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Donald Trump has embarked on a New Year foreign policy offensive on his return to the White House, piling pressure on Iran, Pakistan and North Korea as he switches his focus beyond tax reform and other domestic priorities.
On Tuesday the US president said the people of Iran “are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime”, in the seventh tweet in five days in which he has appeared to seek to bolster the most extensive anti-government protests the country has seen since 2009.
“TIME FOR CHANGE!” Mr Trump tweeted on Monday, saying Iranians were hungry for food and freedom. Senior US officials had previously been wary of feeding into Tehran’s claims that America backs regime change, for fear of undermining any popular groundswell. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday blamed unspecified “enemies” for stoking the protests.
Mr Trump already faced a crowded foreign policy inbox for 2018, including the challenge of responding to an increasingly resurgent China and Russia, and imminent threats from North Korea and militant Islamist groups.
This week he added to the list by threatening to cut aid to Pakistan, America’s longtime ally, which he accused of backing terrorist groups and holding the US in contempt.
“[T]hey have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” he tweeted about Pakistan on Monday.
The flurry of tweets sparked protests in Pakistan, caught allies off guard and further divided opinion in Washington about the stark rhetoric he has brought to the world stage.
James Carafano, head of foreign policy and defence at The Heritage Institute who worked on the Trump transition team, said Mr Trump’s strong stances and aggressive language merely expanded on his foreign policy platform of 2017, in which he refused to compromise on American interests.
Mr Trump won the presidency with a team largely inexperienced in foreign policy, promising a less interventionist stance than predecessors including Barack Obama, on whom he has poured scorn for his policies on the Middle East, Afghanistan, North Korea and traditional US allies.
As he approaches his first anniversary in office, Mr Trump has praised his own administration for victories against Isis in the Middle East and for bringing unprecedented pressure to bear on the regime in Pyongyang.
Mr Carafano said the administration had chalked up “a pretty remarkable achievement” by defining a new foreign policy at speed, much of which could be defined by “tough love” towards uneven allies such as Pakistan.
Mr Trump’s national security strategy, unveiled in December, labelled Russia and China among the chief challenges facing the US, despite Mr Trump’s overtures towards their leaders. He has also shifted US policy in the Middle East and Asia, seeking to bolster economic and military ties with India at Pakistan’s expense, committing to stay in Afghanistan, rebuilding ties with Saudi Arabia and adopting a hardline strategy against Iran.
“This administration really hasn’t gotten credit,” said Mr Carafano. “For a team that had no policies walking in the door, they’ve completed all the foreign policy reviews on all the main issues … and all that while dealing with North Korea — the continuing, enduring crisis — is actually pretty impressive.”
Critics argue the president has yet to articulate a consistent or meaningful strategy, however.
“Other than the neo-isolationism I don’t think there is a pattern to his foreign policy … I think he is purely reactive,” said Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan who served in both the George W Bush and Obama administrations. Mr Trump’s foreign policy was “pretty discouraging if not frightening”, he said.
Mr Crocker described the administration’s policy on Pakistan as “counterproductive” and said the US was poorly informed on Iran.
“Iran is the most complex political society in the Middle East by far and we haven’t been there for 38 years now so our capacity to have any idea what’s going on and why is slim to none,” he said. “We need to be a little modest in what we think we understand.”
Mr Trump’s administration has proposed deep cuts to the state department budget, amid a dearth of high-level diplomatic appointments and cutting remarks about his secretary for state Rex Tillerson, whose tenure has appeared shaky for months. Some observers predict Mr Tillerson will be replaced by February.
Also high on Mr Trump’s agenda is whether he will finally deliver on the strong trade action against Beijing he promised during the 2016 campaign. National security Investigations launched last year into imports of aluminium and steel face deadlines this month and next. So, too, do probes into imports of Chinese solar cells and South Korean washing machines.
Also expected to yield some sort of punitive trade actions against Beijing is an examination of China’s intellectual property practices and the tools it uses to force foreign companies to transfer technologies to local partners.
“I think it’s highly likely that there is going to be significant trade action against China in the early part of this year,” said Matthew Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Officials in both Beijing and Washington seem to want to avoid escalation into a broader trade war, although observers say any such move would likely prompt a tit-for-tat response from Beijing.
“I don’t think they’ve gamed this out,” Mr Goodman said.