Security Brief

Trump Looks to Score Last-Minute Foreign Policy Points

Will presidential promises to bring troops home and give Israel more diplomatic victories be enough to sway voters?

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the the signing of the Abraham Accords with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates at the White House on Sept. 15.
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the the signing of the Abraham Accords with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates at the White House on Sept. 15. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. We hope everyone is having a better week than Fort Bragg’s social media team.

What’s on tap today: Team Trump pushes for foreign policy victories before Nov. 3, NATO increases its defense spending—but not enough to make Trump happy, and the secretive military intelligence world gets a big budget boost.

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Trump’s 11th-Hour Foreign Policy Playbook

Facing a tough reelection battle, the Trump administration is rushing to net some last-minute foreign policy points ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential elections: on troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, pressuring countries in the Arab world to recognize Israel, and trying to clinch deals on a key nuclear arms agreement with Russia.

As much as we hate to admit it, foreign policy isn’t the biggest election issue. But the Trump administration still looks eager to clinch victories abroad that are important to its conservative base and potentially to swing state voters, particularly on fulfilling long-standing campaign promises like bolstering U.S. support for Israel.

Here’s what we’re tracking:

The White House seems intent on drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 4,500 before next month, and then to between 2,500 and 2,800 by early 2021. The issue has pitted National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien against Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, as Politico reports. Milley said in an NPR interview that O’Brien was engaging in “speculation” by discussing specifics: Troop levels are set based on conditions on the ground in Afghanistan.

This week, the Trump administration appeared to pressure a third country in the Arab world—Sudan—to establish formal diplomatic ties with Israel, following deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. This came after months of tense negotiations with Sudan’s new civilian-led government to remove the country from the United States’ state sponsors of terrorism list after nearly three decades. (We reported on the behind-the-scenes details of those negotiations.)

Then there’s the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, set to expire in February. Initially Trump had big plans for expanding the treaty to include China, but China flatly rejected any opening offer for talks. After months of impasse, the Trump administration now appears close to an interim deal to extend the treaty for one year while talks over a newer, better deal continue. Trump’s top arms control negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, has pushed Russia for some sort of deal before Nov. 3, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

If Trump is a one-term president, his legacy on foreign policy will likely be as controversial as the man himself. Most foreign policy experts—even some of his sharpest critics—concede that he has won important victories, but whether they outweigh his blunders and everything else remains to be seen.


What We’re Watching

Check the bank account. Ahead of a virtual meeting of NATO defense ministers on Thursday, the alliance released a new rundown of defense spending among its 30 members. Trump has fixated on defense spending as one of NATO’s biggest shortcomings, making these numbers something to (warily) watch. Ten members now meet the alliance’s benchmark of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense—meaning the other 20 don’t.

NATO members’ defense spending has increased overall since 2014, though that’s more due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than Trump’s Twitter rants. But the defense spending fights already have big consequences for U.S. force posture in Europe. Earlier this year, Trump announced plans to pull 12,000 troops from Germany, after accusing the country of being “delinquent” on payments to NATO. (That’s not at all how national defense spending works.)

The plan was met with some anger and opposition in Congress, including from Republican members. Still, it could take years to execute—by which point there could be a new president, who would reverse the order.

Big secrets. The Pentagon’s secret intelligence budget hit a nine-year high in the fiscal 2020, Defense News reports. The Military Intelligence Program grew to $23.1 billion in appropriated funds in the fiscal year that ended in September, the highest mark since Congress appropriated $24 billion for it in 2011.

Second chance. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been tasked with forming a new government, just one year after he resigned amid mass demonstrations against the country’s anemic political system, ruled by the same class of families for decades. Hariri, himself the son of the prime minister slain in 2005, notched his victory with a far-flung coalition that included secular parties closely allied with Iran-backed Hezbollah.

The combination of the coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis, political strife, and the massive explosion at Beirut’s port in August have fomented the worst crisis Lebanon has seen since its civil war.


Join Foreign Policy editor in chief Jonathan Tepperman and former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on Monday, Oct. 26, at 11 a.m. ET for a wide-ranging discussion of how U.S. foreign policy must be adapted to meet current and coming challenges. Register here 


Movers and Shakers

Revolving door. Recently retired Maj. Gen. Mike Fantini, who last served as the director of Air Force warfighting integration capability and acting deputy chief of staff, is joining Pallas Advisors, a Washington advisory firm headed by Sally Donnelly and Tony DeMartino, two top aides to former Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Judicial watch. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court on a party line vote on Thursday, with 10 Democrats on the panel boycotting the proceedings. Lawmakers who did not attend left images of people in their seats who they said would be hurt by the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act.


Quote of the Week

“Of course, should President Trump lose to former Vice President Joe Biden, he could— and almost certainly would at least —consider a return to the ring in 2024.”

—Conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt in the Washington Post, giving the dozens of people who aren’t tired of the 2020 election cycle something to look forward to in the next one


Foreign Policy Recommends

How to fix the Army. Responding to decades-old concerns about toxic leadership in the Army, Army Chief of Staff James McConville has put into place a new process for selecting battalion commanders to rejuvenate the service’s leadership. Harvard Business Review takes a look under the hood, including McConville’s efforts to redefine how the Army identifies talent.

Skeptics: Even if “business review of human resources practices” doesn’t sound like a thrilling read to you, defense wonks should take some time with this one, an interesting dive into how to reform a massive and sprawling bureaucracy.

Should Mexico join NATO? A new report from the Atlantic Council compiles 20 essays with some interesting and potentially controversial policy proposals for modernizing NATO, including having the alliance christen its own carrier strike group, having NATO create a strategy for the Arctic, and even an argument for getting Mexico to join NATO. Read the full report.


The Week Ahead

The final U.S. presidential debate between Trump and Biden will be held tonight in Nashville. (Read all of Foreign Policy’s election coverage here to catch up.)

Acting U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator John Barsa speaks about advancing religious freedom through U.S. aid at the conservative Hudson Institute on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

C4ISRNET’s Cybercon conference kicks off on Wednesday, Oct. 28, with remarks by the Pentagon’s Chief of Information Security for Acquisition Katie Arrington and Rep. Jim Langevin.


That’s it for today.

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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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