U.S. Diplomats Say ‘Contain the Damage’ Has Become Their Job Description Under Trump

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(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s criticism of his Ukraine envoy, deployment of Rudy Giuliani to dig up dirt on a rival and a move to suspend crucial military aid left U.S. diplomats normally in charge of carrying out American foreign policy forced to contain the damage left in the president’s wake.

It’s a situation to which they are accustomed.

Whether it’s Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey or other hot spots, American diplomats say “contain the damage” -- a quote from the Ukraine whistle-blower’s letter to Congress released last week -- has become their job description after two and a half years serving Trump. Their goal isn’t to head off his policies, but to keep him from sabotaging the very plans he’s put into motion.

“I think the president has made it repeatedly and abundantly clear that he is the only one who makes U.S. foreign and security policy,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But by neutering his team, he undercuts his success as a commander-in-chief.”

Trump, who came to office skeptical of foreign policy professionals but was willing to consider their counsel, is sufficiently confident in his abilities to dispense with them altogether. Last week’s release -- by Trump -- of a partial transcript of his July telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demonstrates how the American president is willing to ignore his formal foreign-policy team when he’s convinced he can be more effective.

‘Gutter Ball’

“The way I would describe it is they see themselves serving as those bumpers you put up when you take your kid bowling so the person doesn’t roll a gutter ball,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “But in this instance, a gutter ball is war with Iran or a nuclear armed missile coming from North Korea.”

U.S. Diplomats Say ‘Contain the Damage’ Has Become Their Job Description Under Trump

As the foreign policy establishment tries to make policy from shifting priorities and strategies, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has been drawn into the Ukraine uproar.

Pompeo, who on Friday said he hadn’t had time to read the whistle-blower’s account, took part in the call with Ukraine’s president, a person familiar with the matter said on Monday. Officials at the State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Trump’s recently ousted national security adviser, John Bolton, underscored the tensions with experienced aides on Monday when he undercut the president’s repeated claims of success in negotiating with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Bolton Weighs In

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bolton said that the Pyongyang regime has not agreed to eliminate its nuclear weapons program and will never give us its existing stockpiles without more pressure.

U.S. Diplomats Say ‘Contain the Damage’ Has Become Their Job Description Under Trump

Bolton’s also asserted that a suspension of North Korean long-range ballistic missile and nuclear tests wasn’t a result of American diplomacy but because Kim’s regime has finished testing and can produce nuclear warheads and the missiles.

“That’s not an encouraging sign, that’s a sign to be worried about,” Bolton said.

Bolton had advised the president against a meeting he had planned with the Taliban at Camp David to complete negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan. According to two people familiar with the matter, Trump sabotaged his own peace process by suggesting that the deal be finalized at the presidential retreat -- an effort that Trump pulled the plug on in a surprise Saturday evening tweet last month -- shortly before he fired Bolton.

Iran Initiative

The result of the president’s approach, according to another person, is policy disarray. When the U.S. tried to form a coalition of nations to start a maritime security initiative to monitor tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf as a warning to Iran, nations such as France and Germany refused to go along for fear that they’d be dragged into war. Instead, they started their own initiative.

Another example is the case of Huawei Technologies Co., which the U.S. has argued is a threat to national security and could threaten intelligence sharing with countries that install the company’s 5G network technology.

For months, Pompeo and his team have pushed ahead with a campaign for nations to turn their back on Huawei or ban the company from their networks. That argument has won few backers. According to a person familiar with the discussions, the more common reaction is that long-time allies including France, Germany and the U.K. tell American negotiators that their word simply cannot be trusted: They worry Trump could wipe away security concerns as part of a trade deal with China. Or he may simply change his mind.

That frustration within Trump’s own foreign policy apparatus is particularly evident on Iran, where officials have repeatedly tried -- and failed -- to argue that Trump is reducing U.S. leverage by saying that the problem with Tehran is really about two things: limits on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“We’re looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles, and a longer period of time,” Trump said in August. “Very simple. We can have it done in a very short period of time.”

The problem is that Pompeo has laid out 12 demands covering a far broader range of issues. Trump’s refusal to defend that list of demands is the latest evidence of the president declining to say the things his top advisers advocate. That’s led even allies of the president’s so-called maximum-pressure approach to criticize him.

“There’s a lot of frustration in the administration about how the president talks about Iran and a desire to get him to stick to the program,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has been a key administration adviser in the creation of the “maximum pressure” sanctions. “I know there’s concern that when he doesn’t he’s reducing U.S. negotiating leverage.”

Pompeo’s Dilemma

Caught in the middle is Pompeo, who has been one of the president’s most loyal supporters while also seeking to protect the diplomats who work for him.

Two people familiar with the matter said that while Pompeo so far hasn’t spoken out in support of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who Trump denigrated in the phone call with Zelensky, he did seek to shield her from attacks by the president’s supporters, including Donald Trump Jr., who called for her dismissal. Yovanovitch left her post two months early but remains in the Foreign Service.

Pompeo has also been praised by State Department staff who say he’s persuaded the White House to fill many ambassadorial posts with career diplomats rather than political appointees with no overseas experience, and hired a handful of special envoys to tackle key issues such as North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, even though some of the officials were derided as establishment thinkers and anti-Trump by some of the president’s supporters.

Just over a year before the next presidential election, Trump has yet to score a major foreign policy victory. And State Department officials are coming to the realization that, with the president determined to go his own way, even an influential aide like Pompeo -- the longest-service member of the national security cabinet -- has only so much influence.

A perfect encapsulation of that came in August, when Trump surprised his own North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, with his decision to meet with Kim on the border between South and North Korea.

“How much can Pompeo really do?” said Elizabeth Saunders, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. “This is not an administration that values diplomacy or alliances and doing too much would have gotten him in the doghouse.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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