Over the past half century, American Presidents have often scrambled on the global stage in their final weeks in office to salvage troubled legacies at home. They usually fail. Several have created messes or additional unfinished business for their successors. In his final weeks, Richard Nixon went to Israel, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to jump-start Middle East peace, then to the Soviet Union to talk arms control—both trips meant to divert attention from the exploding Watergate scandal back home. He made no progress and was soon forced to resign. In his final weeks, Jimmy Carter dispatched diplomats to Algeria to negotiate the release of fifty-two American hostages in Iran. On a cold, drizzly night, I waited on the Algiers airport tarmac for their flight to freedom, but Tehran refused to let them leave until minutes after Carter left the White House—his final disgrace. After losing his bid for reëlection, George H. W. Bush deployed twenty-eight thousand troops to conflict-ravaged Somalia in his final weeks, to do “God’s work” after local warlords blocked humanitarian aid from reaching millions of drought victims. The limited mission dragged on more for than a year after Bush left office and produced the “Black Hawk Down” debacle that killed eighteen soldiers. At the end of his Administration, Bill Clinton sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to North Korea to discuss a deal on missiles, then hosted Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the last leg of a peace conference; he sought to boost his legacy after his impeachment over a sex scandal. I travelled with Albright to Pyongyang and covered the Camp David talks; neither succeeded, and neither offset the taint of impeachment. In his final weeks, George W. Bush made a swan-song trip to his war in Baghdad, where an Iraqi threw his shoes at him, shouting, “This is the farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq!” More than a decade later, Iraq is still not stable.
Every one of those foreign-policy issues—from Iran, Iraq, and Middle East peace to Russia’s nuclear arsenal and Somali warlords—remains a flash point. And Donald Trump, whose mood in his final weeks varies from sulking to spiteful, seems to be plotting to rescue his own image by derailing the Presidency of the man who defeated him. Joe Biden was already going to inherit a world far more dangerous than it was four years ago, but Trump’s final acts on foreign policy threaten to slow, complicate, or stymie Biden’s attempts to stabilize the country and the world.
Since his election loss, Trump has seemingly prioritized pondering military actions abroad over dealing with his unfulfilled domestic promises or the pandemic. For twelve days, he had nothing on his public schedule and uncharacteristically avoided the press; he spent four days playing golf. But he has reportedly carved out time to consult with the Pentagon brass and senior staff about launching military strikes on Iran or its proxies in Iraq. The focus on deadly force represented a potentially stunning reversal by a President who promised to end American interventions in the Middle East. In August, Trump pledged, during a campaign fund-raiser, “If we win . . . we will have a deal with Iran within four weeks.” He lost and soon began considering lethal action, both overt and covert.
There are legitimate reasons for concern about Iran’s behavior. The world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported last week that Tehran has stockpiled twelve times the amount of enriched uranium—the fuel for a nuclear weapon as well as for peaceful nuclear energy—allowed in the 2015 nuclear deal brokered by the Obama Administration and five other major powers. Trump, who claims to be a master dealmaker, walked away from the historic accord in 2018, even as the Europeans, Russia, and China stuck with it. Trump blustered that he’d squeeze Iran, through the most sweeping economic sanctions ever imposed on any nation, into a bigger and better deal. Only he didn’t. Iran stuck with the original deal, too, and obeyed all the limits for more than a year. As Washington imposed more sanctions, Tehran gradually breached the accord’s terms. Experts have told me that none of Iran’s moves posed an immediate threat, and each could be quickly reversed. But the time required for the Islamic Republic to build a bomb has now diminished from more than a year, when Obama left office, to about three months, under Trump. Iran has outmaneuvered Trump. The President must be seething—at Iran, for failing to come crawling, and at Biden, for pledging to return to the deal, albeit with updates.
A military strike now could derail Biden’s plans. As Trump’s generals and the Vice-President warned him last week, a limited mission could easily spin out of control and become a full-fledged conflict that ripples across the Middle East, South Asia, and the global economy. For more than four decades, the United States (the world’s mightiest military) and Iran (which ranks fourteenth, between Germany and Pakistan) have employed vastly different strategies. Iran’s unconventional and low-cost tactics—using proxies and suicide bombs, drones, limpet mines, and short- or medium-range missiles—have often prevailed, despite the odds against far mightier powers. Iran and its proxies ousted U.S. troops from Lebanon in the nineteen-eighties, forced Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000, and helped defeat rebel groups in Syria over the past decade. Iran and its proxies have killed hundreds of Americans in the region, yet the two countries never went to war. They have also killed hundreds of Israelis, yet, again, the two countries have not gone to war.
The broad consensus in America’s foreign-policy community is that taking military action against Iran now would be a historic mistake. “It’s just foolhardy,” Doug Lute, a retired lieutenant general who served on the National Security Council in both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations, told me. “Once the first shot is fired, there’s no time limit on military campaigns that might have looked clean and circumscribed and confined at the outset.” Lute cautioned against any major offensive anywhere unless the U.S. comes under attack. “I don’t think it’s wise to take any precipitous action before Inauguration Day. A lame-duck President shouldn’t venture into unpredictable areas.” Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait, called the prospect of a Trump military offensive in his final two months “somewhere between insanity and criminality. It’s hard to find the words.”
