President Donald Trump, after promising a radical break with the foreign policy of Barack Obama, is embracing key pillars of the former administration’s strategy, including warning Israel to curb construction of settlements, demanding that Russia withdraw from Crimea, and threatening Iran with sanctions for ballistic missile tests.
In the most startling shift, the Trump White House issued an unexpected statement appealing to the Israeli government not to expand the construction of Jewish settlements beyond their current borders in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Such expansion, it said, “may not be helpful in achieving” the goal of peace.
At the United Nations, Ambassador Nikki Haley declared that the U.S. would not lift sanctions against Russia until it stopped destabilizing Ukraine and pulled its troops out of Crimea.
On Iran, the administration is preparing a set of economic sanctions that are similar to what the Obama administration imposed just over a year ago. The White House has also shown no indication that it plans to rip up Obama’s landmark nuclear deal, despite Trump’s withering criticism of it during the presidential campaign.
New administrations often fail to change the foreign policies of their predecessors as radically as they promised, in large part because statecraft is so different from campaigning. And of course, today’s positions could shift over time. But the Trump administration’s reversals were particularly stark because they came after days of tempestuous phone calls between Trump and foreign leaders, in which he gleefully challenged diplomatic orthodoxy and appeared to jeopardize one relationship after another.
Trump, for example, made warmer relations with Russia the centerpiece of his foreign policy during the campaign, and European leaders were steeling for him to lift the sanctions that they and Obama imposed on President Vladimir Putin after he annexed Crimea. But on Thursday, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Haley, sounded a lot like her predecessor, Samantha Power.
“We do want to better our relations with Russia,” Haley said in her first remarks to an open session of the U.N. Security Council. “However, the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.”
Similarly, Trump presented himself during the campaign as a stalwart supporter of Israel and sharply criticized the Obama administration for allowing the passage of a resolution in December at the Security Council that condemned Israel for its expansion of settlements.
“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace,” the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said in a statement, “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.’’
The statement noted that the president “has not taken an official position on settlement activity.” It said Trump would discuss the issue with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel when they meet Feb. 15, in effect telling Netanyahu to wait until then.
Emboldened by Trump’s support, Israel had announced more than 5,000 new homes in the West Bank since his inauguration.
Trump shifted his position after he met briefly with King Abdullah II of Jordan on the sidelines of the National Prayer Breakfast — an encounter that put the king, one of the most respected leaders of the Arab world, ahead of Netanyahu in seeing the new president. Jordan, with its large Palestinian population, has been steadfastly critical of settlements.
The administration’s abrupt turnaround also coincided with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s first day at the State Department, and the arrival of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in South Korea on his first official trip. Both men are viewed as potentially exerting a moderating influence on the president and his cadre of White House advisers, though it was unclear how much they had to do with the policy shifts.
With Iran, Trump has indisputably taken a harder line than his predecessor. While the Obama administration often looked for ways to avoid confrontation with Iran in its last year in office, Trump seems equally eager to challenge what he has said is an Iranian expansion across the region, especially in Iraq and Yemen. In an early morning Twitter post on Thursday, Trump was bombastic on Iran.
“Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile,” he wrote. “Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!” In a second tweet, he said, wrongly, “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the U.S. came along and gave it a life-line in the form of the Iran Deal: $150 billion.”
Still, the administration has been careful not to specify what the national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, meant when he said Wednesday that Iran had been put “on notice” for its missile test and for its arming and training of the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The new sanctions could be announced as soon as Friday. But most experts have said they will have little practical effect, because the companies that supply missile parts rarely have direct business with the U.S., and allies have usually been reluctant to reimpose sanctions after many were lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear accord.
Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, replied, “This is not the first time that an inexperienced person has threatened Iran,” according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency. “The American government will understand that threatening Iran is useless.”
Some analysts said they worried that the administration did not have tools, short of military action, to back up its warning to Iran.
“Whether the Trump administration intended it or not, they have created their own red line,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “When Iran tests again, the administration will have no choice but to put up or shut up.”
Netanyahu will cheer Trump’s tough tone with Iran. But the administration’s action on settlements may force him to change course on a sensitive domestic issue. His coalition government seemed to take Trump’s inauguration as a starting gun in a race to ramp up its construction in the occupied territory.
Since the president was sworn in, the Israeli government announced that it would authorize another 2,500 homes in areas already settled in the West Bank and then followed that this week with an announcement of 3,000 more. On Wednesday, Netanyahu took it a step further, vowing to build the first new settlement in the West Bank in many years.
For Netanyahu, the settlement spree reflects a sense of liberation after years of constraints from Washington, especially under Obama, who like other presidents viewed settlement construction as harmful to the chances of negotiating a final peace settlement. It is also an effort to deflect criticism from Israel’s political right for Netanyahu’s compliance with a court order to force several dozen families out of the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona.
Trump had also promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But in recent weeks, the White House slowed down the move, in part out of concern that it would cause a violent response.
The policy shifts came after a turbulent week, when Trump also clashed with the leaders of Australia and Mexico over one of the most fraught issues of his new presidency: immigration. He defended the tense exchanges as an overdue display of toughness by a United States that has been exploited “by every nation in the world, virtually.” “They’re tough; we have to be tough. It’s time we’re going to be a little tough, folks,” Trump told the prayer breakfast on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen anymore.”
Yet later in the day, the White House felt obliged to put a more diplomatic gloss on events. Spicer said Trump’s call with one of the leaders, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, had been “very cordial,” even if Trump bitterly opposed an agreement negotiated by the Obama administration for the U.S. to accept the transfer of 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention camp.
A senior administration official disputed a report that Trump had threatened to send troops to Mexico to deal with its “bad hombres.” The official said that the conversation with President Enrique Peña Nieto had been “actually very friendly,” and that Trump had been speaking in jest.