Foreign Policy

6 Foreign Hotspots the Trump Administration Will Have to Deal With in 2017

As the world turns.


Mike Haufe/flickr

2016 is mercifully coming to an end this weekend, and the Obama presidency will end less than three weeks later. Despite Donald Trump's insistence that he'll do things differently, January 20, 2017 will be no more a clean break from the past than January 20, 2009, was, especially when it comes to the exercise of U.S. foreign policy abroad.

Both Barack Obama and Trump made a change in foreign policy part of their successful first presidential campaigns—for both, that promise of change was nebulous and uncertain. It allowed people with all different kinds of ideas about U.S. foreign policy to believe his vision would comport with their own. President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, just 10 months into office. He leaves office with a war in Afghanistan that's gone on longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined, a war in Iraq (and Syria) that's not quite the same as the one he inherited (the names and places have changed), and intervention-induced chaos in places like Libya and Yemen.

Trump, meanwhile, sent all sorts of mixed signals about how his administration might conduct, or frame, its foreign policy during the campaign—he was no non-interventionist but also challenged the Republican foreign policy establishment during the primaries. His freewheeling style so far has earned some dividends, while his cabinet picks, like Rex Tillerson at secretary of state and Gen. James Mattis at defense, will at their confirmations have to frame whatever the Trump administration's actual foreign policy, or foreign policy narrative, might be.

Even a foreign policy left adrift is destructive, and like the Obama administration before it, the Trump administration, too, will inherit a number of conflict zones and hot spots in which the United States is engaged.


In 2009, President Obama ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan, a war that at that point had entered its ninth year. "When the history of the Obama presidency is written," The New York Times reported on December 5, 2009, about Obama's decision to accelerate the troop surge and subsequent withdrawal as visualized in a bell curve chart, "that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war."

Seven years later, the Afghanistan war continues. Most recently, the putative withdrawal was pushed into 2017, with at least 6,000 U.S. troops staying through next year. In 2009, the point of the surge was to create the space for Afghan security forces to operate on their own. A concomitant "civilian surge" from the State Department was supposed to strengthen Afghan national institutions. Bureaucratic infighting and incompetence instead wasted any opportunity that the surge might have created for a withdrawal. Last year, President Obama became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to bomb another Nobel Peace Prize winner when an American gunship launched a strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.

Today, U.S. forces are fighting not just the Taliban but ISIS fighters as well. Obama has slowed down the pull out in large part because Afghan forces are unprepared to fight alone. Trump, meanwhile, has argued against both nation-building in Afghanistan and setting withdrawal dates (that insurgents would know) yet in favor of a long-term military presence in Afghanistan to keep it from becoming a failed states.


U.S. Army

By the time President Obama took office, a status of forces agreement had been negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq that would see all U.S. troops withdrawn by 2011. While Obama tried to keep a residual U.S. force of 10,000 in Iraq past that date, the Iraqi government was unwilling to extend immunity to U.S. troops who stayed in the country longer. Nevertheless, Obama campaigned for re-election in 2012 on the idea that he had brought the Iraq war to an end anyway.

By 2014, the president had changed his tune. The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq compelled Obama to insist he had tried to keep troops in Iraq to prevent just such an occurrence from happening. U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011 ceremoniously and started to return unceremoniously in 2014 as part of the campaign against ISIS, the terror group that was Al-Qaeda in Iraq before it moved into Syria and eventually returned to Iraq as the Islamic State.

Trump has been critical of the way the U.S. has fought ISIS in Iraq, but has been vague about what he would do. The U.S.-led coalition began an offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq's second city, from ISIS a few months ago (reinforced Iraqi troops resumed the offensive this week). Trump mocked U.S. leaders for announcing the offensive, saying it gave ISIS leaders in Mosul the opportunity to escape ahead of it. Trump insists, as he does in other domains, on the element of surprise. Experts say a "sneak attack" on Mosul is unrealistic—the multinational coalition requires a lot of coordination and, on top of that, it's not easy to conceal the forces amassing around Mosul. Throughout the campaign, Trump and other Republicans (and Hillary Clinton, for that matter) simultaneously criticized Obama for not doing enough on ISIS in Iraq while sketching out more or less the same approach (using a coalition of regional allies to destroy ISIS).

During the campaign, Trump expressed openness to the idea that Congress would pass an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) on ISIS. Obama complained about the lack of such an authorization and what it meant for excessive executive power, but not once did he appear to consider tempering his military engagement because of the lack of authorization. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) earlier this year said he was hopeful the prospect of a Trump presidency would induce Congress to reclaim its war powers. The incoming Republican Congress is poised to be pliant to Trump's agenda, yet an AUMF would be the first step to defining the role of the U.S. in the campaign against ISIS, and thus to begin to define how the U.S. might disengage from the conflict.



