In an interview with "Intelligence Matters" host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, former deputy Secretary of State and deputy National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama Antony Blinken weighs in on the Trump administration's foreign policy decisions in some of the world's top geopolitical hotspots.
Blinken evaluates the opportunities seized, squandered and still ahead in countries including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, North Korea and China. A former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, Blinken also discusses what Biden's foreign policy might look like, should he run for president.
For much more from their conversation, read the interview transcript here and.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been roiled in recent months by the murder, in Turkey, of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi citizens. After leveling sanctions on 17 Saudis allegedly involved in Khashoggi's killing, President Trump and members of his administration largely stood by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- despite U.S. intelligence indicating the prince had ordered the assassination. In December, a bipartisan majority of senators voted to condemn the crown prince for his actions and to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
"I think the administration has missed a tremendous opportunity to use a horrific, terrible event – the murder of this journalist, Khashoggi – to use that as a way to influence Saudi behavior and Saudi policies in a way that better reflects our interests and our values," Blinken said.
He told Morell that the president and his team may have "squandered" a moment to issue a check on one of the kingdom's most powerful, but still young and impulsive, leaders. The leverage the administration might have had in bringing an end to the Yemen conflict and to a diplomatic impasse with Qatar also appears to have dissipated, Blinken said.
"Saudi Arabia seems to have a blank check," he told Morell. "This is not about ending the alliance or the partnership with Saudi Arabia. It is making sure the alliance actually reflects our interests and our values – not just Saudi Arabia's."
In late 2018, Mr. Trump issued an order to pull more than 7,000 troops out of Afghanistan, where the U.S. has maintained a military for more than 17 years. Mr. Trump had long campaigned on bringing American soldiers home from what has become the longest war in American history, but his military advisors urged a more gradual timeline – especially as the Taliban are known to have regained strength and territory, and as airstrikes and suicide bombings made 2018 the deadliest recorded year for Afghan civilians.
"I actually think President Trump's instincts are probably right on this," Blinken said. "It's time. It's time to cut the cord."
He told Morell that, while he had concerns about wholesale U.S. withdrawal, the international community had, over the years, made material improvements in the lives of Afghans. "The bottom line, hard reality is," Blinken said, "that we were there because of 9/11 and because of al Qaeda."
"[T]hat threat has been, if not eliminated, significantly reduced to the point where I think it can be contained without having 15,000 Americans in Afghanistan," he told Morell.
Perhaps one of the administration's most visibly bifurcated diplomatic approaches has been toward Russia. The Trump administration has implemented some of the strongest and most sweeping sanctions yet against Russian president Vladimir Putin's government, his acolytes and their businesses, but Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, downplayed his efforts to undermine U.S. elections, and denied links between Trump's campaign and Russian nationals – though dozens of contacts are known to have occurred.
"Putin is playing a losing hand brilliantly," Blinken said. "Russia, by virtually every metric, is actually in decline. And yet, he succeeded in reasserting Russia on the world stage to some extent to distract from problems at home."
Among the most effective deterrents to Russian aggression, he argued, has been continued support for NATO and pressure on Russia for its incursions in non-NATO member Ukraine. "I think sustaining that is important. And we've sustained it. And the Trump administration, despite what the president says, the administration itself has sustained it."
More measures, including an effective deterrence policy, are necessary, Blinken said, especially since the influence campaign conducted by Russia in 2016 failed to become a unifying issue for much of the country.
"This should have brought people together because the attack is not on Democrats or on Republicans or anyone else; it's on our democracy," he said. "That's the one thing that should unite us. And, unfortunately, that's what we're losing right now."
Last year began with the president deriding the size of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's "nuclear button" and ended with a lookahead to a second, in-person summit between the two. Mr. Trump is known to have maintained a cordial, if not warm, personal correspondence with Kim, all while the North Korean leader has offered little evidence of his intention to take steps toward denuclearization. The administration is reportedly scouting potential sites for a new summit between the two leaders in 2019.
"I think that there was some merit in President Trump throwing the deck of cards up in the air and seeing what came from it," Blinken said, "because the fact of the matter is the policy that successive administrations have pursued over the last decades has not worked."
Still, Blinken said, the lack of progress evident in North Korea's stated intention to eliminate some or all of its nuclear arsenal over the more than 6 months since the leaders' historic first summit may mean the new approach isn't quite working.
"[I]n elevating Kim Jong Un, in declaring success and even saying, at one point, that the nuclear problem was resolved, the president gave a green light to over countries – starting with China – to go back to something approaching business as usual," Blinken said. He noted that the "maximum pressure" campaign, which had been paying dividends, has now been effectively eroded by other countries' non-compliance with sanctions on North Korea.
"The hard reality is it's, if not impossible, highly unlikely that we will achieve, in any near term, the complete denuclearization of North Korea. I just don't see that as realistic in the near term," Blinken said. "What I think we can get is an arms control and, over time, disarmament process put in place. But that requires enough pressure, sustained and comprehensive to get North Korea to the table."
"I give [Mr. Trump] some points for trying a different playbook, but the way he's played it, I think, is making things worse, not better," Blinken told Morell.
An overwhelming number of intelligence, defense and law enforcement officials have said in recent months that China poses the thorniest and most significant long-term strategic challenge to the United States. As the intelligence community and Justice Department have issued warnings about – and, in some cases, indictments of – Chinese efforts to engage in economic espionage and intellectual property theft, the Trump administration has ratcheted up tariffs on Chinese goods in a protracted trade war whose economic effects have been felt in both countries.
"The president was right to confront the issue" of unfair trade practices, Blinken said, "the lack of reciprocity in the commercial relationship was totally unsustainable."
But Mr. Trump was "profoundly wrong" in the way he has gone about changing Chinese behavior, Blinken added, starting with the "huge strategic mistake" of leaving the multi-nation, Trans-Pacific Partnership crafted during the Obama administration.
"[N]ow, we're stuck in a different dynamic," Blinken said, "And that is a veering wildly between confrontation on the one hand, and abdication on the other hand."
As the U.S. has pulled back from other multilateral engagements, Blinken said, it has created a leadership vacuum that, in some instances, Chinese president Xi Jinping has sought to fill himself – something Blinken called a "profound irony."
"In the absence of American leadership, in the absence of an American model," he said, "a Chinese model could win by default – not because it's better."