A Defense of Trump’s Foreign and Military Policy
Members of the elite, the military’s officer class, and ordinary voters have expressed concern in different forums that Trump is a hothead, who will endanger the country by engaging in rash and impulsive military interventions. In other words, these critics say that Hillary, whose flaws are manifest, has the countervailing and important attribute of being a more predictable and more responsible choice for a nation rightly concerned with its safety. We live in an age where constitutional checks and balances requiring a declaration of war have been essentially shredded; thus, the character of whoever is President is the most important check on mistaken wars.
The evidence that Trump will behave so is rather meager, but there’s admittedly some. For starters, his tone is that of an instinctual tough guy, who does not tolerate disrespect, criticism, or weakness. One naturally wonders if this would carry over into military policy. Further, he has been deliberately vague about his plans for dealing with ISIS among other things and has shown a willingness to question taboos on everything from the structure of NATO to the use of nuclear weapons.
This all does present some legitimate concern. But politics is the art of the possible, and elections are choices between better and worse, or, in some cases, the lesser of two evils. The major premise of the establishment’s criticism of Trump is that the existing consensus range of foreign and military philosophies has been a success. Let’s consider what Trump has openly questioned and in some cases rejected.
What is our country’s legacy foreign policy?
Foreign policy is a somewhat unique political issue. Like flood insurance or the quality of the brakes on your car, it’s mostly noticed upon failure. Otherwise, people give it little thought, and Americans probably less so than others. When foreign policy fails, it fails spectacularly: Pearl Harbor, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, or the attacks of September 11, 2001. Otherwise, its impact is gradual and bearable.
In the case of the United States, our foreign policy disasters—contra hyperbolic partisan critics—have been rare indeed. We are weaker abroad under Obama, but not dramatically so. We lost blood and treasure in Iraq, but it was a fraction of that lost in Vietnam, Korea, or even the Philippine insurgency. Since 1992, there have been moments of ascent and descent, greater relative strength or not, gradual erosion of power and prestige, and crises of one kind or another, but mostly it doesn’t get much attention and understandably so. The key insight of a foreign policy strategist is one of imagination and, more particularly, imagination of disaster and the vision to avert the same.
The range of disagreement between Republican and Democrats on foreign policy is overstated. Both are decidedly globalist with a commitment to an international system of free trade, high rates of cross border immigration, the continued use of international institutions and alliances, and the artificial division of Muslims into terrorists and “good people, who want the same things we do.”
Their consensus of our foreign policy elite has some divisions, but these are more divisions of emphasis and technique, and these fall into three camps: Realists, Idealists, and Neoconservative Interventionists.
Foreign policy realism has been more associated with the Republican Party over the last 20 years, particularly that of the first Bush presidency. It favors strength, order, and a hard-headed appraisal of circumstances. It sees the world as an anarchic, multidimensional chessboard of competing powers. While committed to certain features of globalism, it seeks to maintain the globalist order through the maintenance of a “unipolar” world, that is, one where the United States is the sole superpower. This goal is often sold to the public as the quest for “stability.” Thus, realists of all kinds favored the United States intervention in the Bosnian Civil War in the 1990s, the opposition to would-be opponents of our position as the sole superpower (chiefly Russia and China), and this all leads—conveniently enough for the Pentagon and its dependent defense contractors—a bloated and expensive military apparatus. This, we are told, will keep our nation far head of every other competing nation’s ability to impose its will upon us. The most successful example of the application of this approach would be the First Gulf War and, to a lesser extent, the devolution of power to the respective Soviet republics. George H.W. Bush and Jim Baker deserve some credit for managing this transition, as we avoided the legitimate concern at the time of a “Yugoslavian civil war with nukes.”
Realism has much to recommend, but it is as much a description of events as a prescription for foreign policy. Realism of all varieties assumes its advocate’s goals by conflating them with objective “national interests,” which are in fact highly debatable. Thus, matters of dubious import like the continued rule of the Saudis or defense of our critical allies in the Baltics are defended on realist grounds, when their relation to our actual national interests are diffuse.
Furthermore, the realist’s goal of unipolarity has a substantial demerit, even when conceived as a realistic application of realism, insofar as it is highly unstable, renders our country a de facto opponent of all other potentially powerful nations, and, as noted above, costs an arm and a leg. Thus, we have a very unrealistic principle appropriating the high esteem of realism understood in layman’s terms. Whether the benefits of unipolarity exceed the costs in blood and treasure is rarely questioned, even though long periods of European and world peace have been previously vouchsafed—as in the interregnum following the 1815 Congress of Vienna—for long periods of time and in ways that served the interests of all of the affected nations.
