As this year’s Presidential election continues to veer randomly between surrealism and farce, on a day when the former Speaker of the House compared a leading Presidential candidate from his own party to Lucifer, and another former Speaker went to prison for child molestation, Donald Trump, the probable Republican nominee, gave a speech on foreign policy. I read it. It’s almost completely incoherent.
“America first will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
I’m going to start in a spirit of good will, and cut him some slack. Let’s assume that his use of the unfortunate phrase ‘America First’ was not intended to invoke Charles Lindbergh’s anti-war movement from the early ’40s. The America First movement, which flowered from 1940 right up until Pearl Harbor, is popularly associated with Lindbergh’s, um, less savory pals in Germany and Italy. In fact, America First was more isolationist than fascist, and was bi-partisan, with leadership that included the socialist Norman Thomas, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver. Nowadays, ‘America First’ sounds more like the name of a credit union than the nascent neo-Nazi movement it turned into back in the day. In fairness, I think Trump is just saying that the central principle of American foreign policy should be national self-interest. Fair enough.
Trump then does a quick historical survey, from WWII (good for us!) and Reagan demanding that Gorbachev ‘tear down this wall.’ (Even better!) But then, he insists, our post-cold-war foreign policy veered off-course, as “logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, which led to one foreign policy disaster after another.” And what specific examples of foolishness and arrogance does Trump mention? Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper. Very bad. It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.
Let’s break that down. The invasion of Iraq was indeed an example of neo-conservative nation building. ‘Egypt’ and ‘Libya’ however refers to the Arab Spring events, beginning in 2010. Certainly, the US took sides. Egypt and Libya were ruled by brutal dictators. The people in their countries revolted. The Obama administration supported what we believed might be pro-democracy movements. There were factions in each of the Arab Spring nations that did want democracy. American policy did backfire badly in Libya and Syria. But we do see some progress towards democratization in Yemen, Tunisia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and Oman.
But Trump does not differentiate between an invasion, like Iraq, where a US-led coalition toppled a dictator and tried to impose democracy, and Tunisia, where the US offered logistical support for pro-Western factions leading protests in their own country. And that’s a crucial point. Perhaps the US shouldn’t have tried to intervene at all. But Trump doesn’t say that either. Just that our foreign policy is “bad.” Largely, it seems, because our policies have strengthened Iran.
It’s at this point that Trump’s speech becomes almost completely contradictory. For example, he insists that President Obama’s economic policies have weakened our military, making it difficult for the US to intervene internationally. But he also criticized the Obama administration for trying to intervene internationally. Well, which is it? He insists that the US foots too much of the bill in order to support NATO, and he calls for our European allies to pay more. “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.” In the next paragraph, though, Trump says “your friends need to know that you will stick by the agreements that you have with them. You’ve made that agreement, you have to stand by it and the world will be a better place.” In other words, he intends to present Europe with a large bill for all the military forces we’ve been providing. That, in his view, is what it means to be a good ally.
He promises, of course, to complete wipe out ISIS. By acting “unpredictably,” I suppose. And although he doesn’t specify where his policy would require military intervention, it doesn’t seem likely that ‘wiping out ISIS’ could be done without ground forces. He talks about solving problems through diplomacy. But he absolutely intends to unilaterally renounce the international Iran nuclear deal. His first act as President, as far as I can tell, will be to start a trade war with China. He’s opposed to NAFTA, and intends to rescind the US involvement in that trade agreement. Same for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Amazingly, he seems to think that pulling out of every major trade deal of the last twenty years will strengthen the US economy, and lead to better relations with our allies.
It’s an amazing speech, in part because of its lack of organization. He really does just jump from topic to topic; the entire talk is one extended non sequitur. He particularly jumps from right wing talking point to right wing talking point. This silly nonsense about how President Obama ‘refuses to name the problem,’ by not using the exact formulation ‘radical Islamic extremism’ is a case in point. And, of course, the persecution of Christians in Syria is much more important to him than the sufferings of many more Muslims. But to his credit, Trump isn’t afraid to criticize the war in Iraq, and to correctly identify that intervention as leading directing to the establishment of ISIS.
Still, it’s simple-minded. Muslim=bad. American strength=good.
The purpose of this talk is to help Trump appear more Presidential. In one sense, the talk succeeded. Trump stood behind a podium, read from a teleprompter, seemed more subdued and reflective, and didn’t gratuitously insult anyone. He also demonstrated only the most simplistic understanding of the world we live in and the diplomatic challenges the United States faces. It’s a talk by a man who is not just ignorant of the subject he is addressing, but uninterested in learning more. It’s really quite terrifying.