Although the U.S. has spent years arming various factions in the Syrian civil war, even some that have fought each other, the evolution of the Syrian civil war and foreign interventionists therein suggest the U.S. need not be the "indispensable nation" its political class likes to think of it as.

In 2013, the Obama administration pushed for U.S. intervention in Syria over the Bashar Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians. Unscripted remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry challenging Syria to turn its chemical weapons over to the international community led to a Russian offer to facilitate that, averting U.S. intervention. On the campaign trail meanwhile, Hillary Clinton pushed for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Aleppo in order to force Russia to the negotiating table, admitting privately such a move would cost civilian lives.

The U.S. has continued to insist Assad must relinquish power in any peace deal. By the time Trump takes office, the crisis may be on its way to resolution. Syria and Russia announced a ceasefire earlier this week while peace talks in Kazakhstan continue. Trump's complained about the U.S. not cooperating with Russia on fighting terrorists in Syria, but the ongoing peace talks demonstrate that such conflicts need not involve the United States. While the Syrian regime has by all accounts committed all kinds of war crimes and created a humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, humanitarianism should not be a sufficient prerequisite for U.S. involvement, while arming rebels, which Trump has largely condemned, isn't much better, contributing to instability without much in return vis a vis any identifiable U.S. interests.



In the last eight years, Libya is the most egregious example of the dangers of interventionism in the name of humanitarianism. In 2011 the Obama administration argued it had to intervene in Libya because of the "responsibility to protect," an international relations doctrine favoring so-called "humanitarian" military interventions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a major proponent of the intervention, insisted Col. Qaddafi, Libya's long-time dictator, was slaughtering his own people and that meant the U.S. had to intervene, not for regime change, which the Obama administration strenuously denied, but to prevent civilian deaths. Col. Qaddafi ended up being captured, sodomized, and killed by rebels who received U.S. air support to pursue him. "We came, we saw, he died," Clinton laughed before a 60 Minutes interview.

Five years later, U.S. troops are in Libya battling ISIS, which set up shop along with a variety of other extremist groups in the vacuum left behind by the U.S. intervention, while weapons and fighters from Libya flooded North Africa and the Middle East, contributing to instability there. The Obama administration has not said much about the U.S. strategy or goals in Libya. Obama admitted that "failing to plan for the day after" the Libya intervention was the greatest mistake of his presidency. On the campaign trail Clinton, meanwhile, defended her decision to push for intervention. Unfortunately, much of the campaign-related debate on Libya became about the initial decision to intervene in 2011 and not about what the U.S. military was doing there now nor for how long it would be doing it nor whether it should.


via Al Jazeera

The Obama administration spent years waging the war on terror in Yemen, most often by using drones to target alleged extremists, some of whom were identified by Yemen's autocratic government. For a time, Obama pointed to Yemen as an example of the successful prosecution of the war on terror. Then rebels overthrew the government in Aden, and Saudi Arabia intervened to oust the rebels. The U.S. has, so far, at least as far as the public knows, kept its military out of the actual conflict in Yemen, although Saudi Arabia is largely armed by the United States. Efforts to block U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia had been unsuccessful in the Senate. Last week, the Obama administration announced it would be suspending arms shipments to Saudi Arabia because, it said, Saudi Arabia had hit too many civilian targets and caused too many civilian casualties.

Trump has had a far less amenable disposition to Saudi Arabia than Clinton so far. The globally unpopular war in Yemen offers the U.S. a good opportunity to disconnect from Saudi Arabia and stop subsidizing a war in which the U.S. has no interest. The way the U.S. war on terror in Yemen played out ought to also cause U.S. policymakers pause about pursing the same strategy in Somalia, where the U.S. has been involved for years and where an internationally-recognized government was established recently after a nearly two decade absence.


via France 24

Europe has been rocked by a number of terror attacks in the last two years, most of which were claimed by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or their supporters. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine, eventually annexing Crimea, a historically Russian region of Ukraine, leading Europe and the U.S. to impose sanctions. Worryingly, Europe is used to turning to the U.S. for military support in such situations. Despite having no discernable national interest in Ukraine, the U.S. inserted itself into the dispute on behalf of its European allies. Similarly, while France has been more active than other Western countries in the Syrian civil war, Europeans turn to U.S. troops to guarantee their safety. European powers that pressed for intervention in Libya knew they needed the U.S. to be involved as well.

