So much for Donald J. Trump, ‘America first’ isolationist. Gone is the man who, as a civilian, repeatedly endorsed a speedy withdrawal from America’s longest-running war (2012 tweet: ‘Afghanistan is a complete waste!’), who railed against George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq and advocated leaving Syria to the whims of the Russkies and others. On Monday night, in his first nationally televised address as Commander-in-Chief, Trump declared that he was ordering more troop deployments to South Asia, for an unspecified period of time, to fight the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan commitment isn’t the only puzzler. There’s Trump’s bombing of a Syrian airport to enforce an international weapons of mass destruction treaty, his declaration of ‘fire and fury’ if Kim Jong-un dares attack the continental US (or Guam), and his refusal to take a ‘military option’ off the table to deal with Venezuela’s ongoing meltdown, and more. All within the first seven months of his presidency.
Perhaps it’s time to reassess what the Trumpian foreign policy is morphing into, what the ‘pragmatic realism’ the President referred to on Tuesday means, in practice?
The Donald didn’t take office with a coherent vision for America’s role in the world, aside from his made-for-TV sloganeering (‘Bomb the shit out of Isis!’ ‘Take the oil!’) and the ‘America first’ mantra. Did anyone really think the Donald was consciously harkening back to Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee? The only surety was that Donald Trump the candidate disdained failed foreign wars, and didn’t seem to know much at all about anything else related to American foreign policy (or economics, or regulation, or…).
Nor did his initial team of top aides seem much interested in investing in a robust US presence abroad — the kind of presence that’s kept the peace for decades. If anything, doves predominated. Senior adviser Steve Bannon, whose expertise included a short naval career and a stint running a populist website, advocated the withdrawal US troops from the Korean peninsula and a trade war with China. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s greatest preoccupation seemed to be waging internal battles with the US intelligence community, not contemplating grand strategy.
And yet. In Warsaw last month, President Trump defended Nato (‘A strong alliance of free, sovereign and independent nations is the best defence for our freedoms and for our interests’), denounced enemies by name (Russia, Syria, Iran, radical Islamic terrorists), invoked the Judeo-Christian tradition as essential to civilisation (‘We want God’) and asked the foreign-policy questions that needed to be asked (‘Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?’ ‘Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?’)
What happened? The presidency happened. In an April interview, we saw a hint of a reality check, when Trump remarked that the presidency ‘is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier’. In his Tuesday talk to the troops, he said: ‘All my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. We must address the reality of the world as it exists right now — the threats we face, and the confronting of all of the problems of today, and extremely predictable consequences of a hasty withdrawal.’
The reality of the world is frightening. Barack Obama’s troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, his meekness on the international stage produced a more diverse, deadly and geographically dispersed set of threats that any other American president has had to deal with since the Second World War. If Obama inherited a mess from George W. Bush, Trump has it much worse. He has adjusted his international outlook accordingly.
A new White House team has stiffened the President’s spine. Out went General Flynn and Mr Bannon, and in came national security adviser General H.R. McMaster and chief of staff General John Kelly. Along with defence secretary James Mattis and CIA director Mike Pompeo, the Trump foreign policy team now leans hawkish. (Dovish and bumbling secretary of state Rex Tillerson seems to have limited Oval Office influence.) Meanwhile, vice-president Mike Pence, also a hawk, who has served as a kind of uber-ambassador for the Trump agenda, jetting off to the Far East, South America, Central America and the Baltics and the Caucasus.
That’s not to say that President Trump is a born-again neoconservative. He was at pains Tuesday to emphasise the US was ‘not nation-building again’ in Afghanistan but ‘killing terrorists’, though that’s a distinction without a difference when the US is building a local army from scratch, investing heavily in economic development and shoring up the Kabul government. But it does raise the question of just how far Trump will go to defend American interests abroad, and at what cost.
Perhaps the key to understanding Trump’s foreign policy, as with so much else about the man, is its inherently transactional nature. He is comfortable ordering more US troops into Iraq and Syria to rout Isis, but hasn’t seemed to think much about the longer-term costs of ceding Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to Iran. He’s itching to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, but without a broader strategy to contain the mullahs’s regional ambitions and terrorist activities. He’s pressuring China to act against North Korea, but what will he do if Beijing doesn’t follow through? Does he know?
At least we can conclude that the world has, for now, avoided the worst-case scenario: a Trump presidency divorced from reality, one that continued his predecessor’s retreat from the world and accepted America’s decline. Is that really so bad?
Mary Kessel, Andrew Bacevich and Freddy Gray discuss Trump’s military strategy on The Spectator Podcast.
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