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Will Obama’s Foreign Policy Wizards Save Trump?

The new president’s approach to Iran, Syria, and Israel looks a lot like the old president’s—because the same people are implementing it

Lee Smith
March 16, 2017
Photos: Ahmad Abdo/AFP/Getty Images, U.S. Department of State, Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images.
Obama/Kerry administration foreign policy officials now working for President Donald Trump: (from top) Brett McGurk, Tom Shannon, Yael Lempert (left), Michael Ratney, Chris Backemeyer (far right). Photos: Ahmad Abdo/AFP/Getty Images, U.S. Department of State, Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images.
Photos: Ahmad Abdo/AFP/Getty Images, U.S. Department of State, Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images.
Obama/Kerry administration foreign policy officials now working for President Donald Trump: (from top) Brett McGurk, Tom Shannon, Yael Lempert (left), Michael Ratney, Chris Backemeyer (far right). Photos: Ahmad Abdo/AFP/Getty Images, U.S. Department of State, Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images.
Obama is a disaster at foreign policy. Never had the experience or knowledge. He is not capable of doing the job.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2012

After excoriating Barack Obama’s foreign policy, including his realignment in the Middle East, Trump has yet to nominate any officials below the cabinet level at the State Department or the Pentagon, which means there is no one to formulate Trump’s own foreign policy, never mind implement it. To fill the growing vacuum at the center of American power, the Trump White House is now handing over key foreign-policy positions to Obama administration re-treads who handled the very same portfolios under the previous president. Trump’s tough-as-nails “America first” foreign policy is starting to look like Obama Lite—the exact same policies, implemented by the exact same people. Increasingly, members of Congress are starting to notice—and they’re getting angry.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis withdrew his pick for a top Pentagon spot, Anne Patterson’s ambassadorship to Egypt. Patterson’s dealings with the Muslim Brotherhood rankled top Republican lawmakers, and made her perhaps the least popular American in all of Egypt—and Mattis was compelled to take her name off the board.

The rest of the world isn’t waiting for the Trump White House to get its act together, though. Russia is reportedly sending troops to Egypt, where they will be in position to shape the chaos afoot in neighboring Libya to Russia’s advantage. North Korea has embarked on a spree of violence, with the assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother and ballistic missile tests. Iran is also testing ballistic missiles and continuing to harass U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, despite Trump’s campaign promise to “shoot out of the water” any Iranian vessels that tested him. Sure, it’s still early in the life of the administration, but American allies, as one ambassador from a dangerous region told me recently, have no idea what’s going on.

What’s really bizarre is that the Trump team keeps blaming damaging leaks to the press on Obama holdovers—when the Trump team is hiring Obama holdovers. They may have caught Anne Patterson before she got past the velvet rope, but Obama people staff key positions elsewhere, on Israel, Iran, ISIS, and Syria issues. Which makes sense, since the policies they are tasked with carrying out are so far exactly the same as they were under Obama.


Yael Lempert, a National Security Council staffer from the Obama administration that the Trump team decided to keep on, is in Jerusalem this week with the White House’s special representative for international negotiations, longtime Trump lawyer Jason Greenblatt. Lempert, one former Clinton official told me, “is considered one of the harshest critics of Israel on the foreign policy far left. From her position on the Obama NSC, she helped manufacture crisis after crisis in a relentless effort to portray Israel negatively and diminish the breadth and depth of our alliance. Most Democrats in town know better than to let her manage Middle East affairs. It looks like the Trump administration has no idea who she is or how hostile she is to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

This is the same Trump administration that said it was going to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem? Making big promises to Jewish voters during campaign season and then dumping them in the trash along with yesterday’s campaign lawn signs is old hat in Washington, though. And after eight years of Obama’s very public ministrations to his favorite “donors,” Jewish votes are especially cheap—you can name Louis Farrakhan’s former spokesman as vice chairman of your party and the faithful will sigh with relief. So why should Trump bother?

But Trump is showing the same disregard for his big promises when it comes to people who aren’t Jewish—like the adherents of the Islamic State, which he firmly swore to demolish. To make good on that promise, the Trump team has selected Brett McGurk—the same Brett McGurk who served as the Obama administration’s special envoy to lead the campaign against ISIS. One of the main reasons Obama’s ISIS policy failed was because Sunni actors refused to engage in an intramural civil war whose spoils would go to the Iranians and their Shia allies. McGurk was the point man on this pro-Iran policy, famously arranging for Iran to get $400 million in cash delivered on wooden pallets to the IRGC in exchange for American hostages.

