Milbank: Trump scores two foreign policy wins; thanks, Obama

By Dana Milbank

President Trump appears to have found himself a new national security adviser.

His name is Barack Obama.

Recent days have brought evidence of two foreign policy successes for the Trump administration:

On Friday, a top State Department official who has served in the Obama and Trump administrations announced that gains against the Islamic State have picked up sharply and that the militants have lost 78 percent of their territory in Iraq and 58 percent in Syria. The Washington Post’s headline (which the White House circulated in an email): “Under Trump, gains against ISIS have dramatically accelerated.”

Then, on Saturday, China and Russia joined in a unanimous U.N. Security Council vote to approve a U.S.-sponsored resolution with tough new sanctions on North Korea, a forceful world response to that country’s missile tests.

These two developments, in addition to being successes, had another thing in common: In both cases, the Trump administration essentially embraced Obama administration policies — policies Trump previously derided as a “total failure.” The Trump administration, at least temporarily, shelved the president’s bellicose rhetoric, made some tweaks to his predecessor’s strategies and pursued a course of relative continuity.

On North Korea, Trump has long been making threats and ultimatums, promising “severe things” and raising the possibility that South Korea and Japan could build nuclear arsenals. He was harshly (if vaguely) critical of the Obama administration’s handling of North Korea, saying Obama and Hillary Clinton — who were pushing for tougher sanctions — weren’t being strong enough.

And now? Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered soothing words about North Korea: “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel,” he said. “We are trying to convey to the North Koreans: We are not your enemy, we are not your threat.”

Those words cleared the way for China and Russia to support the sanctions resolution at the United Nations on Saturday, as The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung reported. Representatives of both countries mentioned Tillerson’s statement in casting their votes, with China’s representative saying, “Our hope is that the United States will translate these ‘four no’s’ into a firm policy.”

Under the headline “Trump’s North Korea policy resembles Obama’s,” Politico on Monday reported that administration officials were privately sending signals that a pre-emptive attack on North Korea is “not on the table” (although national security adviser H.R. McMaster says otherwise in public) and that “the Trump administration is pursuing a five-part strategy similar to the strategy undertaken by the Obama administration.”

On the Islamic State, likewise, Brett McGurk, a top State Department official under both Obama and Trump, announced that steps taken by Trump — notably his delegation of decision-making authority from the White House to commanders in the field — contributed to the reclaiming of 8,000 square miles of Islamic State territory.

Trump’s decision to give more authority to field commanders makes the military more nimble. The Obama White House was justifiably criticized for its plodding micromanagement of military strategy. Former Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates, among others, complained about the “centralized and controlling” Obama national security team.

But this change is a massage — not a reversal — of an Obama strategy Trump repeatedly derided as “weak” and a “disaster.” By the time Trump took over, the territory controlled by the Islamic State had already fallen substantially from its peak in early 2015.

Trump promised to replace the Obama strategy with a “secret plan” of his own. But, as DeYoung reported, Trump’s Islamic State strategy “looks very much like the one the Obama administration pursued”: denying territory to the militants while avoiding conflict with Iran and staying out of Syria’s civil war.

Trump’s decision to free field commanders to make quick decisions comes with downsides. As gains against the Islamic State have accelerated, reports indicate that civilian casualties are also up sharply. Trump is also relying more on Russia than Obama did to keep Syrian government forces from interfering in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the militants. Still, these differences are matters of degree, not a wholesale change from Obama’s strategy.

It’s not as if Trump is about to usher in a third term for the Obama national security team. But even if these two cases turn out to be isolated and temporary, they show that within the Trump administration there is at least some instinct to tone down the wild talk and, ever so quietly, to bend to reality.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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