Trump’s Foreign Policy is just GOP Boilerplate, only more Confused

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald Trump tried his hand at foreign policy on Wednesday, and the results weren’t any prettier than his incessant forays into domestic policy. He does not know anything serious about either one, but of course his fund of ignorance is far deeper when it comes to the rest of the world. Nor was there much original, except for the way he mixed things up. For the most part, on issues like Iran, Israel and international commitments and obligations, Trump’s positions aren’t all that different from most other Republicans. His opposition to democratization policies is just the old James Baker/ George H. W. Bush realism, hearkening back to a time before the rise of the Neoconservatives in the regime of W.

Trump praised the US intervention during World War II to defeat fascism and to democratize Europe and Japan.

He then went on to denounce all subsequent attempts to defeat other fascisms and democratize anything else. And while George W. Bush-style muscular Wilsonianism is a failure, the US can nudge others toward more democratic practices and better human rights through aid and other indirect means (something Jimmy Carter started with regard to the colonels in Latin America); Trump isn’t interested in that kind of thing, either.

He wants less nation-building and more order. But as Farid Zakaria pointed out, less nation-building can produce less order.

He also showed himself in love with authoritarians abroad, perhaps seeing people like Vladimir Putin as soul mates.

His description of what has happened in the Middle East in the past five years is pure fiction:

“They just kept coming and coming. 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.

We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill that void much to their really unjust enrichment.”

Trump manages to blame President Obama for the 2011 Arab uprisings (which Obama and Hillary Clinton did not support in Tunisia and Egypt until after they were inevitable). The idea that the US promoted “democratization” in those two countries is completely laughable. It promoted dictatorship for decades and then after people massed in the streets, Washington just acquiesced in whatever outcomes the people of the place could arrange. It’s giving military dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arms just the way it did his predecessor.

Obama in the Middle East has for the most part (with the exception of Libya) been a defensive realist. He came into office trying to establish relations with the Syrian government, not trying to overthrow it. He sent an ambassador to Damascus. It was the Republicans who wanted to overthrow al-Assad.

Then, how was Obama opposing the gassing of Syrian civilians a bad thing? Is the use of poison gas by the al-Assad regime on its own people one of those strong institutions Trump feels shouldn’t be interfered with?

We already know that Trump believes Arabs should be ruled by dictators. The problem is that as of 2011, most people in the region refused to put up with the dictators, and the dictators were either overthrown or held on by genocidal means. The US didn’t intervene in any way that mattered in Syria or Yemen. Does Trump think Washington should have intervened on the side of the dictators? The rise of ISIL in eastern Syria had nothing whatsoever to do with Obama and there was nothing any American president could have done to forestall it. ISIL grew up in Iraq under American military occupation run by a Republican president, that is, under the nose of 160,000 US troops on patrol.

Trump also complained about the US not doing enough for the Christians of the Middle East. As if Donald Trump ever cared about Christianity in his whole life. But the exodus from Iraq of its ancient Chaldean community was caused by the US Republican Party’s occupation of that country. Not sure what Trump thinks the US did in Syria to cause some of its Christians to flee. Trump seems to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has been using heavy military equipment against its own people, and Christians have gotten caught in the crossfire.

Then Trump again went after NATO. His implication that the US pays an unfair share of direct costs for it is incorrect— member countries pay proportionally based on GDP. As for indirect costs of collective defense, Trump seems to be complaining that other countries don’t have the kind of bloated military budget that the US has (nor do they need it; Germany doesn’t have bases in Africa and Asia).

Then Trump went full AIPAC:

“Israel, our great friend and the one true democracy in the Middle East has been snubbed and criticized by an administration that lacks moral clarity. Just a few days ago, Vice President Biden again criticized Israel, a force for justice and peace, for acting as an impatient peace area in the region.”

Biden, who has spent his whole political career championing Israel, was criticizing the Likud government’s reckless colonization of the Palestinian West Bank as a way of preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state, thus creating a permanent Apartheid. This policy can only deeply harm Israel in the medium to long term, and Biden was expressing some tough love. Trump’s meaningless platitudes about Israel being a “friend” and a “democracy” are just boilerplate mouthed by most professional politicians. A country of 8 million that militarily occupies a further 4.5 million stateless people isn’t a democracy, it is an Apartheid regime. A regime like that of Netanyahu that constantly lobbies for the US to go to war (Netanyahu promised us the Iraq aggression was a good idea and wanted us to bomb Iran) isn’t acting in that way as a friend.