Trump, for his part, has questioned the role of NATO in the world order during the campaign. His post-election commitment to NATO doesn't preclude a long-overdue rethinking of the alliance and the U.S. role in it. More than 70 years after the end of World War II, a Europe that has not seen a war on its continent in this century ought to take more responsibility for its own security. For decades, Europe's political classes have taken up the project of political integration via the European Union. Perhaps the rise of Trump, a presidential candidate many European leaders expressed open distaste for (though they were quick to reach out after he'd won) will motivate Europeans to move away from being reliant on American military power and toward security independence.

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  1. Obama sure is leaving Trump a big steaming pile of shit.

    1. I bet his staff upper-decks every toilet in the White House on the morning of the 20th.

      1. i guess that would be less expensive than clinton’s staff removing keyboard letters but a disingenuous and crude assertion nevertheless.

    2. Europe has always been a big steaming pile of shit. I really don’t think Obama has made that any worse. Heck, I really don’t think he could make it worse even if he tried.

    3. what president never took office without any world problems that need to be addressed. But maybe the world would be better off ignored and not addressed

  2. President Obama became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to bomb another Nobel Peace Prize winner when an American gunship launched a strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.

    Thanks, Ed. I’ll put this to good use.

    1. What’s the threshold on the number of people a Nobel Peace Prize can kill ?

      1. or the winner thereof?

      2. what’s the threshold on the number of presidents which can be assassinated if they don’t play ball with the military establishment and the entrenched bureaucracy ?

    2. I’m going to use that for my “LightBringer” farewell montage.

    3. Wow, so Arafat and Rabin did not bomb each other at all after winning their respective 1/3rd share. Considering we’re counting collateral damage (which never happens)

  3. What’s going on with the alt-texts, Kray-Kray? They’re not up to your usual standard. I mean, that first one, “spin city?” Come on, Africa isn’t a city, it’s a country.

    1. Spin City was a great show.

      1. +2 access denied

      2. +7 on one, 4 on the other

  4. Last year, President Obama became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to bomb another Nobel Peace Prize winner

    Most amusing sentence I’ve read in months. Nicely done.

  5. Wall them off. Wall all of them off and make them pool their money to pay for it all.

  6. Aaaand thanks to Obama and Kerry’s scorched earth tactics, Israel/Palestine will be a lot more urgent and precarious too.

    1. @IsraeliPM Dec 24“There is nothing more absurd than calling the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter occupied territory”

      Do they really believe Israel is going to give up the Western Wall to the Palestinians? This is dumb beyond the normal dumb I’m used to from President Not My Fault and Kerry.

  7. If it only can be six hotspots, the Norks I think should bump ‘Europe.’

    1. I would add in N. Korea and China, Russia, Iran, general Islamist adventurism worldwide.

  8. Here’s hoping CA becomes a foreign policy problem for the US.

    1. You know, millions of people in California voted against Barack Obama, right?

      Some of them even voted for Johnson!

    2. Californian independence would be a ‘foreign policy problem’ for about a week.

      Either the U.S. government flat out rejects secession and uses military force to prevent it, or California becomes independent, causing several parts of it to break off and rejoin the United States (and if California tries to keep those parts they’ll get to fight against a partisan campaign). Eventually through government incompetence and possible mass exodus of business (I don’t believe for a second that the Californian government wouldn’t make some cronyist deals with their choice industries however) the People’s Republic runs out of other people’s money to spend. Then perhaps China will start trying to pay them off, which will trigger an American military response so they can’t station troops there. Or California will refuse to enforce border control while allowing for mass immigration, justifying a military response. Or you could just cut off their access to American water and power.

      The general short and long-term result is a way more right-wing United States, and the possibility that California ends up being run as a special administration zone or territory that loses much of its power within the continental U.S.

      The general theme here is that Californian independence is stupid.

      1. As long as California has it’s multi billion dollar public pension debt, it will not have the cojones to secede.

        1. +1 if only because you spelled cojones correctly.

          Which, on the internet, apparently makes you a 0.01%er.

      2. The long run result is that LA is turned into a prison colony, which complicates matters when the President’s rebellious daughter ends up holed up there with a bunch of left-wing terrorists and a stolen doomsday device.

        1. Wait, I think that happened three years ago, now that I think about it.

        2. Call me Snake.

      3. I find it funny that the liberals trashed northern Californians who wanted to break away from the state not the country but now the liberals think its a brilliant idea to leave the U.S.

      4. The general theme here is that Californian independence is stupid.

        Like that’s ever stopped California from doing anything.

        And, oh fuck, I just accepted a 12-month consulting contract in San Jose. What are the odds of finding myself a sudden ex-pat in 2017? Hopefully they’ll give me some grace period to scoot back across the border.

