In 2015, I summarized how disastrous American foreign policy has been post 9-11, “Our foreign policy is run by crazy people. I don’t mean legitimately insane, but politicians who insist America must do things around the world that have been empirically proven not to work—for decades—at great cost to our country’s finances, military, prestige and actual security.”
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We toppled a secular dictator in Iraq in 2003, empowering Iran and creating a vacuum for radical extremists that led to the rise of ISIS. We toppled a secular dictator in Libya in 2011 that destabilized the country, including creating the conditions that led to the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi. We gave weapons to supposedly “moderate” rebels in Libya and Syria that ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Republicans and Democrats did these things—and the Middle East is less stable and our enemies are more emboldened today due to U.S. intervention.
I shared these thoughts as the presidential campaign began to take shape, making the case that my candidate, Sen. Rand Paul, offered a drastic departure from the foreign policy consensus of both parties.
Later, I hoped the same would be true of Donald Trump. That hope has turned into despair.
The only two candidates in the Republican primaries to forcefully condemn the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s failed policies, to say forthright that it really was the actions of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that were responsible for the rise of ISIS, and, most importantly, that America should stop doing obviously dumb things abroad that harm our national security, was Paul and Trump.
Virtually every other GOP presidential candidate in 2016 had a foreign policy more similar to their would-be Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, who in turn was also fairly indistinguishable from George W. Bush when looking at her voting record and tenure as Secretary of State, regarding foreign affairs.
Paul and Trump were the only two who promised a break from all this. But unfortunately, that’s where the similarities on this issue generally ended.
From years of observing and working for him, I knew Paul had a firm grasp on what the root problems are with our foreign policy and could offer an alternative to both the Republican and Democrat hyper-interventionist models that had dominated the prior two administrations. Paul had given speeches on a what a “realist” foreign policy might look like, that put, somewhat amusingly now in reflecting, American interests first, and not the ideological agendas of those who insist the U.S must continue to be the world’s police in perpetuity.
In short, Rand had really thought about this issue. Trump, on the other hand, I wasn’t so sure.
I believe Trump’s primary political talent has always been that he can sense what many Americans think about the world around them and reflect that in simple language, however coarse. You really do have to be a Washington think tanker to honestly believe the Iraq War was anything but a cataclysmic cluster, but the average person knows it was, and Trump does too. So many everyday people – right, left, in between – understand at a gut level that what the U.S. has been doing around the world has not worked and has come with a great cost. Bureaucrats stuck in their DC bubbles don’t get this. Trump does get it, and expressing disdain for elites who believe they are incapable of making mistakes is a big part of why he beat Clinton.
The campaign-mode Trump said many sensible and refreshing things about foreign policy that resonated with voters. But President Trump, to date, has more often done more to contradict his campaign rhetoric than challenge the status quo.
Right now we are at war in seven countries and there is speculation that the Trump administration might start dropping bombs in the Philippines soon. Instead of drawing down in Afghanistan, the president is pondering turning it into a hub for an even more literal military industrial complex. With his airstrikes in Syria and other places, the new administration is already on course to kill more civilians abroad in his first year in office than were killed during the entire Obama administration – precisely the type of wanton intervention that breeds terrorists.
As I write this, we are only a little over 24 hours removed from the American president threatening North Korea with nuclear destruction. Even neoconservatives and Democrat hawks are telling Trump to cool down.
Why does Trump behave like this? For the same reason he said non-interventionist things during the campaign – because it sounds like common sense to him. Why did he threaten North Korea so brazenly? Well, if they’re going to antagonize us, we’re going to stick it to them, by golly.
But it was this same sort of tough guy thinking that got us into Iraq and toppling Libya’s dictator – Hillary Clinton couldn’t wait to brag about taking out Muammar Gaddafi.
But didn’t Trump used to oppose this too? The kind of attitudes that got us into these foreign quagmires? Or did he not really think about it too much?
There are good aspects of Trump’s foreign policy. He recently decided to stop arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels, an Obama policy that funneled American arms right into the hands of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Trump’s tone and attitude toward Russia is more sober than that of so many Democrats and also GOP hawks like John McCain who have long been eager to re-escalate the Cold War.
But pound for pound, day by day, I had hoped Trump would make our foreign policy better, but he reminds us with each passing moment that he probably never will. I don’t even think he consciously realizes he’s doing this. He’s probably overwhelmed by the job and has moved on from his promises to stop nation-building.
This is what happens when someone without coherent principles or a solid belief system stumbles into power saying good things about foreign policy or any other policy – it becomes just as easy for such politicians to wander aimlessly in the opposite direction.
That’s what we’ve seen for most of the last six months unfortunately.
Right now Trump appears to be bumbling his way through his presidency including on foreign policy. This week with North Korea, we were reminded of just how dangerous this approach can be. There was a time when Trump would have agreed.
To say Hillary Clinton would have been an even more hawkish president is likely true, but also not enough of a consolation given how much Trump once promised to change the status quo.
On that front, the only thing that has changed to date is Donald Trump.