Nov 19, 2020 - World

Trump's last-minute foreign policy whirlwind

Trump visits Afghanistan in 2019. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is working quickly to shift U.S. policies and, where possible, bind the incoming Biden administration to them.

Why it matters: All of these steps are being taken without any coordination with Biden's team, which still lacks access to the intelligence and resources typically made available during a transition. In many cases, the Trump administration is trying to proactively thwart Biden's agenda.


The U.S. will reduce its troop counts in both Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 ahead of Biden's inauguration, from 4,500 and 3,000, respectively (both numbers had already been reduced sharply this year).

Those announcements came from acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller because Trump had days earlier removed an obstacle to the troop reductions: Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He also installed loyalists in key Pentagon positions.

  • Miller's announcement came despite dire warnings from Senate Republicans and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
  • Their concern is that an expedited NATO exit would leave only a vulnerable Afghan army to maintain security, which would offer terror groups like al-Qaeda room to operate.

But a reduction to 2,500 troops — not to zero, as Trump had promised — is likely a policy Biden can live with.

  • He has long supported withdrawal from Afghanistan, while keeping open the possibility of leaving a counterterrorism force behind.

Where things stand: The U.S.-Taliban peace deal in February included an understanding that the two sides would reduce their attacks on one another.

  • But since then, the Taliban has conducted more attacks on Afghan targets than during any other period of the war, while breaking its pledge to cut ties with al-Qaeda, per WSJ.


Trump asked his national security team last week for military options to strike Iran's nuclear program, the NY Times reports.

The backstory: Trump was reacting to reports that Iran has increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile to 12 times the maximum amount allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal.

  • He was convinced not to strike Iran by aides who said it would risk a war.
  • But, per the Times, he "might still be looking at ways to strike Iranian assets and allies, including militias in Iraq."

The other side: Biden blames Iran's buildup on Trump's exit from the nuclear deal, and he says he'll rejoin the pact if Iran returns to compliance.

  • But the Trump administration is trying to make that more difficult, mainly by piling new sanctions on Tehran that it hopes the new administration will find politically difficult to lift.

Trump's administration is also taking or contemplating other steps that align with its broader anti-Iran campaign, which could make life difficult for Biden.

  • The administration announced a $23 billion arms deal with the UAE that would make the Emirates the first Arab country to possess the F-35, America's most advanced fighter aircraft.

The administration is also considering designating the Houthi rebel group, which controls much of Yemen and is linked to Iran, as a terror organization.

  • The UN says that would make the peace deal it is trying to strike in Yemen much more difficult.
  • Meanwhile, five major aid organizations operating in Yemen wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has reportedly been pushing for the move, to warn that it "could undermine the overstretched humanitarian response in Yemen, threatening the lives of up to 24 million Yemenis who require humanitarian assistance."


Pompeo on Thursday became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

  • He brought with him a new policy — goods exported to the U.S. from the settlements must now be labeled “Made in Israel."
  • The policy announced by Pompeo is more radical than the Israeli government's position on the settlements, Axios' Barak Ravid writes, in that it signals U.S. recognition of de facto Israeli annexation of much of the West Bank.

The big picture: While the rest of the world views the settlements as illegal under international law and not part of Israel, the Trump administration has taken several steps intended to legitimize them and blur the differentiation between Israel and the West Bank.

What to watch: Pompeo's announcement puts another hurdle in place for Biden if, as expected, he seeks to roll back Trump's policies on settlements.


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