Even pillars of the American Jewish establishment, such as Seymour D. Reich, former chairman of the conference of major Jewish Organizations, are beginning to speak out about the increasingly undemocratic policies of the Likud in Israel. Coddling Netanyahu, as Trump suddenly wants to do after earlier talking about being even-handed, is doing no favors to Israel.

Contrary to the image Trump likes to project that his policy ideas take on the Republican Establishment, he isn’t saying anything new. Past Republicans were really devoted to Middle Eastern dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. GOP isolationism and resentment of US spending abroad has usually focused on the United Nations rather than on NATO, but the latter has been slammed when it is insufficiently docile. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld put down France and Germany for their opposition to the illegal war of aggression on Iraq, calling them “Old Europe,” praising instead the eastern European countries such as Poland that were eager to join the coalition of the willing.

Likewise, his attacks on the UN Security Council diplomatic deal with Iran to require that the latter’s nuclear enrichment program remains purely for civilian purposes is indistinguishable from that of all other GOP politicians. And it is just as wrong-headed, since the deal has excellent safeguards against weapons research and has already resulted in the mothballing of Iran’s planned heavy water reactor at Arak, which could have been used to produce fissile material.

Ironically, for a speech decrying the current posture of Washington in the world as a mishmash of incompatible goals, Trump’s speech exhibited the very flaws he discerned in American foreign policy.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CNN: ” Trump’s foreign policy speech dissected”

30 Responses

  1. The argument that “the US pays an unfair share of direct costs” for NATO countries can be countered by a simple thought-experiment.

    Q: If the USA stopped paying those costs then what, exactly, would those NATO countries do?
    A: Nothing.

    Those European countries are under no conventional or nuclear military threat whatsoever and therefore would see no need to increase their military spending even **without** Uncle Sam guarding their backs.

    Indeed, the *only* reason that the current NATO countries would consider raising their military budget would be if they feared that the USA would attempt a few “color revolutions” against them.

    • To state that NATO countries “are under no conventional or nuclear military threat whatsoever…” demonstrates a lack of geo-strategic awarness. The three Baltic states–Estonia, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as Poland, have all been threatened by Putin. The Baltic states in particular were once a part of the Soviet Union and part of what Russia now calls its “Near-Abroad.” Without a strong NATO presence, Putin would be sorely tempted to bring them back into the fold.

      There is also Turkey, which has always had friction with Russia and the former Soviet Union. Without NATO backup, Putin would not necessarily invade Turkey, but he would most certainly apply strong pressure to bring Turkey under Russian influence.

        • Were NATO and the U.S. to abandon Europe, nukes would be unnecessary. Russian conventional forces would be more than adequate to accomplish the job handily.

        • Agreed..sort of. But the point raised above, if I read it right, was that NATO is unnecessary. I don’t buy that.

        • “Were NATO and the U.S. to abandon Europe, nukes would be unnecessary. Russian conventional forces would be more than adequate to accomplish the job handily.”

          Riiiiiiiiight. If NATO folded and the US Army left Europe then the inevitable consequence of that would be a rush by Russian conventional forces towards the English Channel in order to “handily” subjugate all of Europe?

          Because, you know, that’s what has happened so many, many times before The Coming Of The GIs.


        • “But the point raised above, if I read it right, was that NATO is unnecessary. I don’t buy that.”

          NATO is completely unnecessary.

          Russia does not have a military that is capable of invading Europe, and has not the slightest intention of indulding in such adventurism.

          Heck, it won’t even invade the Ukraine regardless of the machinations of Victoria Nuland.

          There is this nonsensical idea floating around that without the USA then “Europe” would be defenseless against an over-armed and territorially-ambitious Russan military.

          It is untrue. Even without the US contribution the Russians are outspent two-to-one by the top four economies in Europe.

          Indeed, just the combination of France+Germany would have no trouble outspending Russia.

          If NATO were to dissolve then nothing would happen.

          And even if it were to happen (if, say, Putin were replaced by someone who pops too many angry-pills) then the only result would be an old-fashioned alliance of convenience between the major European powers.

          This may surprise many here, but the Europeans have lived alongside the Russan Bear for a long, long time before Uncle Sam started sending GIs “over there”.

          And they understand perfectly well that “Russia” is not at all the same thing as the “USSR”.

        • “Riiiiiiiiight. If NATO folded and the US Army left Europe then the inevitable consequence of that would be a rush by Russian conventional forces towards the English Channel in order to “handily” subjugate all of Europe?”

          If you had actually read what I wrote you would have noted that I was speaking of the NATO Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It helps to read and understand before responding.

        • William (now): “If you had actually read what I wrote you would have noted that I was speaking of the NATO Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.”