The other extreme would be what is called foreign policy idealism, and its hallmark is the preferred use of “soft power,” such as foreign aid, along with the occasional humanitarian war. Idealists question the moral integrity of mere realism, as realism does not question the necdessity of power for its own sake, seeing global power as a zero sum game. Thus, idealists criticized the First Gulf War as well as the Iraq War, for example, as being “all about oil,” as if a cheap and plentiful supply of oil were not an important national interest that directly helps our country and its people. The prototypical idealist interventions are often low cost and low reward, such as Liberia, Haiti, and, less successfully, Somalia. The satisfaction in doing the right thing is supposed to be its own reward, and we’re also told, rather unconvincingly, that these activities will accrue benefits of good will to the United States from the grateful beneficiaries.
Idealism has a massive demerit in that there are no useful criteria for distinguishing what is and is not a good cause for an idealist intervention. The world is full of various evils, and sifting through them, picking the right side, and applying power to each one would be a fool’s errand, and an expensive one at that. Idealists have no framework with which to resolve this puzzle, because the point of idealism is not merely to achieve things but to luxuriate in our moral integrity. It’s the foreign policy equivalent of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, because the entire question becomes simply one of doing the right thing. Furthermore, the right thing is not always easy to perceive from thousands of miles away, and in wars ranging from Syria to Yemen, the claims of intervening on the rights side have been criticized because the so-called good guys turned out to be pretty bad themselves.
Order has a certain value both globally and within nations, and foreign policy idealism does little to distinguish foreign policy issues from any other issues. Ukrainian elections and coups, power struggles of Sunnis and Shias in Yemen and Syria, Haitian earthquakes, Muslim separatists, and the like all become fair game.
The rhetorical force of idealism of some kind or another—usually termed American exceptionalism—is often deployed to support wars where the idealism is a thinly veiled factional interest of some advocacy group at home or abroad, such as in our longstanding support for Israel, our intervention in Libya and Syria, or, most unfortunately, our anti-Serb activities in Kosovo, where we supported human rights abusing terrorists, who were allegedly the forces of right and good.
The final foreign policy approach is somewhat of a hybrid: so-called neoconservatism. Neoconservatives are a type of realist, but they define the national interests we must pursue very broadly, to include expanding democracy abroad, standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel at all costs, staying involved in the Middle East indefinitely for many of the same reasons, and keeping would-be competitors like Putin at bay. Thus they love NATO and favor its transformation into an instrument of offensive power to multiply the forces at US disposal. Vilifying Russia is useful for this project.
But the showpiece campaign of the neoconservatives was Iraq, and that showpiece ended in an obvious disaster on the war’s own terms. The war did little to impact al Qaeda and may have strengthened them, Iraqi democracy is flawed, unstable, and corrupt, and the United States expended enormous resources chasing its tail engaged in nation-building in a nation that was already built, but not quite in a way congenial to our interests.
Certain neoconservatives suggest defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory following the Surge, but this misreads events significantly. Iraq is now a pro-Iranian satellite, still beset by Sunni Islamist rebels, and it’s not a place that even the most foolhardy hippy adventure tourist would dare to travel. America, and perhaps the West in general, has shown itself largely incapable of transforming several-thousand-year-old societies with their own stubborn cultures into some pliant facsimile of Denmark, and it would have been somewhat surprising if we had succeeded.
Neoconservatives see the great success of the postwar transformations of Germany and Japan as a model—both friendly nations filled with peace-loving, civilized, and productive people today—but ignore the important differences in those nations’ relationship to the modern world as a whole in appraising the likelihood of success when we try to do the same in Libya, Iraq, or Yemen. For starters, the more recent experiments have taken place in Muslim countries, and Muslim people don’t like non-Muslim people telling them what to do.
Neoconservatism has been in retreat in recent years, but its most prominent votaries are leaning towards Clinton. This is telling.
What does Hillary have to say?
Hillary Clinton’s thoughts on all this are remarkably banal and uninteresting for someone who has been in public life for decades and who spent a term as Secretary of State. She is essentially a completely average proponent of the instincts and prejudices of the foreign policy establishment, complete with its enthusiasm for globalism, it’s combination of ad hoc realist and idealist reasoning depending on the place and the day, and, like the rest of the bunch, someone who has no willingness to think critically about the manifest failures in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Ukraine (the disaster being our support for thuggish, anti-Russian revolutionaries). Her foreign policy will consist of minding the store and, as shown in Libya and Syria, an occasional enthusiasm for action in the most inopportune times. As her planning director Anne Marie Slaughter put it, ““She’s very careful and reflective. . . . But when the choice is between action and inaction, and you’ve got risks in either direction, which you often do, she’d rather be caught trying.”
