Donald Trump’s most recent foreign policy speech, in which he explained how he would deal with the Islamic State (ISIL) and the Middle East in general, contained multitudes – everything good and everything questionable about his brand of “America First” nationalism. Here is Trumpism on full display, the common-sensical and the nonsensical intertwined. While I realize a presidential election campaign is not the time for nuance, it behooves us to pull apart these disparate strands if we want to understand this moment in our history.
He starts out by defining the problem: the series of attacks that have horrified the world and flummoxed our law enforcement agencies. And what’s notable here is that he just doesn’t talk about what’s going on overseas, as you might expect in a speech ostensibly about foreign policy: he talks about San Bernardino and Orlando alongside Paris and Brussels. In short, he brings it all home.
This underscores his entire orientation: it’s what “America First” is all about. Why should Americans care about ISIL? Well, folks, says Trump, it’s because they’re attacking us right here on the home front. Contrast this with the usual neocon-Hillaryite politically correct gobbledygook: we have to spread Democracy and Goodness throughout the Middle East! They don’t have gay rights in Afghanistan! We must defend the “international order”!
There’s the problem: ISIL. So what caused it? Trump’s answer:
“The rise of ISIS is the direct result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary Clinton.”
What? I seem to remember some guy named George W. Bush – didn’t he invade Iraq or something? – who vowed to pursue the goal of “ending tyranny in our world.” Why, as I recall, he even invoked Doestoevsky’s novel about revolutionary nihilism, The Possessed, and pledged to ignite “a fire in the mind” throughout the Middle East – and the world! And the fire is still burning….
In fairness, Trump gets to the Iraq war later on in the speech, but this omission is telling, although it probably says more about who’s advising him than it does about the candidate himself.
In any case, Trump goes on to denounce the disastrous military interventions that empowered ISIL in Syria and Libya: so far so good. He also notes US support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolution in Egypt, another aspect of the post-“Arab Spring” turn in US policy that ended badly. Then we get the Fox News version of history: the Iran deal put Tehran “in a dominant position of regional power and, in fact, aspiring to be a dominant world power.”
This makes zero sense, especially after his long peroration about the horrors of ISIL: does he not know that Iran is fighting ISIL in Syria? Does he not realize that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are fighting alongside Iraqi government forces to defeat the pro-ISIL pro-al Qaeda Sunni insurgency?
Does he know anything?
We get yet more Fox News revisionist history with his description of President Obama’s Cairo speech as an “apology tour,” followed by this:
“The failure to establish a new Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq, and the election-driven timetable for withdrawal, surrendered our gains in that country and led directly to the rise of ISIS.”
He blames Obama, but this is false: it was the Bush administration that negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement and established the withdrawal timetable. President Bush signed a memorandum of understanding that stipulated all US troops must leave Iraq by December 31, 2011. The withdrawal wasn’t “election-driven” – it was Bush-driven.
Surely the Bush administration wanted to keep US troops in Iraq: to do otherwise would be to admit, in deeds if not in words, that the invasion had been a disastrous mistake. The sticking point was the question of immunity of US soldiers from Iraqi law: given the horrific history of Abu Ghraib, and other numerous instances of US troops committing war crimes in Iraq, the Iraqis insisted that any US soldiers accused of engaging in such acts would have to be subject to trial in Iraqi courts. The US, which has a policy of not allowing its soldiers to be tried in foreign courts, refused to go along with this. And that was the end of that.
While it’s true that the Obama administration tried to resurrect the agreement, the US prohibition on foreign legal jurisdiction over our troops was considered nonnegotiable.
What comes next is the under-appreciated sight of a Republican candidate for President trying to prove that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning. Trump cites an interview with Neil Cavuto in which he said the economy is a bigger problem and we shouldn’t “be going in yet.” (Yet?) He cites a fuller and more definitive statement made to Esquire magazine in 2004:
“What was the purpose of this whole thing? Hundreds and hundreds of young people killed. And what about the people coming back with no arms and legs? Not to mention the other side. All those Iraqi kids who’ve been blown to pieces. And it turns out that all of the reasons for the war were blatantly wrong. All this for nothing.”
So, if it was all “for nothing,” then it was a good thing we pulled out, and indeed we should’ve pulled out sooner. Right? Of course not!
“So I have been clear for a long time that we should not have gone in. But I have been just as clear in saying what a catastrophic mistake Hillary Clinton and President Obama made with the reckless way in which they pulled out.
“After we had made those hard-fought sacrifices and gains, we should never have made such a sudden withdrawal – on a timetable advertised to our enemies. Al Qaeda in Iraq had been decimated, and Obama and Clinton gave it new life and allowed it to spread across the world.”