          William (then): ” The three Baltic states–Estonia, Latvia, and Estonia, AS WELL AS POLAND, have all been threatened by Putin.”…… “THERE IS ALSO TURKEY,”……

          It’s really hard to know what you are trying to say, william, because you do appear to be scratching around for a reason – any reason, no matter how trivial – why NATO remains relevent.

          Certainly your characterization of the military threat posed by Russia appears to be shrinking by the day.

          To be honest, if the rationale for the existance of NATO rests upon the necessity of defending three teeny tiny Baltic states then perhaps you might want to consider how far NATO has drifted from its original charter.

          Because it does appear to be now designed more as a way of crafting a casus belli (Those poor freightened baltic states! Think of the children!) for an attack ON Russia, and not so much as an organization designed to defend against an attack BY Russia.

        • “Riiiiiiiiight. If NATO folded and the US Army left Europe then the inevitable consequence of that would be a rush by Russian conventional forces towards the English Channel in order to “handily” subjugate all of Europe?”

          Your desperate attempt (quoted above) to suggest that my reference to the potential Russian threat to very specific countries bordering Russia actually meant subjugation of “all of Europe” is risible and won’t wash. If you wish to make the case for dismantling NATO, do so on its perceived merits, not by transparently misstating a position with which you disagree.

      • That a country of 150 million 70 year old alcoholics and drug addicts, who could not drive safely if their life depended on it, with an average life expectancy of 55, could even be a threat to Monaco let alone a country in the EU, such as Estonia, is completely preposterous. The media in the US has been frightening the American people with a Soviet then Russian boogeyman for decades.
        Have you ever seen Youtube videos of how Russians drive. If you pay close attention you will see even those not having accidents are not having accidents through pure luck. It should be clear that the only people that the Russians are capable of threatening are other Russians.
        Without the use of nuclear weapons NATO could defeat Russia in 20 minutes. Putin has improved things since coming to power. It was 10 minutes before he took power.
        Furthermore the exact same thing could be written about Iran except that the the average age would be 15 and it would be described as a country of drug addicts and alcoholics, who could not find their way from their bedroom to their living room unless their are looking through a video camera.

        • “Without the use of nuclear weapons NATO could defeat Russia in 20 minutes.”

          You could not be more wrong. Last year Rand Corp. war-gamed a Russian invasion of NATO’s Baltic members and the NATO response. With its superior numbers of both ground and air forces stationed across the border from the Baltics, the Russian forces overwhelmed NATO forces and occupied those countries.

          Nevertheless, in a backhanded way, you have made the case for a continued NATO presence in Europe binding us in a mutual defense treaty. Putin knows that were he to make such a drastic move, the NATO alliance would consolidate and eventually prevail. Were the NATO alliance to dissolve, there would be nothing to prevent Russia from invading Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, just as it did under Stalin in 1940.

      • “The three Baltic states–Estonia, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as Poland, have all been threatened by Putin.”

        No, they haven’t been “threatened by Putin”, though it is understandable that they find that living next to Russia is “a threatening thing”.

        But, be honest here William: does any European country in NATO give a rat’s arse about Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania?

        This is a given: if the USA stopped “paying” for NATO then it would fold, the US Army would leave, and each European country would go back to running their own army their own way. Just as they always did pre-NATO.

        Would Germany spend big on the Bundeswehr so that it can go to the aid of a “threatened Estonia”?

        The answer is surely “no”.

        Would the UK do likewise so that it could rush to the aid of Latvia?


        Would France beef up its military so that it could stand shoulder to shoulder with Lithuania?

        The answer: “no”.

        This is very, very simple: if Donald turned off the Money Tap then NATO would cease to exist.

        At which point all the European countries would fund their militaries to a level that is commesurate with their *own* national interests.

        Which in dollar terms would amount to “not much, maybe even less than now”.

        If the Baltic States wanted to spend themselves into the ground to be able to “defeat” any Russian threat then they would be free to do so. But Germany wouldn’t join them, nor would the UK, nor France, nor anyone else.

        After all, why should they?

        • Ironically, your entire comment, with your “points” such as they are, point to the reason NATO has been the most successful security alliance in history. It successfully kept the Soviet Union at bay during the period of Containment, and it continues to reinforce security today against potential Russian adventurism in a way that individual European countries, particularly the Baltics, could not. NATO continues to justify its existence in terms of United States and European interests.

