President Trump is already turning the world upside down in international diplomatic circles by taking a markedly different approach to global politics than his predecessor.
It comes as no surprise that with each new American administration, a diplomatic chain reaction is felt the world over. The Bush years were marked by a heavy-handed, and sometimes ham-handed, forceful approach to American diplomacy. From NATO, to pan-Asia relationships, to the Middle East, Bush dealt from a position of cultural strength and a philosophy firmly rooted in Pax Americana. Was this approach successful? Historians certainly disagree.
What can be agreed upon is the screeching, grinding halt President Obama put on this brand of diplomatic dealings. From Obama's maiden voyage abroad, what some tritely coined an “American Apology Tour,” the president accepted and advocated a diminished American presence on the international stage. His administration dealt with a light, often inconsequential, hand in diplomatic relationships, preferring, in their own words, a “lead from behind” approach.
Nowhere was that vacuum more evident than within the destabilized regions which Obama inherited from his predecessor. Iraq, Afghanistan, and subsequently Syria, sunk further and further into chaos during the Obama years. The Obama administration announced highly controversial military pull-out dates in the region, which begat a skyrocketing of terrorist attacks in both the Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately, Iraq and Syria were plunged into a barbaric war with ISIS forces, which gained control of vast swaths of the region under Obama's watch. Afghanistan experienced a sharp, bloody uptick in terrorist attacks by Taliban forces and an economic upheaval during the later Obama years.
Now these regions, and their enormous problems, are inherited by Donald Trump, a president famous for saying he will “bomb the sh*t out of ISIS.” The Trump-era diplomacy is in its infancy and will certainly be years in the making before any responsible assessment of its merits can be written. Yet, the administrations bombastic drumbeat of 'America First' and its swift deployment of American troops, without apology, to terrorist war zones is already proving consequential for those who live and die by the health of these troubled regions.
Enter the current Afghan Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Hamdullah Mohib. Friday night, Mohib hosted a dinner at his residence for Gold Star wives, the wives of American soldiers who gave their lives fighting in his home country. This reporter was invited to attend and report on the events of the evening. The ambassador graciously received approximately one dozen Gold Star wives and members of the military community at his residence.
Over the course of the evening, Dr. Mohib led a vibrant, gracious conversation about the struggles of his home country and displayed deep appreciation to the family members of the Americans lost on its soil. The ambassador invited questions from the group after a rich, Afghan dinner, served in an ornate, chandelier lit ballroom. Specifically, Dr. Mohib wondered how his post could better serve those in the military community who gave so much for his country.
During this Q and A, the ambassador was asked about the current American administration and how the people of Afghanistan viewed President Trump. His answer stunned those listening, not only for its candor but also for its rare insight into how the president approaches foreign policy. His full response to the question:
"I've personally met with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago and the president has had two phone conversations with President Ghani [The president of Afghanistan]. One call was after he won the election and one after [Trump] became president. Before the calls, we were advised to keep conversations short because, we were told, Trump will not be interested in the details of the call and does not have a long attention span, so it would be pointless to have a long call.
However, we were pleasantly surprised at how much time President Trump spent asking very informed questions. The first time the presidents spoke, the questions Trump asked impressed us. “How can you win in this fight [against terrorism]?” he asked. “What do you need to become financially independent?” and “How can American business invest in Afghanistan? How can we develop businesses and mining in your country?”
Trump would listen intently after each question, often asking follow-ups. Trump's second call with our president was even longer than the first. Asking these types of questions for our country is something the Obama administration never did. The Obama administration was the most academic administration we have ever had to deal with but the Trump administration has been the most thoughtful and intelligent.
Trump continually asked “How can you win? What does Afghanistan need to win?” in reference to our fight with terrorism. Trump wants to win. Sincerely. All the Obama administration wanted to do was not lose.
The Obama administration was hesitant with us. The enemy could sense that. When the Obama administration announced its plans to pull troops out of the region, they announced the exact date they would do it. All our enemies had to do was wait [Obama] out. They knew the date they had to hang on until — which gave them the will to fight. They used that time to recruit and build up resources.
To bring real reform, we must be able to defeat enemies outside our country and inside. We must overthrow the Afghan warlords who are profiteering off the war. Every time we tried to remove one of them from power, [Secretary John] Kerry would say "no" because it would potentially make it unstable and require more troops be brought in. The entire Obama administration was too cautious, but Kerry was the most cautious. Perhaps the Obama administration was fatigued by the time we assumed power. [President Ghani assumed power in September of 2014.] But Trump is very different from Obama in this way.
This is good, for the future of Afghanistan."
The comments at the dinner were very well-received. Gold Star wives nodded their heads in agreement over their dessert tea being served. One wife directly followed the comments from the ambassador by saying Obama's actions in Afghanistan were an “insult” to her husband's legacy and what he fought for. The ambassador said he hoped to honor legacies of Americans and Afghans alike by creating a stable, free, democratic society in his country.
All left the dinner in good spirits.
Trump-era diplomacy is very much in its infancy. Yet even in his first few days as America's chief diplomat, the president is doing what he promised; making big, big waves.