Remember when the Trump administration promised to make public the secret agreements that Obama made with Iran? McGurk signed some of the secret documents, relieving sanctions on a key financial hub of Iran’s ballistic-missile program, and dropping charges against 21 Iranian operatives linked to terrorism. Notably, none of those documents has actually been made public. Maybe that’s because McGurk’s name is on them, or maybe it’s because former National Iranian American Council staffer Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, Obama’s NSC director for Iran, is now on the policy-planning staff in Trump’s State Department. The Iran Deal seems like even more of a done deal with every new ballistic-missile test.

Syria is another area where the Trump White House is now appointing the same people to carry out the same policies that made America great under Obama. The Obama State Department’s special envoy to Syria, Michael Ratney, threatened the Syrian rebels on behalf of Vladimir Putin—if you do not adhere to the phony Cessation of Hostilities agreement that neither Bashar al-Assad, Tehran, nor Moscow will obey, you will legitimize Russian air strikes against you, with American diplomatic support. Under Trump, Ratney’s role has expanded; in addition to Syria, he is also handling Israel and Palestine issues.

Other notable figures the Trump team kept on include the State Department’s Tom Shannon, whom Kerry dispatched to do damage control once it got out that the Obama administration was trying to give Iran access to the dollar.

Chris Backemeyer, the State Department’s principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy, is still there, too. His job under Obama was to persuade companies around the world to invest in Iran, despite their wariness of the next administration reimposing sanctions or tearing up the deal.

Trump’s promise to tear up the Iran Deal now looks like ridiculous bluster. As long as the people who had a professional and emotional stake in striking the deal are making policy—and thanks to the Trump team, they still are—the deal is safe. Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear program creeps toward the finish line. If Trump’s election to the presidency was literally beyond the imagination of the entire American political class, the result of his election is equally unimaginable—not only to the elites who never believed he would become president but to many of the people who elected him.

Both Trump and his critics have misread the current situation quite badly. The White House honestly appears to believe that it is being bedeviled by something like a “deep state,” including the prestige media, sections of the intelligence community, and Obama sleeper cells, which is determined to sabotage a Trump presidency through underhanded means. In fact, it’s just a few political operatives doing what political operatives, on the left or the right, have always done in Washington—wage political warfare against the other side with whatever it has. Of course, the Democrats are going to use anything they can to even the odds—street marches, the press, social media. But there is no secret plot—it’s all out in the clear.

Sure, the other side has a stake in puffing its tail to make it look bigger than it really is. But the Democratic “resistance” isn’t a bunch of secretly powerful agents on the verge of toppling Trump; that’s ad copy pitched at donors to get them to invest in a social-media campaign. The Democrats are openly weak. Republicans hold the White House, both houses of Congress, the preponderance of governors’ mansions and state legislatures, and soon the Supreme Court.

What’s worrying is that the Trump White House has to date proved so bad at the basics of policy-making, communications, and governing that it has made a bunch of dopes tweeting about secret Kremlin conspiracies to control the American government through a Manchurian Candidate presidency look like wizards. If Trump is a Hitlerian threat to democratic institutions, critics will need to explain why a strongman of such vast ambitions has proved incapable of staffing his own government or even beginning to implement any of the policies on which he campaigned.

The reality is that the world’s most famous executive has so far failed in the most fundamental job of any executive—managing conflict. The White House can’t staff itself because it seems that the factions inside Trump-world are more devoted to destroying each other than to achieving anything concrete with the power of the office they swore to serve.

The exact choreography of the knife-fighting that makes the Trump White House such an exciting place to work may be unclear, but the outlines aren’t hard to discern; whoever put the kibosh on Anne Patterson at the Pentagon was probably also responsible for stopping Elliott Abrams’s nomination for the No. 2 post at the State Department. One theory holds that Trump special adviser Steve Bannon is pulling those strings. Bannon’s power base is premised largely on his personal relationship with the president, while a businessman like Rex Tillerson and a Marine general like James Mattis both represent large bureaucracies. If you don’t have a large institution serving as political ballast, then you’d want to see how your rivals fare toppling vertiginously through space. Or maybe Mattis really is a Democrat in GOP camouflage working behind enemy lines. Or maybe Tillerson would rather be back handling oil deals than glad-handing diplomats. Maybe Bannon really is a world-historical agent of chaos worthy of his own Balzac novel.

The main point is this: While the Trump cabinet is at daggers drawn, while it can’t hire the staff to implement the policies the president campaigned on—to destroy ISIS, to rein in Iran and crash the nuclear deal, to protect American citizens and interests, and to realign with allies like Israel that Obama made vulnerable—there are much more decisive and deadly conflicts going on almost everywhere around the world. The people who are handling key elements of those conflicts now are the same people who handled those areas under Obama, despite the results of the last election. No wonder the results look equally awful.


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