Jan 31, 2020 - World

When impeachment collides with foreign policy

Kissinger and Trump, two men who know a thing or two about impeachment. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Historical analyses of President Trump's impeachment will note that it coincided with a tumultuous four months in U.S. foreign policy.

Between the lines: It’s impossible to evaluate exactly if and how impeachment affected Trump's calculus along the way — but it certainly affected his predecessors.

  • Trump sparked a conflagration in Syria by pulling troops away from the Turkish border, ordered the elimination of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took out Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at the risk of war with Iran, and made trade peace with China, at least temporarily.
  • He also finalized a deal to replace NAFTA and presented a plan for Middle East peace.

Richard Nixon withdrew almost entirely from foreign policy as impeachment closed in, historian Timothy Naftali writes in Foreign Affairs, delegating arms control negotiations and “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East almost entirely to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

  • Nixon slept through a meeting called urgently by Kissinger in response to a possible Soviet intervention in Egypt. After the “smoking gun” tape, bad news from Vietnam was brought to Kissinger’s desk, not Nixon’s.
  • Powers like China and the USSR didn’t test Nixon, Naftali writes, in part because they genuinely hoped he’d survive.
  • The challenges came instead from "revisionist powers" like Turkey, and from domestic opponents of his detente policy.
  • Nixon, meanwhile, pushed Kissinger to deliver a win that would allow for an overseas victory lap.

Bill Clinton also wanted a win during impeachment — in particular, a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians — but he leaned into his role as commander in chief rather than pulling back.

  • Bruce Riedel, now at Brookings, was advising Clinton on various foreign policy crises at the time. He refutes claims that impeachment factored into Clinton's decision to bomb Iraq, but notes that “impeachment was a constant presence.”
  • “I would be briefing the president on the diplomatic and military situation while his lawyers waited outside the Oval Office to discuss the House proceedings. We were frequently jostling for the president’s attention and time,” he writes.
  • The juggling act included Clinton authorizing strikes he hoped would take out Osama bin Laden the same week he admitted to having an affair with Monica Lewinsky.
  • Clinton was worried both about foreign speculation that he was weakened and domestic claims he was overcompensating to show he wasn’t, Naftali notes. Dennis Ross, Clinton’s Middle East envoy, later said he felt pressure to deliver a peace deal quickly as Clinton's presidency seemed in the balance.

The big picture: Past impeachment sagas have raised questions about the collision of foreign policy and domestic politics. Trump has never really drawn a distinction between the two.

Flashback: Impeachment got underway as Trump was in New York for the UN General Assembly. He met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and revealed a partial transcript of the call that launched the scandal.

  • It could end as soon as tomorrow. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be in Kiev, assuring Zelensky that — despite the political chaos and his own dismissive comments — Trump stands by Ukraine.

Go deeper: The daily highlights from Trump's Senate impeachment trial

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