Whatever your views of Donald Trump’s presidency, it is hard to dispute that he produced a stronger record of achievement across the board when it comes to protecting the American people from a range of foreign threats than any other president in at least a generation. His national security accomplishments in four short years included taking on China, forging the historic Abraham Accords in the Middle East, defeating the ISIS caliphate, countering Iran, and standing up the Space Force. So now, one month into his tenure, how is President Joe Biden doing in preserving and building on Trump’s remarkable record?
One month ago, all presidential appointees in the White House wrote standard, end-of-office resignation letters to Trump. In my letter departing as deputy assistant to the president and spokesman for the National Security Council, I singled out 10 key accomplishments he achieved for the American people (most of which were accomplished in the last 18 months of his term, with new NSC leaders Robert O’Brien and Matt Pottinger executing efficiently on his priorities across the government). The 10 accomplishments offer a good framework for scoring President Biden’s effect on our national security in his first 30 days in office.
The bottom line: The jury is still out on where the Biden administration stands on most of these issues so early into the administration, but on a number of the items, there are worrying signs of a backslide on the historic progress Trump made. Following are each of Trump’s key accomplishments and a couple of points from Biden’s initial actions on each of them:
1. Building a new international consensus on China by standing up to its aggression in all its forms:
After Trump pulled the United States from the World Health Organization last year over the body’s working with China to cover up the virus, Biden rejoined the WHO on his first day in office, resuming full U.S. funding, and failed to demand specific reforms including the replacement of the disastrous leadership team headed by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Further, Biden held a two-hour call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Feb. 10, and while he echoed Trump’s priorities on maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific and pressing Xi on Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Uighur human rights, at a CNN town hall he later appeared to excuse the treatment of the Uighurs, saying, “Culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow.”
Biden also failed to confront Xi for his party’s unleashing the China virus on the rest of the world and for continuing to cover it up.
2. Strengthening critical partnerships with allies such as India, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand on issues from counterterrorism to maritime security:
Here there is actually good news. In a Feb. 18 call with the “Quad” countries — United States, India, Japan, and Australia — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his counterparts agreed “to strengthen cooperation on advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region, including support for freedom of navigation and territorial integrity.” Good work so far. Let’s hope that stands.
3. Signing a peace agreement with the Taliban after 19 years of war:
Trump pledged to withdraw the 2,500 remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 2021, in accordance with that agreement with the Taliban last year. There is a real question about whether Biden will either delay that pullout or cancel it entirely, leaving some U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
As a reminder, President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2011, and it will be important to see whether Biden follows through on Trump’s promise finally to end our presence in that country after two decades.
4. Bringing Iran’s economy to its knees and choking off funds to its terrorist allies:
Here there are real questions. No one was tougher on Iran than Trump, who in 2018 pulled us out of the “disastrous” Obama-Biden Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, that included $1.7 billion in funding for Iran, $400 million of which was airlifted into the country on pallets of cash. Now Biden wants to rejoin that widely criticized deal, although for the time being he is insisting on Iran halting the enrichment of uranium before lifting the Trump-imposed sanctions.
A positive move was Biden’s decision to launch airstrikes on Iran-backed militia targets in eastern Syria this week in response to several recent rocket attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, including one that killed a contractor. This response was welcome, if not somewhat surprising, given his strong criticism of Trump’s decisive action against malign Iranian actors for similar misconduct a year ago.
5. Eliminating the ISIS physical caliphate, once the size of Great Britain:
Once again, this was a real victory for Trump, where under Obama and Biden, the force reached a peak of tens of thousands of fighters in 2014. Trump effectively eliminated the ISIS caliphate in December 2017, after less than a year in office.
Most notably, Trump made the bold decision in October 2019 to send U.S. troops into northern Syria to capture or kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, resulting in the terrorist’s death by suicide vest when he was cornered in a tunnel. Biden pointedly gave Trump no credit for launching the successful operation at the time, very much of a piece with Biden’s opposition to the raid on Osama bin Laden eight years earlier. Needless to say, whether Biden exhibits the same decisiveness to keep ISIS from resurging early in his term remains an open question.
