February 2019: America’s Changing Foreign Policy Debate and Syria

February 28, 2019

Speaker: Brian Katulis

   About the Speaker:   

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at American Progress, is an expert on U.S. national security strategy and the Middle East. For more than a decade, he has advised senior U.S. policymakers on foreign policy and has provided expert testimony to key congressional committees.

Brian Katulis has extensive on-the-grounds research experience in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Israel, and Jordan. He worked at the National Security Council and the U.S. Departments of State and Defense during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Past positions further include work with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey (D).

He received a master’s degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs and a B.A. in history and Arab and Islamic Studies from Villanova University.

   Program Recording:   

NPR Radio has a streaming link available in the WCVE Forum archives. Listen to a recording here


   Event Review:    

Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Brian Katulis centered his panel on American foreign policy during the current Trump administration with a particular focus on the Middle East.

I came of age… in the late 1980s and 1990s when the world was in a period of global transformation,” Katulis said. “I would say we are in a similar type of global transformation, though it’s quite different. Back then we had won the Cold War and we had more unity at home. Now, things are much more complicated.”

Katulis recalled a night where he had gotten drinks and dinner with president Trump’s former foreign-policy adviser Carter Page. According to Katulis, Page had pointed at him and went on a spiel about Trump’s foreign policy plan.

You people, you people just don’t get it,” Katulis said he recalled Page telling him. “You globalists and internationalists just don’t understand what Donald Trump has done to the Republican party in the course of his campaign. What he’s done to the media, what he’s done to social conventions, is what he is about to do to foreign policy and geopolitics.”

To Page, Trump’s unconventional and unpredictable behavior would benefit the United States, as he knocks adversaries and allies off balance in an attempt to gain some advantage. In order to understand Trump’s foreign policy Katulis broke it down into four features:
1. America first, identity politics
2. Strong focus on economic nationalism
3. Skepticism of alliances and international institutions
4. Provocative rhetoric and tweets

President Trump’s approach is a consequence of some dysfunctions and failures in our own political system and shortcomings by our foreign policy leaders,” Katulis said. Katulis then spoke about the “collapse” of foreign policy and how the role of the U.S. in global politics has become unclear as the country continues to involve itself in endless wars with questionable motives and uncertain goals.

Within the last 15 to 20 years, there have been five features that Katulis said contributed to the current state of U.S. foreign policy:
1. A hyper partisanship
2. A politicization of the Iraq War
3. The 2008 economic crisis
4. A crisis of effectiveness
5. Identity politics, Us v. Them

From there, Katulis went on to focus on the Middle East and U.S. policy in the region over the last decade or so.
For several years since 2015, the top priority of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was to fight ISIS and Jaysh,” Katulis said. “We have now shifted to a new mode where the Trump administration, if it has one priority, is to put what they call maximum pressure on Iran.”

Last year, president Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and has, over the years, instituted a series of sanctions to place economic pressure on the regime in Tehran, Katulis said.

In addition, in contrast to the Obama administration, the Trump administration has doubled down its support for countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.

Unfortunately in my view a lot of what has been done looks like a blank check,” Katulis said. “In essence, allowing countries like Saudi Arabia to do what it wants. Whether it’s the war in Yemen or murdering journalists, there’s no sense of leverage.”

Katulis then moved on to talk about Syria and used the current crisis as an example of the growing American apathy toward international politics, and of the diminishing U.S. influence as a global power.

The Syrian crisis took root back in March of 2011 when a group of civilians organized a peaceful anti-government demonstration inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia known as the Arab Spring. The government retaliated in a swift and brutal manner, prompting the development of the Free Syrian Army and the start of a civil war. Other countries slowly began to involve themselves in the war, further escalating the situation.

According to an article from Al Jazeera, the war has killed close to 500,000 people, has injured more than 1 million and over 12 million people have been displaced.

The Trump administration is standing back and letting Vladimir Putin and Iran.. help the Syrian government get control of most of its own territory,” Katulis said. “These problems are not going away, but we [the U.S.] are likely to turn away from it.”

At the end of the talk, an audience member asked Katulis if we were seeing the signs of a “post American world,” in which the United States no longer was the major player in global politics.

I think we are,” Katulis said. “I think we have been for awhile…We are already in a moment where other countries, like China and Russia, are quite adept at using new forms of power in political warfare, not only in this country, but in Europe … and create divisions and discord in these countries so [that] they have more sway.”

– Author: Joshua Kim, Student at the University of Richmond

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