Hillary’s bias for action stems in part from her foreign policy do-gooder idealism—she thinks the United States should promote leftist causes, particularly feminist causes, extending even to other nations’ domestic policies—but also from her great faith in government itself. Liberalism when applied to foreign policy leads to the same kinds of hubris we’ve seen domestically, where long settled structures are tossed away recklessly on the basis of some abstract and unyielding goal like equality. By way of example, the most obvious lesson from Iraq is that we’re often better off with a predictable strongman, even with a bad human rights record and a lack of democracy, insofar as such strongmen keep hostile, transnational terrorists at bay. But in Libya, as elsewhere, Clinton pushed for the ideal and ended up with a worse situation that empowered forces like ISIS that thrive in disorder as a result. These are not the actions of a future “peace” president, because the legacy foreign policy establishment doesn’t mind chaos so much. This is a feature not a bug of the dominant foreign policy ethos, as chaos enhances the foreign policy and defense budget, and getting involved in chaos, whether we create it or not, furthers the inherently maximalist foreign policy goal of unipolarity.
The second thing we can say about Clinton as secretary of state is that she had no accomplishments of note. Predecessors could point to major peace deals, such as a Camp David or the Good Will Accords. Instead, her biggest legacy is Benghazi, a poorly thought out diplomatic post in the middle of a place crawling with hostile groups. It was an under-resourced failure of basic management and security, and she added insult to injury by lying about it. This episode occurred in a totally unnecessary war that she lobbied for (after all, it was multilateral and for human rights), and, from the beginning, the Libya Campaign had all of the demerits of the Iraq Campaign, but, unlike the Iraq Campaign, occurred after that disaster, and a thinking person should have learned from very recent history.
Clinton is more multilateralist than typical Republicans, and this is part of the instinctual opposition to nationalism that forms the heart of the establishment’s universalist liberalism. Thus, when France or the UK promote something like Libya—even for their own parochial reasons, like helping their oil companies—we are supposed to follow suit. After all, to do otherwise would be selfish. This notion of selfishness forgets that our servicemen are a public trust, not mere mercenaries, and their good and the good of our nation is to be preferred to others. And it also stupidly assumes other nations are not selfishly deploying the language of idealism for selfish reasons.
Clinton’s idealism and concern for others stops notably in one place: in her concern for herself and her personal power. Stretching back to Arkansas (Whitewater, Cattle Futures) and her days as First Lady (secret health care meetings, mistreatment of staff), continuing to her massive money-raising from Saudis and Russian Uranium concerns for the Clinton Foundation, and her criminal establishment of a personal email server to avoid FOIA and other forms of oversight, Clinton is out to do what she wants to benefit herself and will break the law to do so. Her venality, selfishness, and disregard for precedent are, in this respect, nearly unprecedented. Consequently, her moral authority to demand loyalty, fidelity to the public interest, and respect for procedure among government personnel is fatally compromised by her manifest selfishness and disregard for her country as a whole.
The Standard Issue GOP Foreign and Military Policy Approach
The Republican Party only deviates from the Clinton (and Obama) approach in small particulars. Recall its relative lack of opposition to Libya, its call for continuing the course in Iraq, and its only real opposition coming to bear regarding the hackneyed deal with Iran, which was a manifest display of U.S. weakness and the product of an unsophisticated quest for a deal at all costs.
As a general matter, Republicans are more interested in military power and less so in diplomacy and internationalism. Hence, we saw criticism of President Clinton for dilly-dallying in Bosnia from some quarters, while others expressed a nationalist reluctance to get involved. Similarly, many Republicans wanted to stay in Iraq, although it’s not obvious what we accomplished for the first eight years we were there.