6. Forging a historic peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel, the most significant step toward peace in the Middle East in over 25 years:
In September of last year, Biden “welcomed” Trump’s forging of the first of the Abraham Accords and noted that “a Biden-Harris administration will build on these steps, challenge other nations to keep pace, and work to leverage these growing ties into progress toward a two-state solution and a more stable, peaceful region.” Since that statement, Trump expanded the Accords to include Sudan and Morocco.
Needless to say, this pledge by Biden on the Accords is great news — but whether he will, in fact, honor it remains unclear, both in his initial steps on rejoining the Iran deal and in his move in January “temporarily pausing” the landmark Trump sale last November of 50 F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates that followed that country’s signing of the Accords.
7. Rebuilding our military and establishing the Space Force, the first new branch of the Armed Forces in 70 years:
Finally some good news here, but not without a push. After initially mocking a reporter’s question about whether Biden would keep Trump’s signature new service branch formed last year, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated the next day, in response to criticism from Republicans, “We are not revisiting the decision to establish the Space Force.” Can’t anything be easy from this White House?
Whether Biden will continue Trump’s rebuilding of our nation’s military is far from settled, as initial planning suggests he will recommend a flat Defense Department budget for 2022, at $696 billion, rather than Trump’s planned $722 billion that included big increases for shipbuilding. Watch this space, as Biden’s budget is scheduled for release on May 3.
8. Pressing NATO members to increase their defense spending, resulting in pledges of an extra $400 billion through 2024:
There are good initial signs here. In advance of last week’s NATO ministerial meeting, a U.S. official noted that Biden and his team “expect all allies to live up to this commitment” on defense spending for the alliance, even as they would seek a “change in … tone and approach” from Trump, whose very tone and approach is exactly what brought the NATO allies to increase their spending massively beginning in 2018 after years of excuses.
Decorous calls for NATO allies to do more are nothing new. What was new under Trump was worrying less about the decorum but actually getting the allies to increase their defense spending.
9. Normalizing economic relations between Serbia and Kosovo:
To build on this important agreement forged by Trump in September, which provided for economic interaction between these two Balkan nations, Biden indicated earlier this month that he will press for the countries to recognize each other politically.
Mutual recognition and ultimate integration of the two countries into the European Union has been a shared goal of the United States and the European Union for the past decade, and Trump’s approach was to broker an economic agreement between the two countries as a initial step to pave the way for that goal.
Biden deserves credit for building on Trump’s progress bringing the countries together economically, but Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s response to Biden’s overture indicates that political recognition of Kosovo remains dead on arrival in his country. This at least demonstrates shared interests between Biden and Trump on Balkan policy.
10. Reducing undocumented migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico by 85 percent:
No policy was arguably as important to Trump than securing our southern border, and he delivered on it starting early in his tenure, from building over 450 miles of a border wall, to instituting a “remain in Mexico” policy that mandated asylum-seekers remain outside the United States while they await their status.
Biden reversed both of those on his first day in office. He called the border wall “a waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security,” and has long called the remain in Mexico policy “inhumane.”
The result? A surge of over 100 percent in illegal border crossings over this time last year. Now Biden is proposing an eight-year pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants that many fear will itself be a magnet for more illegal immigration as migrants try to get to the United States to benefit from it. Make no mistake, there could be no clearer contrast between Trump and Biden in the area of national security than on border policy.
The record is clear: Trump produced remarkable achievements on national security in four short years, achievements that many Americans are looking for Biden to sustain and build on. This early in his presidency, it remains unclear whether Biden will do just that, but a one-month examination of his initial moves on some of Trump’s key wins raises some concerns on that important question.
John Ullyot served as Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and NSC Spokesman from 2019-2021.
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