Dov S. Zakheim
To the extent Donald Trump has a strategy, it is one grounded in assumptions and realities that were far more relevant 150 years ago than they are today.
THERE IS A widespread consensus that Donald Trump is a highly transactional figure who has no strategic sense—much less an actual strategy. That is not entirely correct. He does have a coherent strategy, but it is one that is firmly based on a nineteenth-century view of America’s role in the world. In that regard, his strategic perspective contrasts sharply with many of the men he professes to admire such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Like Trump, Putin is often mischaracterized as lacking a strategic worldview. Unlike Trump, however, both Putin and Xi are firmly rooted in the twenty-first century and both understand how they can best achieve their ambitions by drawing upon their respective nation’s human and material resources, which is the essence of strategy.
Putin has most clearly demonstrated his strategic acumen in the Middle East. In contrast, Donald Trump wishes to lower America’s profile in the region. Despite limited resources and a weak economy, under Putin’s leadership Russia has entrenched itself more deeply in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East than the Soviet Union ever did. Moreover, Moscow has managed to maintain good relations with states that are hostile to each other. Russia has strengthened its position in Syria with a new long-term lease on the Tartus naval base and a similar lease on an air base at Khmeimim—its first ever such facility in the Middle East.
Russia has worked closely with Iran in Syria and has ongoing contacts with Hezbollah, Tehran’s Lebanese proxy. It also maintains good relations with Iran’s (and Syria and Hezbollah’s) avowed enemy, Israel, whereas the Soviets had no relations with the Jewish state after 1967. Russia has also re-engaged with Egypt for the first time since the Soviets were expelled in 1972; like Israel, Egypt sees Iran as a security threat. Finally, Russia has moved closer to Turkey, including the expected sale of arms to Ankara, even as it also has excellent ties to Cyprus, which has long opposed Turkey’s support for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.