I would very much like to see the White House revert to a George Marshall type of foreign policy, in which the United States would use its vast power wisely rather than punitively. As Donald Trump knows little of what makes the world go round, senior officials and cabinet secretaries will play a key role in framing and executing policy. One would like to see people like Jim Webb, Chas Freeman, Andrew Bacevich, or even TAC’s own Daniel Larison in key government positions, as one might thereby rely on their cool judgment and natural restraint to guide the ship of state. But that is unfortunately unlikely to happen.
Instead, by some accounts, we will quite possibly be getting Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, Sarah Palin, Jose Rodriguez, Michael Ledeen, and Michael Flynn. Bolton, who is being tagged as a possible secretary of state, would be a one-man reactionary horror show, making one long for the good old days of Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright. There are also lesser, mostly neocon luminaries lining up for supporting roles, résumés ready at hand. To be sure, we won’t be seeing the Kagans, Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, or Michael Hayden, who defected to Hillary in dramatic fashion, but there are plenty of others who are polishing up their credentials and hoping to let bygones be bygones. They are eager to return to power and regain the emoluments that go with high office, so they will now claim to be adaptable enough to work for someone they once described as unfit to be president.
It is reported that associates from the conservative Heritage Foundation have been tasked with the search for suitable national-security candidates as part of the transition team. One candidate to head the CIA is Jose Rodriguez, who back under W headed the agency’s torture program. Another former CIA officer who is a particularly polarizing figure and is apparently being looked at for high office is Clare Lopez, who has claimed that the Obama White House is infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lopez is regarded by the Trump team as “one of the intellectual thought leaders about why we have to fight back against radical Islam.” She has long been associated with the Center for Security Policy, headed by Frank Gaffney, a fanatical hardliner who believes that Saddam Hussein was involved in both the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing, that Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist is a secret agent of the Muslim Brotherhood, that Gen. David Petraeus has “submitted to Sharia,” and that the logo of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency reveals “official U.S. submission to Islam” because it “appears ominously to reflect a morphing of the Islamic crescent and star.”
But if Rodriguez and Lopez and others like them can be either discarded or kept in a closet somewhere, let us hope for the best. If Trump appoints competent senior officials, they might actually undertake a serious review of what America does around the world. Such an examination would be appropriate, as Trump has more or less promised to shake things up. He has indicated that he would abandon the policy of humanitarian intervention so loved by President Barack Obama and his advisors, and has signaled that he will not be pursuing regime change in Syria. He will also seek détente with Russia, a major shift from the increasingly confrontational policy of the past eight years.
Donald Trump rejects arming rebels as in Syria because we know little about whom we are dealing with and increasingly find that we cannot control what develops from the relationship. He is against foreign aid in principle, particularly to countries like Pakistan where the U.S. is strongly disliked. These are all positive steps, and the new administration should be encouraged to pursue them. The White House might also want to consider easing the United States out of Afghanistan through something like the negotiated Paris Peace talks arrangement that ended Vietnam. Fifteen years of conflict with no end in sight: Afghanistan is a war that is unwinnable.
Apart from several easy-to-identify major issues, Trump’s foreign policy is admittedly quite sketchy, and he has not always been consistent in explaining it. He has been slammed, appropriately enough, for being simple minded in saying that he would “bomb the [crap] out of ISIS” and that he is willing to put 30,000 soldiers on the ground if necessary to destroy the terrorist group, but he has also taken on the Republican establishment by specifically condemning the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq. He has more than once indicated that he is not interested in being either the world’s policeman or a participant in new wars in the Middle East. He has repeatedly stated that he supports NATO, but not as a blunt instrument designed to irritate Russia. He would work with Putin to address concerns over Syria and Eastern Europe. He would demand that NATO countries spend more for their own defense and also help pay for the maintenance of U.S. bases, which many argue to be long overdue.
Trump’s controversial call to stop all Muslim immigration has been rightly condemned, but he has somewhat moderated that stance to focus on travelers and immigrants from countries that have been substantially radicalized or where anti-American sentiment is strong. And the demand to take a second look at some potential visitors or residents is not unreasonable in that the current process for vetting new arrivals in this country is far from transparent and apparently not very effective.