  9. One thing that might be a serious change is if Trump resets our relationship with Russia, and the world unifies around doing something about ISIS.

    I’m not talking about like Iraq, where the U.S. and the UK go in with token contributions from Poland and South Korea. I’m talking about a full UN Security Council resolution with a mandate, World War II style collaboration between Russia and the U.S., and the U.N. taking over national building in the aftermath.

    Notice, I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing–I’m just saying that’s something that’s shaping up and could happen because Trump’s cooperative relationship with Russia is likely to, at least, start out being very different from Obama’s.

    Certainly, ISIS is an even bigger thorn in the side of Russia’s allies in Iran and Syria than it is in the side of the U.S.

  10. You mean ‘ Places the U.S should not have mucked around in and should now let theses people sort out their own problems’? I know it’s a big headline. But,It’s far closer to the truth.

  11. What happened to the Electoral College story?

    1. Not just any squirrels, Russian squirrels.

      1. They look so cute in their fur hats .

  12. Would that Trump would be wise enough to recognize that the US has been making things worse whenever it gets involved abroad … pretty much every time since the Spanish-American War.

    Lots of good intentions, but lots of dead bodies and very little in the way of benefits.

    1. Leader of the free world,must protect Europe,Baltic states,Japan,South Korea,Middle East fight ‘terror’ and drugs Did I leave anything out?

    2. Trump will be the best president we’ve had in decades (I can dream, can’t I?) if he does only two things. One, abandon his asinine war on free trade. Two, disentangle us from our stupid overseas adventures, bring the troops home, and stop acting like every problem in the world is our problem.

      1. 3) Repeal Obamacare, and let someone like John Goodman (the HSA guy, not the actor) design the replacement.

        1. Either one could probably design something better.

      2. Build the Wall!

  13. Sounds like the US needs some isolationism

  14. Can someone explain to me why 2016 was so terrible? There have to be many years in living memory that were objectively worse. This is a dumb meme and I can’t wait for it to be over so I can grab 2017 by the pussy.

    1. “Can someone explain to me why 2016 was so terrible?”

      If you have to ask that question, it’s because you’re part of the problem, waffles.

      In 2008, the economy imploded throwing millions out of work. An amazing number of people lost their homes! We responded by piling tons of regulation on the banking industry making it hard for them to lend–at a time when the economy was being strangled by the scarcity of credit.

      If you think that’s worse than Trump being elected President, then I don’t know what to say other than that you must be a racist who hates Mexican babies and wants to burn down all the mosques. Because the immigration squads are real, and the Muslims are all gonna be chased out of the country.

      And if you don’t believe that’s going to happen like you believe the sun’s gonna come up tomorrow, then you need to stop wasting your weekends at the tractor pull and stop watching fake news.

    2. “Can someone explain to me why 2016 was so terrible?”

      It’s simple. The whiners on Twitter are too young to remember the 60s when a president was assassinated, his brother was assassinated, MLK was assassinated, and there was a war with actual conscripts fighting on the other side of the world because……well, I forget why, but it had something to do with dominos.

      1. Because if the 60s were horrible, 2016 cannot be.

        It’s a law of Physics

    3. Because the coronation of High Empress Hillary of Chappaqua was derailed by klansmen and Russians (evil ones, not commies), per the progosphere.

    4. Brexit
      Italian No

      Best year since the fall of the Berlin Wall!

    5. My Dad was born in 1923. I’d be willing to bet he’d be able to name plenty of years worse than 2016. And he’s still around to ask, even.

    6. 2001 had 9/11, beginning of GWOT, SARBOX…

  15. Can someone explain to me why 2016 was so terrible?

    I’m given to understand it’s because a lot of celebrities died.


  16. If Trump has six hot spots he has to deal with, THEN THE U.S. IS DOING FOREIGN POLICY WRONG. In a better world, Ron Paul would be in the White House instead of selling prepper food on the radio.

    1. RPI is just a Putin’s lobbyist office. Audit RPI.

    2. Hey, he could be doing both. Which, when you think about it, would be simultaneously terrifying and also quite successful.

  17. Gtfo

    1. This.

  18. “Europe has not seen a war on its continent in this century?”

    Really? Reason mag did not hear about Russian war against Georgia, against Ukraine, Russo-Armenian war against Azerbaijan?

    Tired of this prorussian BS, ending my donations to Reason.

    1. Also, way to set the cutoff date to conveniently omit the bloody implosion of Yugoslavia.

  19. 1. Five of the six are mid east “hot spots”. Arm the Jews to the teeth.

    2. Europe. Avert your eyes and don’t take any calls.

    Problem(s) solved.

    1. Walls

      1. Has there ever been a better solution?

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