Indeed, the Republican Party has to some extent made a cult object of the military and its members at times. This understandable reaction to the nihilist and pacifist rhetoric of the 1960s has gone a bit for among what is supposed to be a free, self-governing nation. The military is, no doubt, full of idealistic and honorable people, but it is made up of people, and people who have power and influence sometimes abuse it, act in self-serving ways, and, in the case of the power to kill, find that certain of its members abuse that power. Our founders were wary of Standing Armies for a reason. So jingoist militarism has been substituted for patriotism among many Republicans, and this has led to rallying around the Hamdania killers, for example, who pointlessly killed an old man in Iraq and tried to cover it up. Even now, many Republicans want to outsource military thinking to “the generals,” as if these decisions that overlap military and political concerns, were somehow wholly technical in nature. Trump takes this to another level, and that would be worrisome, but for the fact every other Republican is doing it and, more importantly, he’s less likely to get us involved in gratuitous counterinsurgency type wars that are particularly ripe grounds for war crimes of one kind or another.
The mainstream Republican Party also has an unhealthy degree of identification with Israel. Some have hypothesized that this allows feelings of nationalism that many would be uncomfortable expressing for America to be channeled into a healthy “altruistic” direction of identifying with an admirable client state. Thus, those who think building a wall on the Mexico border is ridiculous, have no problem with Israel’s effective border walls with the West Bank and Gaza. This identification with Israel also allows the suspension of judgment about how much something like, say, the Syrian Civil War or the goings-on in Lebanon have anything to do with America’s interests. Israel’s interests are identified with those of the United States, even though our strategic positions and vulnerability to events in the region are very different. George Washington’s prescient warnings of “foreign entanglements” have been long forgotten by the GOP’s foreign policy intelligentsia.
The one thing that is frustrating about this purportedly elite consensus is how parochial it is. It does not ask intelligent questions about why the United States has not decisively won a war since the First Gulf War. It forgets that the military is also “the government,” with all the patronage, inefficiency, and abuse of taxpayer funds that entails. And it shows a lack of appreciation for the ways the end of the Cold War should have led to a serious reappraisal of the United States’ role in the world as defined by our core interests: safety, commerce that enhances the wealth of the American people, and, lest we forget, peace. Instead, various intermediate goals, some of which are legacies of the Cold War, like stability, support for old allies, and opposition to Russia have been the order of the day, as has our perennial concern for the disorderly Middle East.
Further, channeling the issues that Reagan faced in 1980, the notion that more defense spending on large, sophisticated conventional weapon systems is the key to national power ignores that we are not facing large conventional threats so much, and we only do so insofar as we pursue the self-defeating, maximalist goal of unipolarity. We have dozens of aircraft carriers and stealth bombers and other weapons systems that see little use, and that are themselves fragile to fourth generation warfare threats, such as those we faced on 9/11. While 9/11 was a massive foreign policy and intelligence disaster, it led to little reappraisal of the military and foreign policy establishents basic approach to procurement and strategy and, instead, led to the creation of new bureaucracies that have not left us appreciably safer. On both the left and the right, something is dreadfully wrong.
Trump Has Better Foreign Policy Instincts Than the Entire Establishment
Trump is hated by the establishment because he has applied patriotic common sense to the thicket of middlebrow conventional wisdom. This is particularly apparent on the issues surrounding the “national question.” The three legs on which his campaign stands—nationalist trade policy, defense policy, and immigration policy—are anathema to all the global elite believes, and as much in foreign policy as anywhere else.
Trump, being a patriotic American, knows we need a strong military. Historically, the Democrats have made a fetish of cutting military spending in order to free up funds for their never ending smorgasbord of giveaways. Those who grew up in the 80s remember the trope about the Air Force never having a bake sale to fund a new bomber. This instinctual aversion to military spending is something we may see more of from a Clinton presidency. The only military issues she has any passion on are things like gender integration, welfare for veterans, and humanitarian operations. She may not dislike wars, but she likes giving money to Democratic constituencies even more. Of course, she likes power above all, so this particular issue may be a wash.
Trump has shown great fidelity to the American people as a group with the most paramount interest in American foreign policy. This has led to his famous promise to Build a Wall and Make Mexico Pay. This is strong rhetoric, but it’s not lunatic rhetoric. As he put it rather sensibly, “We either have a country or we don’t.” Nonetheless, in his dealings with multiple opponents—Mexico, Megyn Kelly, and even Bernie Sanders and his supporters—he has shown sensible, diplomatic instincts. He starts big and walks back from maximalist claims. Let’s not forget, he authored The Art of the Deal.
Part of foreign policy is (a) recognizing it’s part of a continuum with military policy (unlike the Obama administration in Iran) and (b) recognizing both must serve US interests. Obama, Clinton, and now Kerry pursued negotiations with Iran as ends in themselves. President Clinton reached a similar deal with North Korea, which ended with them developing nuclear weapons. Their desperation to make deals allowed both administrations to accept crumbs. But, whether well negotiated or not, these negotiations were flawed from the start. Their lodestar was not the good of the American people but the adulation of a cosmopolitan global class of diplomats and fellow elites.
