Shadow Government

While the Trump Team Fiddles, the World Burns

Across Africa and the Middle East, a vacuum of U.S. leadership is exacerbating crises and emboldening abusers.


Washington’s focus has been consumed of late by the almost daily, worrisome revelations about lack of interagency process on important foreign policy decisions; opposing messages transmitted by the president, his political advisors, the vice president, and Cabinet secretaries; and significant actions taken seemingly without the input of the secretary of state or the State Department more generally.

It’s certainly enough to chew on, but mostly lost amid all the navel-gazing and churn is the worrying crush of serious foreign-policy issues that deserve far more attention than they’ve been getting from the Trump administration, whose seeming absence raises real questions about U.S. leadership and engagement. The list of issues in the inbox is long, as it always is, but a few are worth highlighting.

The six year-old Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. A recent Amnesty International report detailed the gruesome and regular execution of prisoners in Bashar al-Assad’s jails, with up to 13,000 people reportedly having been summarily executed. And while a Russia-Turkey agreed ceasefire is nominally in place, the brutal tactics of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers continue to lie in wait.

Against this grim backdrop, the dogged U.N. special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has started political talks on ending the conflict in Geneva this week, the first such movement in 10 months. Both de Mistura and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres have set deliberately low expectations for any breakthrough in this round of talks, but their task is assuredly more challenging given the uncertainties around the U.S. position on the Syria conflict under the Trump administration. U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney is in Geneva for the talks this week, but it is clear that the United States has, at least for now, pulled back from a leadership role in trying to drive diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. As de Mistura said last week: “Where are the United States? I can’t tell you, because I don’t know…. One thing I’m missing at the moment in order to have a clear equation … is a clear U.S. strategy.”

In South Sudan, another country ravaged by a brutal and senseless civil war, the United Nations declared a famine in certain parts of the country last week, stating that 100,000 people are at risk of starvation and up to a million more in danger of sliding into the same grim fate. U.N. agencies made a plea for unimpeded humanitarian access across South Sudan, something the government has blocked for several years. The United States to date is the largest humanitarian donor to South Sudan, but determined, strong U.S. leadership is needed to prod South Sudan’s leaders, to work with key regional actors like Ethiopia, to cajole other donors to commit funds to address this massive crisis, and to use the Security Council and other venues to keep up the political pressure on South Sudan’s government.

To be fair, the United States called for a Security Council discussion last week, and the State Department dutifully issued a press statement expressing the grave concern of the United States about the famine declaration. But as my Shadow Government colleague Reuben Brigety recently noted, we as of yet have no sense of where and how the Trump administration will engage on Africa issues. With millions of people potentially at risk of starvation in South Sudan (as well as Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia — which the U.N. warns are also at risk of famine), the world cannot afford an abdication of the traditionally strong leadership role Washington has played in the short life of South Sudan, or more broadly on humanitarian issues.

Close by, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, recent reports and video footage surfaced, suggesting that armed forces had summarily executed a number of civilians. The U.S. response, again, came in the form of a brief statement from the State Department acting press secretary expressing deep concern. Interestingly, the statement also called on the government of the DRC to work with “international organizations” to launch an immediate investigation, and to ensure accountability for the alleged acts. It is, of course, unclear to what extent the United States will continue to engage with those international organizations that could play such a role, in particular the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. But more fundamentally, given that the State Department has been largely sidelined thus far in the Trump administration, lacks senior staff, and has yet to hold a single press briefing, a statement issued from the acting press secretary’s office seems unlikely to hold much sway with the DRC government, and can hardly bring much comfort to victims’ families.

The United Nations last week also sounded the alarm bells, once again, about the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen, warning that 7 million people may be at risk of starvation and raising the specter of a possible famine in that country. Three years in, Yemen’s civil war grinds on, and the diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, led through an able U.N. special envoy, have stalled. As Jon Finer encouraged a few weeks ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could make an early diplomatic mark by putting his shoulder to the wheel of the stalled efforts to put an end to Yemen’s civil war. Thus far, though, the Trump administration has focused instead on vague but ominous sounding warnings to Iran (putting it “on notice”) and signing off on a risky and unsuccessful raid that led to the death of one American Navy SEAL and several Yemeni civilians. As on Syria, the administration has thus far signaled a heavy emphasis on the separate but related counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, but it has yet to lay down markers with respect to what role, if any, it might play in helping to end Yemen’s brutal civil war. In the meantime, Yemen’s civilians remain desperate and U.N. officials are left to gamely sound alarm bells, hoping they don’t continue to fall on deaf ears.

This list of crisis hot spots is hardly all-inclusive. There’s the brutal, months-long military assault in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that killed hundreds of people and caused tens of thousands of others to flee to Bangladesh; dire food insecurity in Nigeria and Somalia; the Iraqi military’s Mosul offensive, which could cause serious humanitarian challenges; and more.

This brief rundown provides a sense of the real-life events that continue apace, and which can’t afford to wait while the Trump administration dithers in allowing the secretary of state to fill out the department’s ranks or ignores the advice of seasoned and dedicated professionals at the State Department and National Security Council altogether.

The world is accustomed to the United States playing a leadership role in addressing such challenges. Washington’s diplomatic might can help bring reluctant warring parties to the table, persuade other countries to contribute funds and attend peace talks, help protect innocent civilians, and drive efforts to ensure justice and accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and human rights abuses.

It is just too early to tell how and whether the United States under President Trump will pursue such aims. But it’s still worth remembering that while Washington navel-gazes, millions of people are trapped in brutal conflicts around the world, and face potentially grave consequences that may not wait it out while the Trump administration figures out the role it will play on the world stage. As the U.N.’s de Mistura noted this week, in explaining his push to restart talks even in the absence of knowing what the United States strategy will be: “In the meantime, history goes on.”

Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Bathsheba ("Sheba") Crocker was the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs from 2014 to 2017. Earlier in the Barack Obama administration, she was the principal deputy director in the State Department’s office of policy planning and chief of staff to the deputy secretary. Prior to this, Crocker was a senior policy and advocacy officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, senior advisor in the U.N.’s peacebuilding support office, and deputy chief of staff to the U.N. special envoy for tsunami recovery. She also worked on post-conflict issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow. Previously, Crocker was an attorney and deputy U.S. special representative for Southeast Europe affairs at the State Department; she also served as executive assistant to the deputy national security advisor. Twitter: @shebacrocker

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