Donald Trump has been largely absent from his public duties, and his White House is stymying any attempts at a formal transition process as Trump’s legal team and various local allies try to steal the election, but his administration has still been quite busy. Trumpworld has devoted quite a bit of attention, in particular, to the Defense Department—where several top officials have been pushed out—and foreign policy in general. The administration is both rushing (at least by Washington standards) a large U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously mulling a new war with Iran. The administration has also banned U.S. investment in 89 Chinese companies and engaged in a frenzy of diplomatic activity in the Middle East.
CNN’s experts and analysts did their best to fit the administration’s chaotic and contradictory moves into their usual framework for understanding why administrations do things. Trump is fulfilling campaign promises by bringing troops home, perhaps, or doing so to prepare for another run in 2024. He is heightening tensions with Iran to make it more difficult for Biden to rejoin the nuclear pact Trump left in 2018. Trump is thus attempting to “box in” Biden, forcing the incoming president to continue to pursue some of Trump’s own geopolitical goals. A source within the administration reportedly told CNN “their goal is to set so many fires that it will be hard for the Biden administration to put them all out.”
All this assumes that Donald Trump, the guy we all know from TV, has “geopolitical goals,” in the sense that foreign policy think tank experts conceive of them. It may instead be that he is rushing the withdrawal of thousands of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq because, as The New York Times reported, he has wanted to do so since he met Billy Graham’s grandson, and now he is doing what he wants. His reported desire for provoking war with Iran does not really contradict the impulse that led to the withdrawals. It is not difficult to simultaneously like the idea of bringing our boys home and knocking the hell out of Iran, especially if you have some difficulty imagining what would happen in the event of a war with Iran.
Even here, at the bitter end of his presidency (God and Brett Kavanaugh willing), it is difficult for some to distinguish the man, and what motivates him, from both the larger forces and the individual actors he has surrounded himself with. Trump the guy wanted airplanes to drop bombs on Iran because that is the sort of thing he might see on television afterward. It is hard to imagine Trump the guy conceiving of designating Yemen’s Houthis a terrorist group as an indirect means of ratcheting up tension with their Iranian allies, another move being contemplated by his administration. When it comes to foreign affairs, Trump has attitudes and opinions—he certainly has moods—but it’s hard to discern any goals or mission in the traditional presidential sense.
ABC News seems to be closer to the mark with a story that says, “Trump admin cementing legacy” in the headline but contains this seemingly more accurate description of what is happening in the lead sentence: “With the clock ticking on the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is breaking precedents with a tour of Israeli-occupied land and pushing to cement a foreign policy legacy for an administration in denial that is in its final days.”
In other words, it’s Pompeo who is running around the world attempting to sow chaos in order to “box in” the incoming Biden administration. Trump has effectively outsourced the job of pursuing goals to his secretary of state. On Sunday, Bloomberg dug into Pompeo’s “10-day swing through Europe and the Middle East,” during which he “angered Turkey’s leaders, infuriated the Palestinians and befuddled the French.”
Pompeo did so by meeting with reporters from a racist, far-right magazine in France, visiting a winery in the occupied West Bank that named one of its wines after him, and (possibly) presiding over some secret meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Here we can see the contours of his mission: Boosting the European far right and uniting the Middle East around American arms sales, hostility to Iran, and malign indifference to Palestinian rights and demands.
This is not particularly a “Trumpian” agenda, even if Pompeo’s trip has been characterized as a sort of victory lap or attempt to cement his boss’s legacy. (Pompeo made a point of spurning Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s government in his visit to Turkey, despite Trump’s personal fondness for—and unclear relationship with—his fellow signifier of the rise of illiberal democracy.) So Trump’s presidency ends much the same as it began: with the mainstream Republicans he chose to run his government following their own agenda, whether or not it coheres with whatever Trumpism was supposed to actually be about.
Some of Trump’s goons and lackeys are in it purely for self-enrichment or self-promotion. But his worst and most dangerous hires were always the ones who knew they could leverage the president’s ignorance, laziness, and distractibility to carry out an agenda instead of just playing along with the reality television show.
Which is also why Pompeo’s legacy seems likelier to last than Trump’s. Biden has already said he won’t move the American Embassy in Israel away from Jerusalem. It’s unclear whether he’ll roll back any of the many punitive sanctions the Trump administration has placed on Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, among other countries. Arms sold to allies in a future potential conflict with Iran will not be unsold.
There is one piece of foreign policy that Biden can quickly reverse, however. As Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle Eastern Institute, told CNN: “Joe Biden can come into the White House in 2021 and put those troops back in.” Finally, the return of normality.