Trump, by contrast, is used to negotiating for a specific entity, his businesses, against other self-interested parties. Negotation cannot be reduced to formulas. So he is admittedly vague, saying we must be “tough” and “smart.” Nonetheless, New York real estate deal-making is as good a training as any for foreign policy. Notably, Trump has not insulted powerful players like Russia. Trump’s occasional kind words for Putin, which have been the subject of repeated knee-jerk criticism by both left and right, reveal that he has a businessman’s understanding that our competitors will pursue their own perceived interests, and that the most worthy competitors, who may sometimes be friends, will do so most effectively. Putin, if nothing else, clearly has promoted the good of the Russian people and enhanced the prestige and power of his nation. It is perfectly sensible to recognize this fact and to approach a proud, capable, and powerful leader with some tact.
Similarly, Trump recognizes we have a budding military conflict with China over sea lanes, but that we have economic leverage over China, which we have largely allowed to atrophy through mindless free trade policies. He has put trade on the table, rather than proposing provocative acts in the South China Sea.
Finally, he went to Mexico to meet with its leader a few weeks ago, but did not needlessly insult him on his home turf; instead, Trump appeared magnanimous by accepting the invitation, but firm, in his promotion of a particular and obvious policy in the American national interest. By contrast, Obama’s desire to be liked and to show empathy for the rest of the world has led to numerous insults of him and his people by foreign leaders, not least China and Iran.
Foreign leaders are powerful people, and powerful people understand and respect strength. Trump conveys strength and understands how to harness and channel power. Hillary, like a dull knife, is more likely to injure its user. Her strength is brittle, reactive, and, therefore, at times ineffective and other times it is overreactive. The Libya episode bears all the marks of this kind of familiar and ineffective leadership style.
Trump has demonstrated uncommon common sense on several issues. Most saliently, he has shown awareness that Islamic terrorism is as much a border control and immigration problem as a foreign policy problem. Ceasing to dig when we’re in an obvious hole has been off the table for 15 years since 9/11, but it is something most Americans want and on which they are absolutely right. The elites, by contrast, are religiously attached to fashionable multiculturalism and open immigration, which they believe will give them docile workers in the case of Republicans and a loyal, left-leaning constituency in the case of Democrats. Trump has shown the emperor has no clothes, because, by allowing the enemy in the front door (mixed in, of course, among those who mean us no harm), this renders foreign policy and military activity almost irrelevant. Islamic terrorists don’t need aircraft carriers, when they can land their saboteurs at Kennedy Airport or we let them in as “refugees” (Boston Bombers), immigrants (Pulse shooter), diversity visas (El Al Airlines), fiancée visas (San Bernardino) and, most infamously, on student visas (9/11 itself). Enough is enough.
The most important factor favoring Trump is that he has had the temerity to name and prioritize his foreign policy under the rubric “America First.” In a healthy society, this is the sine qua non of a good foreign policy, because it makes plain whose interests are being pursued. It naturally allows any decision to be measured by the proper criterion. The legacy foreign policy, if it were honest, would name itself “stability first,” “Israel first,” “George Soros first,” or even “human rights first,” and none of these measures properly weights the costs and benefits of any proposed course of action, because missing from the analysis is to whom those benefits accrue and from whom those costs will be born.
For Hillary Clinton, America is most certainly not first . . . . she is. And secondarily comes leftist ideology, and then sometimes Israel or NATO or Goldman Sachs. Trump’s embrace of an America First position simultaneously jettisons the so-called idealism of the left and the enthusiastic interventionsism of the neoconservatives right. America First refracts realism through the lens of national interest and thereby gives it the mark of all good political activity: It contributes to the welfare of the people to whom a statesman should be loyal.
Trump is the only patriot in the race. His patriotism sets natural limits on his proposed use of power, both domestically and overseas. He has shown a passion for all of the forgotten people in this country whose voices have been unheard, ignored, and mocked for too long. He has listened to what people really want, unfiltered by dubious notions of “things you’re not supposed to say.” Far from seeking abstract goals like unipolarity or utopian ones like “humnanitarian war,” we can expect from Trump a limited but strong and decisive policy rooted always in putting the interests of America and its people first.
This commitment renders him the most qualified man in this race and, like Reagan who was mocked in many of the same ways for many of the same reasons, likely to be one of the most effective foreign policy presidents in our lifetimes.