Beyond platitudes, the Obama administration has not been very forthcoming on what might be done to fix the entire immigration process, but Trump is promising to put national security and border control first. If Trump were to receive good advice on the issue, he would indeed tighten border security and gradually move to repatriate most illegal immigrants, but he would also look at the investigative procedures used to examine the backgrounds and intentions of refugees and asylum seekers who come in through other resettlement programs. The United States has an obligation to help genuine refugees from countries that have been shattered through Washington’s military interventions, but it also has a duty to know exactly whom it is letting in.
Trump is also critical of the Iran nuclear agreement and the steps to normalize relations with Cuba, the two most notable foreign-policy successes of the Obama administration. Any change in the latter would have relatively little impact on the United States, but the Iran deal is important as it stopped potential proliferation by Iran, which likely would have produced a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Trump has called the agreement “horrible” because it stopped short of total capitulation by Tehran and has pledged to “renegotiate it,” which might prove impossible given that the pact had five other signatories. Iran would in any event refuse to make further concessions, particularly as it would no longer be prepared to accept assurances that Washington would comply with any agreement.
The White House could, however, de facto scuttle the agreement by imposing new sanctions on Iran and continuing to apply pressure on Iranian banks and credit through Washington’s influence over international financial markets. If enough pressure were applied, Iran could rightly claim that the U.S. had failed to comply with the agreement and withdraw from it, possibly leading to an accelerated nuclear-weapons program justified on the basis of self-defense. It is precisely the outcome that many hardliners both in Washington and Iran would like to see, as it would invite a harsh response from the White House, ending any possibility of an accord over proliferation.
Someone has to try to convince Trump that the Iranian agreement is good for everyone involved, including Israel and the United States. Even though such a suggestion is unlikely to come from the current group of advisors, who are strongly anti-Iranian, a good argument might be made based on what Trump himself has been urging vis-à-vis Syria, stressing that ISIS is America’s real enemy and Iran is a major partner in the coalition that is actively fighting the terrorist group. As in the case of Russia, it makes sense to cooperate with Iran when it is in our interest, and it also is desirable to prolong the process, delaying Iran’s possible decision to acquire a nuclear capability. Working with Iran might even make the country’s leadership less paranoid and would reduce the motivation to acquire a weapon in the first place, an argument analogous to Trump’s observations about dealing with Russia.
But it all comes down to the type of “expert” advice Trump gets. The president-elect is largely ignorant of the world and its leaders, so he has relied on a mixed bag of foreign-policy advisors. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, appears to be the most prominent. Flynn is associated with arch-neocon Michael Ledeen, and both are rabid about Iran, with Flynn suggesting that nearly all the unrest in the Middle East should be laid at Tehran’s door. Ledeen is, of course, a prominent Israel-firster who has long had Iran in his sights. Their solution to the Iran problem would undoubtedly entail the use of military force against the Islamic Republic. Given what is at stake in terms of yet another Middle Eastern war and possible nuclear proliferation, it is essential that Donald Trump hear some alternative views.
There are other foreign-policy areas as well where Trump will undoubtedly be receiving bad advice and would benefit from a broader vision. He has said that he would be an even-handed negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians, but he has also declared that he is strongly pro-Israel and would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem—which is a bad idea, not in America’s interest, even if Benjamin Netanyahu would like it. It would produce serious blowback from the Arab world and would inspire a new wave of terrorism directed against the U.S. Someone should explain to Mr. Trump that there are real consequences to pledges made in the midst of an acrimonious electoral campaign.
The Trump Asia policy, meanwhile, consists largely of uninformed and reactionary positions that would benefit from a bit of fresh air provided through access to alternative viewpoints. In East Asia, Trump has said he would encourage Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear arsenals to deter North Korea. That is a very bad idea, a proliferation nightmare, but Trump evidently eased away from that position during a recent phone call to the president of South Korea. Trump would also prefer that China intervene in North Korea and make Kim Jong Un “step down.” He would put pressure on China to stop devaluing its currency because it is “bilking us of billions of dollars” and would also increase U.S. military presence in the region to limit Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea.
It is to be hoped that Donald Trump and his transition team will be good listeners over the next 60 days. Positions staked out during a heated campaign do not equate to policy and should be regarded with considerable skepticism. American foreign policy, and by extension U.S. interests, have suffered for 16 years under the establishment-centric but nevertheless quite different groupthinks prevailing in the Bush and Obama White Houses. It is time for a little fresh advice.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.