West – yes. I will put myself there from the beginning even having lived there so everything I know about the Middle East I learnt from Jonathan Paris.

The human rights question I would actually frame it differently with full agreement about cultural complexity and all the different nuances of democracy. In my past experience of a policy maker of working some on human rights policy, often the main drivers of it are the dissidents and activists in those countries. So it was the green movement activists in Iran are calling for American support. Chinese dissidents who have sought alyssum in the United States with American policy makers. Call democracy, call it accountable government, call it whatever you will.

Very interesting question on religion on foreign policy because on the one hand President Trump himself is arguably one of the lesser religious Presidents that the United States has had in the modern era yet the symbolism of this ongoing trip visiting the literal or at least metaphorical homes and capitals of the world’s great three monotheistic religions if you will, it was intentional so there is an interesting sensitivity and attention being paid to religion in this administration which I find very intriguing given that it is not what one would have particularly expected. Yet a lot of the policy people around Trump have their own policy faith commitments, some background in this and they may be feeding some of that into him as well. As well as colloquial realities,  a core part of his voters come from conservative American protestants so he is going to be paying more attention to their concerns as well. Some key appointments to look at he hasn’t announced an Ambassador for key religious freedoms yet whoever that becomes will be interesting. Those are some of the indicators to look for.

Timothy Stafford: Professor Inboden thank you very much indeed I hope that when you are next back in London you will tell us how Trumps foreign policy is changing in which phase we are, phase 2, 3 or 4 or maybe there will be more than 4 phases.

William Inboden: Honestly I feel like we have been through more than 4 phases already and it has just been 4 months so it may turn into about 20 phases.

Timothy Stafford: Thank you very much indeed.


Lost your password?

Not a member? Please click here