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What Are Trump's Foreign Policy Goals For His Final Months In Office?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As President Trump continues his fight to overturn the U.S. election, he and his administration are also working to cement his foreign policy decisions. This is especially true in the Middle East, where President Trump implemented some of his most controversial decisions, like moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

To understand what we can expect on the foreign policy front in the final weeks of Trump's presidency and what the next president may inherit, we're joined by Robert Malley. He's the president of the International Crisis Group, which is an organization committed to preventing deadly conflict around the world. He also served as White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region under President Obama.

Robert Malley, welcome.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So the president's critics have made it no secret that they're worried about the foreign policy decisions President Trump may make in his last two months in office. And you've described this - his approach as a scorched-earth policy. What's the president focusing his attention on in these last few weeks? And what are you watching?

MALLEY: I'm not sure the president is focusing all that much. But I think what we are seeing is that across the board, there are areas where the administration wants to solidify its legacy and others in which it wants to complicate the task before President-elect Biden. It's not that unusual for president to do some things during the lame duck period. In fact, it's often a time when presidents do things that are harder to do at an earlier period.

FADEL: Right.

MALLEY: But we've never seen, at least in my experience, a president so brazenly taking steps that he knows are contrary to the intent of his successor and doing them with the motivation of complicating his successor's task.

FADEL: This past week, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Israeli settlements in the West Bank - settlements that the U.N. and International Court of Justice deem illegal. How significant was that? What was the message there?

MALLEY: Well, the message - there was both a symbolic message. He went on the Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel. He went to a West Bank settlement - things that had been unprecedented for U.S. secretary of state to have done. Clearly, this message there is, these territories are part of Israel. And at the same time, there were some decisions that were taken that are designed to erase the distinction between Israel proper and the settlements.

Now, at some level, that doesn't change all that much because Joe Biden will be president in two months' time, and he can reverse that policy and say, no, we believe settlements are occupied territory, and they need to be part of the negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians.

But at the same time, it does change the landscape because Israeli negotiators who at some point will sit down with Palestinians will know that an administration had at one point recognized de facto their sovereignty over the settlements, and a future administration may do the same thing. So why would they compromise now in terms of the territorial component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

So it does change the landscape to some extent, even though President-elect Biden is going to be able to reverse a number of these decisions, and I suspect he will.

FADEL: Another complication - the war in Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition there has been fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels for four years now. The administration indicated it may designate Yemen's Houthi movement as a terrorist organization in its final days. What's the end goal there?

MALLEY: Again, hard to decipher, I mean, they - why they wait till the last weeks other than to make it harder for a Joe Biden presidency to pick up and try to resume diplomacy and try to resolve this terrible conflict, which is the worst humanitarian situation, according to the U.N. today.

And, you know, the reason it would be so harmful is twofold. No. 1, from a humanitarian standpoint, once you designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization, it means nobody can have any financial interaction with them.

And the Houthis control maybe 30% of the territory. They are governing a majority of the Yemeni people. They control the capital. They control the main ports. They control the only airport in the northwest of the country. So if you can't do business with the Houthis, you're saying, in fact, that you can't do business with Yemenis to a large extent. So for humanitarian organizations, for commerce, it's going to - could have a devastating impact.

But also politically, you know, it's going to become much harder to get involved in mediation, which is necessary. At some point, you're going to have to find a solution. The U.S. and others are going to have to be at the table to try to resolve the conflict between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, but also between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government of Yemen.

FADEL: Right.

MALLEY: And the more you try to marginalize the Houthis, the more you send them the signal that they're not going to be welcomed to the table, the harder you make it to resolve the conflict, and, in fact, the more you push the Houthis into Iranian arms. So it's not just a counterproductive policy in terms of what it's leaving to Joe Biden. It's counterproductive in terms of U.S. interests in terms of reaching a settlement, diminishing Iranian influence and avoiding famine.

FADEL: Right. Before we let you go, the world's been watching as President Trump and his campaign are really trying to overturn the election results, the president also continuing to spread false information about the election being rigged. Given your work in diplomacy, how is this undermining the way this election might look to leaders abroad? And will it affect the U.S. and its relations with other countries?

MALLEY: Well, I think one thing that it is going to do is going to make it hard when U.S. diplomats try to argue about respecting the will of the people, respecting the results of the elections, allowing the process to run its course. They will all be able to point to or at least think about what happened here. Again, that's something that's going to be - that will be indelible. This is a legacy that's going to be very hard to erase.

Now, the fact that Joe Biden will have succeeded President Trump despite President Trump's attempts to the contrary - that will be another message, a contrary message, in which U.S. diplomats will be able to say, yes, we are a very imperfect democracy. We're not here to give you lessons because we have done everything right. We're talking to you from experience because we, too, have lived through these difficult times about - in terms of our own elections.

So it's a mixed - you know, it's kind of a double-edged sword. The image that the U.S. has liked to project, perhaps sometimes in an exaggerated way, about a functioning democracy has been tarnished. And autocrats around the world are going to be able to say, who are you to give us any lessons? Look what you just did. Look what you went through.

But on the other hand, the fact that we will have recovered, that President Trump will no longer be in the White House, that the election ultimately worked without military interference, without anyone being able truly to challenge the will that was expressed at the polls - that will be a positive lesson. And that will be the lesson that I suspect U.S. diplomats are going to have to emphasize, even as they acknowledge the very, very deep imperfections of our system.

FADEL: That's Robert Malley. He's the president of the International Crisis Group. He was also the White House coordinator on the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region under President Obama.

Robert Malley, thank you so much for your time.

MALLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYPNOTIC BRASS ENSEMBLE'S "BALLICKI BONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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