      • If NATO was created for the sole purpose of defending against the Soviet Bloc, how did we justify its survival – and expansion – all the way up to Russia’s borders?
        And who pushed that expansion? Bush and Cheney.
        Putin was compliant with the US after 9/11, for obvious motives. Then Cheney capped a series of provocations with his insulting of Putin and Russia at the 2005 commemoration of the victory over Nazi Germany. Well, that did the job. Putin reacted like a Russian, with armed force, and now we have to keep NATO going – as an undemocratic extension of the Pentagon Order of Battle, not really sovereign armies at all. Where was NATO for Turkey when Israel shot up its Gaza aid convoy?

        You won’t accept it but America’s military-industrial complex intentionally creates new enemies to ensure its own survival. All our enemies since 1945 were once our allies; after Stalin screwed us the people who benefited became our rulers.

  2. At least Trump says he puts America first, even if he doesn’t mean it. Over here in the UK our worthless politicians like Cameron and Corbin, quite openly want to sell us down the river to the European Union. We even have the American president over here fawning on Cameron and telling us all that we should give away our sovereignty to the EU. If Obama thinks its such a good idea that we over here in the UK stay as members of the EU and open our borders to all and sundry, then he should open his borders between America, Mexico and Canada. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!

  3. He may be a bombastic snake oil salesman when he is in his off the cuff bloviator mode but when it comes to giving a serious scripted speech his delivery is akin to a first year divinity student. I’m sure the leaders of ISIS are quaking in their sandals right about now.

  4. Nothing the Trumpster said was half as scary and tone deaf as was Sec. Clinton’s umprompted bragging about what buddies she and Henry Kissinger are.

  5. Under UN supervision 600 metric tons of chemical agents used for making poison gas were destroyed from Syrian stockpiles. There have been no reported uses of poison gas in Syria since. Wikipedia has a thorough article on the use of this gas. I am not aware of anyone who said Turkey was behind it. Human Rights Watch, not affiliated with any government, placed the blame on the Syrian government. Only Seymour Hersh seems to think it was a false flag operation. The evidence is murky, but most evidence points to the Syrian government. I find it quite strange how people are so quick to blame the US for all the problems in the area, even to go to the extreme of seeming to support a war criminal like Assad. I am finding ideologues of the left as unrealistic as ideologues of the right. One says the US can do no wrong, the other says that the US is to blame for everything that goes wrong. Nuance be damned.

    • “I am finding ideologues of the left as unrealistic as ideologues of the right. One says the US can do no wrong, the other says that the US is to blame for everything that goes wrong. Nuance be damned.”

      This phenomenon can be found in populist demagogues on both the left and the right, dating back at least to the 1930s, and particularly in foreign policy. The left thinks America is not good enough for the rest of the world, and the right thinks the rest of the world is not good enough for America. Both are laughably unrealistic.

    • how does detroying sunni iraqi cities make sense when no one has a plan for the aftermath or reconstruction. it is enough to make one cynical about our true intentions.

  6. You could take everything Trump knows about foreign policy, put it in a thimble, and have room left over for all his knowledge of domestic policy.

  7. From corporate-controlled media •••clown to magically morphing into Presidential material will require some truly amazing “special effects.”

  8. George W. set a new standard on what a failed presidency is like. I can’t imagine Donald Trump being an improvement on George W.

    One failed presidency did a lot of damage to our country and our foreign policy. President Obama repaired some of the damage despite a Congress that was useless for six years. Another failed presidency so soon after George W. will not be good for the U.S., or good for the world.

  9. obama is a “defensive realist”? what about destroying Tikrit and Ramadi to “liberate” them from a sunni iraqi movement called Isis? Is he being a “defensive realist” ? when he bombards Mosul today?

  10. Judging by Juan’s article,and these comments, there is a lot of confusion going around. It is safe to say there is a good deal of confusion even within the government of the U.S.
    Maybe we can agree that the “functional” policy (that which can be observed over time) of the US Empire is “total dominance”.
    Dictators are fine until they need to replaced. Destabilization is fine because the countries become ineffective and pose no threat. The GWOT works because it presents the constant enemy that supports the endless war that supports the MIC. NATO is just another tool to keep the countries of Europe in line and under our thumb and create problems for Russia.
    Specific actions taken by the US (to the extent we even know what happened) don’t mean much. Seeming contradictions don’t mean much. Speeches mean little if anything. Congress is useless. Hillary (maybe Bernie to some extent) is the only candidate that has a clue about what is actually going on—and that is no comfort.
    There is a reason why the US has bases in almost every country. This is not about Democracy for the world (or at home).
    See Lofgren’s “The Deep State”, John Perkins’s work, or even Gen. Butler’s “War is a Racket”.

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