Former NATO Commander Believes President Trump Signaling New Thinking On Foreign Policy

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Retired Adm. James Stavridis in Trump Tower on Dec. 8, 2016. (Kevin Hagen/AP)
Retired Adm. James Stavridis in Trump Tower on Dec. 8, 2016. (Kevin Hagen/AP)

It's been a big week for foreign policy in the Trump administration.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson checks in on how President Trump is handling China, Syria, Russia and NATO with retired admiral and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis (@stavridisj). Stavridis is currently the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Interview Highlights

On President Trump’s new approach to China

“It’s as good as we could have possibly have hoped for coming out of this summit because it bespeaks not a confrontational approach on trade and a willingness to, shall we say, conduct the art of the deal with China. That’s going to be crucial for this president.”

On changing course in his rhetoric about China so drastically

“I think [Trump] has gotten away with whiplash-inducing reverses in policy and this is merely one of them. In this case, I applaud it. He’s moved to the right position, which is to get out of this theory that we’re going to somehow put ourselves in a good position by raising big tariff barriers with China. We tried that 100 years ago — the Hawley-Smoot Tariffs and it created a global depression. Let’s not make that mistake again.”

On if China will do more to help deal with the North Korean nuclear threat

“Here the president has a bit of a two-edged sword. He wants help with North Korea. He’s signaled to China that he’s willing to give a better deal on tariffs if he gets help on North Korea. I think that’s a good position. But it’s going to mean him threading a needle between how much he gives on one side in order to get something on the other side, on the North Korea piece of this. Again, that’s presumably why the American people elected him — because he’s a negotiator and he can thread that needle. We’ll see.”

On the options President Trump has right now with North Korea

“I think he’s got three: One is to find a way to get China to really put the thumbscrews on this aberrant regime. A second would be covert military operation — including special forces, and or cyber attacks. Third is overt military activity. As we used to say in the Soviet Union, ‘It is no coincidence, comrade’ that there is a carrier battle group steaming right at North Korea even as they are signaling they might do another nuclear test. So three options, he’s going to have to pick between them. I think we’d all like him to go through door No. 1 — of diplomacy and sanctions.”

On concerns that North Korea will respond to U.S. ships heading toward them

“I think it is worth being concerned about. This is why you saw Sec. Tillerson yesterday downplaying it and saying, ‘Hey, we have a lot of carriers in the Pacific.’ But it is a risk. However, everything else we’ve tried has had zero effect on North Korea. So I think it’s worth at least exploring the military option on one hand, using China on the other. Perhaps some combination of all of this can really de-nuclearize that Korean peninsula."

On the U.S. military strike against the Syrian airbase

“I think it was not only good geopolitics, I think it was legal under international law.”

“Tactically ... not a lot of damage. It took out about 20 percent of Assad’s air force, destroyed the ability for them to fly aircraft realistically from that airport. They’ve done a couple of flights as sort of a PR stunt. But they have no air control, they have no communications, they have no fuel. They can’t really use it anymore. But [still] minor. … The real upside is the strategic message sent to Russia, sent to Iran, sent to Syria, that a) there’s more where that comes from in the military category and b) the United States intends to continue to be involved in the Middle East and c) the United States is unafraid to use military force when necessary. I think that’s a pretty good message at this point. I don’t think we should go into Syria in a huge way, with 150,000 troops. But I don’t think we have to. If we brought 10,000 troops in, we’ve got about 5,000 there now. We combine that with an amped up bombing campaign, we could clean up the Islamic State and then begin to have a serious conversation with Russia about the future of Assad.”

On Russia’s relationship with Assad

“I think that in the right set of circumstances, the Russians would step aside from Assad. If you look back at history — look at the Balkans 20 years ago. The dictator Milošević made it through the first round of the Balkan Wars, but eventually his support crumbled and he ended up dying in a jail cell in the Hague where the international court is. I kind of think that’s how it comes out for Assad eventually. But he’ll get through this next round and Putin will stay with him for some time. In terms of what comes next, I think the potential for a partition of Syria is actually quite high. Again reaching back to the Balkans where we saw the nations of the old Yugoslavia come apart and end up in six different countries, I could see Syria going into a Shia West, a moderate Sunni center and potentially a Kurdish enclave in the far east of the country.

On potential troops on the ground in Syria

“Here, I hope we would learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan which is that putting huge numbers of troops — we had 150,000 in Iraq, I had 125,000 under my command in Afghanistan when I was NATO commander — that’s a mistake. It simply inflames tension and makes it difficult for our Muslim allies. I would see the troops on the ground being Turkish, Jordanian, Egyptian — a kind of NATO of the Middle East, not to push that analogy too far. It would be indigenous troops from the region. We’d need some number of U.S. troops, I could see 10,000 or so, but we’re a long way away from that point.”

On Trump’s changing tune on NATO

“I felt terrific. If NATO were a stock, I’d say it’s rising. If it were a tweet, it would be trending. It’s a good day for NATO. And it’s an appropriate response on [behalf] of the president. I give him credit for a whiplash-like change in policy. NATO is clearly not obsolete. I think what the president is discovering is that he needs allies, he needs partners. If we’re going to go operate, for example in Syria, we’re going to want to bring those other 28 nations along with us — they have incredible capability when it all comes together. We’ve got to push them, as he has, to spend and get to teh right level of defense spending — 2 percent of GDP — but overarching, I think what you’re seeing here is Russia and its impact on the president’s thinking. We used to talk about Hillary Clinton’s reset with Russia. I think here we’ve had a reset in the opposite direction by the administration — a reset of reality. When you’re facing both Russia and Syria — you want allies and NATO is our best pool of allies.”

This segment aired on April 13, 2017.


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