The myth of Victory Denied is a longstanding right-wing trope that refuses to die: they say the same thing about the Vietnam war. If these people had their way, US troops would still be fighting in the Mekong delta. “We weren’t allowed to win!” is the one point where neoconservatism and Trumpian nationalism intersect. Except it has nothing to do with reality. The Iraqis kicked us out – and in Vietnam we were militarily defeated. Neither war was winnable.
Indeed, every war we’ve fought on the Asian landmass has ended in, at best, a stalemate, as in Korea, and at worst a complete rout, as in Vietnam. Iraq is no different: and neither, for that matter, is Syria, or Libya, or any of the other interventions Trump denounces. The choice we faced in all of these wars was: either permanent occupation, or else withdrawal. There’s no in-between. Our troops are still in Korea, more than half a century after the fighting ended, a fact that Trump complains about. Does he want Iraq to turn into another Korea?
He slyly acknowledges this contradiction when he goes into his unbelievably stupid “we-should’ve-kept-the-oil” riff:
“This proposal, by its very nature, would have left soldiers in place to guard our assets. In the old days, when we won a war, to the victor belonged the spoils. Instead, all we got from Iraq – and our adventures in the Middle East – was death, destruction and tremendous financial loss.”
What this means, in effect, is that we’ll be in the Middle East forever, guarding “our assets.” And, by the way, the “old days” Trump refers to are really ancient times: when the Romans sacked cities and lugged the loot back to Rome. America’s wars didn’t involve us collecting anything but the war debts of our shiftless allies: after World War I, we effectively canceled the war debts owed by Great Britain and France. After World War II, the Marshall Plan subsidized the nations of devastated Europe, and the Brits didn’t pay off their debt to us until 2006 (after multi-year suspensions of payments). These wars, and indeed all the wars waged by us in modern times, resulted in nothing but “death, destruction, and tremendous financial loss.”
Trump then turns around and declares “The era of nation-building will be ended.” Great! But we’ll still be fighting in Iraq, and god knows where else.
So how will Trump deal with the Islamic State? Well, beyond calling “an international conference,” we don’t know. He doesn’t want to “telegraph” his Grand Plan to “our enemies.” And he also doesn’t want to tell the American people what he plans to do – but we can glean the implications from what he does say. And I have to say it’s not encouraging.
Trump’s immigration proposals – “ideological vetting” of potential immigrants, a “temporary” ban on immigrants from countries rife with terrorism, a “Commission on Radical Islam” to study the problem – are vague placebos in place of a real policy. France has a large Muslim population. So does Britain. So does Germany. Are these countries, all of which have been the scenes of homegrown terrorist activities, among those he wants to impose his “temporary” ban on? He never tells us which countries he’s talking about. As for the “vetting” process: will any would-be terrorist answer truthfully when asked if he or she believes in Sharia law, as opposed to the US Constitution? Grow up!
If Trump were serious about using immigration policy as a weapon in the “war on terrorism,” he would advocate an immigration moratorium. He used the word “extreme” a half a dozen times when he talked about who should be allowed to enter the country, but apparently this is too extreme even for him – and yet it’s the only realistic approach to take. I’m not saying I would endorse such a proposal, but at least it has the virtue of being both practical and honest.
To sum up: on the plus side we have Trump denouncing the Iraq war and the interventions in Libya, Syria, and Egypt that gave ISIL a pathway to prominence. That a Republican candidate for President is saying these words is more significant than anyone is willing to admit: it represents a sea change for the GOP, and it means there’s no going back to the neoconservative nostrums of the past. There’s also his willingness to cooperate with Russia, which would mark a decisive break with the new cold warriors who inhabit the Beltway and infest both parties. And you’ll note that, when listing our Muslim allies in the Middle East, Trump didn’t mention the Saudis or the Gulf emirates. They surely noticed this glaring omission, although no one else did.
On the negative side, we see that Trump is a captive of the ridiculous idea that once we’re in we have to stay in and fight until we achieve “victory.” What he doesn’t realize is that when you’ve dug yourself into a hole the way out is to stop digging – and his failure to understand this simple principle is surely replicated by the way he’s conducted his campaign so far.
What Trump’s critics don’t understand is that his victory in the primaries represents a break with Bush Republicanism, which is why the neoconservatives have been his most vocal and embittered opponents. He really does oppose the first principle of interventionism, which is that “American leadership” is the singular answer to the world’s problems. What he doesn’t get, however, is that we can’t allow ourselves to get sucked back into the Middle East maelstrom under the pretext of cleaning up the mess made by the globalists.
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.