Donald Trump has promised to provide a list of his foreign policy advisers for months, and still hasn’t produced one. Many Republican foreign policy professionals and academics have saved him some time and removed themselves from consideration by denouncing him in an open letter:
Mr. Trump’s own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world. Furthermore, his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States. Therefore, as committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head. We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.
The signatories are well within their rights to reject Trump, and at least some of their complaints are accurate. One problem with this letter is that several of the complaints they level against Trump could be lodged against the other candidates still in the race, but there is no similar effort being made to oppose or criticize them. More to the point, there is not even a brief acknowledgement that Republican foreign policy failures have helped Trump succeed, nor is there any recognition that the hawkish obsession with “resolve” and “strength” have made Republican voters receptive to Trump’s unrealistic and reckless promises. Robert Farley made a related point earlier today:
10. Excommunicating Trump doesn’t do much to help examine why GOP FP has gone so horribly wrong since 2000.
— Robert Farley (@drfarls) March 3, 2016
If Trump’s “admiration for foreign dictators” is disqualifying in their eyes, they probably also must object to Cruz’s argument that the U.S. should not seek to depose dictators when jihadists will benefit. It would be worth knowing if they do. Then again, it’s not actually clear why pursuing a less confrontational, more pragmatic relationship with Russia is undesirable, but because Trump appears less inclined than his remaining rivals to “punch the Russians in the nose” he has crossed a line. We should be more worried about the candidates that are prepared to fight Russia over Syria than we are about the candidate that seems interested in cooperating with Moscow, but of course many of the signatories have no problem with a more aggressive and reckless policy in Syria and some have advocated for it. They are alarmed by Trump’s rhetoric on trade, but if he were in favor of aggressively waging wars, as opposed to trade wars, many of them would be celebrating his embrace of American “leadership.” Many of the people denouncing Trump here have a very warped view of what the U.S. should be doing in the world, and that needs to be kept in mind when reading their complaints.
It’s worth noting that at least some of the signatories are publicly committed supporters of Rubio (e.g., Max Boot), and presumably they are signing on to this letter to help promote his candidacy. They say that Trump’s “equation of business acumen with foreign policy experience is false.” I agree with that, but I must have missed it when many of these former Romney advisers ridiculed Romney and his supporters for making similar claims. Like Trump, Romney had absolutely no foreign policy experience and frequently showed that he didn’t understand what he was talking about, but that didn’t stop many of these same people from supporting him. When Romney said something outlandish or idiotic on foreign policy, his supporters dismissed it as meaningless pandering, but now they are applying a different standard.
There are positions that the other candidates have taken on Syria and the war on ISIS that merit just as much criticism as anything Trump has said (Cruz’s insane “carpet bombing” rhetoric or Rubio and Kasich’s reckless support for a “no-fly zone” in Syria), but there is little chance that most of the signatories of this letter would denounce Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich in similar terms. Potentially risking war with a nuclear-armed major power is and should be considered a worse offense than saying something flattering about an authoritarian ruler, but we won’t hear that from many of the people on this list.
The strongest argument against Trump on foreign policy is that we have no clear idea of what he would do, and it is dangerous to entrust someone with such a muddled and ill-defined foreign policy worldview with great power. I agree that his rhetoric on torture is deplorable and should be condemned, but then we should also condemn other candidates that endorse the use of torture. We should also condemn the previous administration for using torture on detainees, which had the effect of making support for illegal and immoral methods into a sick litmus test for many on the right. Another question that the signatories don’t attempt to address is whether the other candidates are even more dangerous when we have a very good idea of how they would conduct foreign policy once in office. They are appalled by Trump’s “hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric,” as well they should be, but how is that worse than the other candidates’ willingness to inflict death and destruction on predominantly Muslim countries again and again?
Trump gets a lot wrong on foreign policy. His opposition to the nuclear deal is uninformed and foolish, his understanding of the relevant issues in many parts of the world is lacking or superficial, and his casual support for war crimes and torture is unacceptable. He wasn’t the early opponent of unnecessary wars he has claimed to be. However, the problem with singling Trump out as this letter does is that in spite of all his real deficiencies he is not obviously worse or more irresponsible than his rivals, who are either equally ill-informed or much more fanatical than he is. That is the deeper problem with Republican foreign policy that most of the people behind this letter can’t acknowledge and won’t even attempt to fix.