The danger is that Trump may be itching to have the last word on Iran—and his own foreign-policy legacy. The options for him to act militarily will remain on the table until January 20th. So will the pretexts. On Tuesday, three rockets—reportedly fired by a pro-Iranian militia—landed in the U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad. The Administration is also concerned about an act of Iranian revenge on or around January 3rd, the first anniversary of the U.S. air strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force. What goes around comes around.
This week, the Trump Administration also abruptly announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops in America’s two hottest wars—by almost half in Afghanistan and by five hundred in Iraq. Both drawdowns are scheduled to be completed by January 15th, five days before Trump leaves the White House. The President’s decision reportedly went against the advice of senior commanders and, at the time, his own Defense Secretary, Mark Esper. Six days after the election, Esper was “terminated”—as the President called it on Twitter—partly because of a classified memo that he wrote in November, on behalf of the entire chain of command, warning that conditions were not right for any pullout from Afghanistan. Trump’s timing is somewhere between awkward and awful. American officials have long wanted to end the endless war, which has killed more than twenty-two hundred Americans, injured more than twenty thousand, and cost almost a trillion dollars. (The local cost in death and destruction, by comparison, is staggering. Nearly fifty thousand Afghans are estimated to have been killed since 2001, primarily in Taliban attacks.)
But Crocker argues that, after nineteen years in Afghanistan, the United States is walking away before talks conclude between the beleaguered Afghan government and the Taliban. A pullout this year could embolden the Taliban, whose latest offensive—which involves thousands of attacks nationwide—has made significant territorial headway. Crocker, who helped to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the ouster of the Taliban, scolded the Trump Administration. “It’s been clear that this Administration is headed for the exit,” he told me. “Politically, the signal that we’re done here couldn’t be stronger. I’m just sick. What about the collateral damage? Good luck if you’re an Afghan female.” Lute, who served as the so-called war czar during the George W. Bush Administration, was more sanguine. “We do counterterrorism operations in the Philippines, Somalia, the Sahel, Yemen, and Syria with fewer, and some places far fewer, than twenty-five hundred troops,” he told me.
Trump’s troop withdrawals have been roundly criticized by some of his most loyal Republican allies. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that the consequences of a “premature” U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan “would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism.” He compared it to the American retreat from Vietnam. Mac Thornberry, of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, was tougher. Military pressure by U.S. and NATO forces had forced the Taliban to the negotiating table. “Pretty much everybody agreed that further reductions would be conditions based,” Thornberry told reporters on Tuesday. “In other words, they give and we give. And I don’t know of any condition which justifies reducing further the troops that we have in Afghanistan.”
Democrats charged that Trump is trying to sabotage Biden’s foreign policy. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, the Senate Democratic Whip, said Trump was having a policy “tantrum” after losing the election. “Somebody in his family or close friends have got to sit down with him and say, ‘Stop,’ ” he said, on CNN. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the President was “potentially trying to put a box around” Biden in Afghanistan and Iraq “with decisions that they can’t fully implement.” Biden would have a hard time politically if he felt the need to redeploy troops to Afghanistan after Trump reduces the number of Americans from forty-five hundred to twenty-five hundred.
Trump’s plan to withdraw five hundred U.S. forces from Iraq—also leaving twenty-five hundred—is less controversial, even though ISIS still has an estimated ten thousand fighters regularly carrying out bombings and assassinations. “We’re not out of the danger zone with either ISIS in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan or the next extremist group in the region,” Bret Bruen, a former White House director for global engagement and now the president of the Global Situation Room, told me. The appearance that these historic strategic decisions are motivated by Trump’s personal calendar adds to the impression, among allies and adversaries, that future U.S. commitments may also be determined more by American politics than the existential military realities in war zones. Washington is rife with rumors about other U.S. military withdrawals—from Germany, South Korea, and Somalia—before Trump leaves office.
Trump’s last gasps are striking because he otherwise leaves office with an abysmal legacy in diplomacy. Besides a new nuclear deal with Iran, his other big gamble was a nuclear deal with North Korea. After three bromance summits and several love letters with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader’s nuclear arsenal is significantly larger than when Trump took office. In October, Kim unveiled one of the world’s largest ballistic missiles; North Korea already had missiles capable of hitting the United States. Now it has even more. Bruen described Trump’s final days as Machiavellian. The President, he said, is trying to boost his legacy in preparation for another run in 2024 while also setting up Biden for failure. “He’s basically saying, ‘How can I set up conditions that are going to be so challenging for Biden and Harris that I can point to later and say what a mess they have made.’ ” The tragedy is that the stakes are America’s future, not just Trump’s. Bruen said, “It’s alarming and astonishing to think an American President could use our national security in such a callous way for personal and political gain.”