Trump’s New Era on Foreign Policy

The generals may not be happy, but there was still plenty for restraint advocates to love.

U.S. Pentagon brass listen to President Trump’s State of the Union Address, Feb. 5, 2019. (CSPAN/You Tube/Screengrab)

Those anticipating that President Donald Trump would spend a considerable part of his State of the Union address on foreign policy likely came away disappointed. With the exceptions of his bragging about the U.S. military being stronger and better than ever before, killing one of the al-Qaeda operatives who planned the USS Cole attack over 18 years ago, and condemning Nicolás Maduro-style socialism, Trump was noticeably subdued on events beyond America’s shores.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, the Trump administration’s favorite target, was portrayed as led by depraved fanatics intent on committing murder and mayhem throughout the Middle East. Russia—a country that has caused Trump all sorts of political trouble in Washington—was called out for violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Chinese President Xi Jinping was described as a friend while his government was excoriated as a predatory economic behemoth that has sapped America of its wealth, killed its manufacturing sector, stolen its intellectual capital, and decimated its blue-collar workforce. And Trump minced no words when briefly talking about Venezuela’s Maduro, who has plundered a once wealthy Latin American nation.

These portions of the speech were typical red meat to the Republican Party establishment. You won’t find a single conservative at a think tank or on TV who doesn’t enjoy hitting Tehran over the head with the strongest economic sanctions regime in history or boasting about wiping the Islamic State off the face of the earth. The president’s references to America as an agent of freedom sounded less like Trump and more like a combination of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, two men that define GOP foreign policy orthodoxy to this day.

What was different and indeed encouraging was Trump’s expressed desire to get the American military out of the foreign wars that have bogged it down with few—if any—benefits to American national security. He repeatedly talked about how U.S. soldiers have been fighting, training, advising, bombing, and dying in the same places with little to show for it other than munitions expended. Armies that Washington helped build, train, and fund remain semi-competent at best and grossly corrupt and inadequate at worst. Seven thousand troops killed, nearly 52,000 wounded, and $7 trillion spent has produced neither the market capitalism and democracy previous administrations envisioned nor the regional stability policymakers in Washington assumed.

The byproducts of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and all the rest have often been weapons proliferation and terrorism rather than the freedom happy-talk neoconservatives and liberal internationalists hoped for. Put aside his character flaws and deficiencies as a leader for a moment. Trump is at his best when he’s discussing the forever wars that have defined America’s foreign policy since the beginning of the century. On this, he is more in sync with the average American than he is with Beltway luminaries like Eliot Cohen, Bill Kristol, or Max Boot—all of whom continue to advocate for the very interventions that created so many problems in the first place.

In many cases, these positions isolate Trump from his fellow Republicans. A day after all but four Senate Republicans voted to approve an amendment opposing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, the president framed the coming departure as a successful conclusion of the counter-ISIS mission. America’s brave warriors, Trump told the assembled guests, will soon be given a “warm welcome home” after destroying the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate. The U.S. military did its job admirably. What else is there for them to do other than pack up and come home?

On Afghanistan, Trump was emphatic that 17 years of war is enough. Having long assessed Afghanistan to be a lost cause and American investment in that country to be a waste of money, the president has never seen the utility of stretching out the war in pursuit of an unattainable objective. At the end of the administration’s Afghanistan strategy review in the summer of 2017, Trump reluctantly gave the Pentagon what it asked for: a few thousand additional soldiers and looser rules of engagement in order to pound the Taliban from the air and compel its leadership to talk about peace. Those talks are now occurring, and Trump appears patient enough to give the negotiations time (“the hour has come to at least try for peace”). But one would be mistaken in assuming that his patience is unlimited. With or without a peace agreement with the Taliban, Trump is more likely to pull out of Afghanistan and cut short a failing campaign than he is to double down as so many of his predecessors have. Washington would be aghast at the prospect, but the American people would very likely support it.

Donald Trump could have used his State of the Union speech as an opportunity to deliver a warning to the foreign policy elite in both parties that the days of unlimited intervention are coming to a definite end. He failed to go that far tonight.

He did, however, offer up plenty of morsels for realists and restrainers. The United States is hungry for a foreign policy that is grounded in common sense and political leadership, that recognizes that staying in conflicts indefinitely—regardless of how high the cost—is the definition of insanity. They may finally have it.

Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.

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17 Responses to Trump’s New Era on Foreign Policy

  1. Kurt Gayle says:

    It is correct to say that only four Republican Senators — Cruz (TX), Kennedy (LA), Lee (UT), and Paul (KY) – voted “nay.”

    But it is not correct to say that “all but four Senate Republicans voted to approve an amendment opposing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria,” because Republican Senators Murkowski (AK) and Perdue (GA) did not vote.

    The 24 co-sponsors of the amendment “to express the sense of the Senate that the United States faces continuing threats from terrorist groups operating in Syria and Afghanistan and that the precipitous withdrawal of United States forces from either country could put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security” were:

    Graham [R-SC]

    Blunt [R-MO]

    Burr [R-NC]

    Romney [R-UT]

    Ernst [R-IA]

    Inhofe [R-OK]

    Rubio [R-FL]*

    Sasse [R-NE]

    Fischer [R-NE]

    Grassley [R-IA]

    Johnson [R-WI]

    Shelby [R-AL]

    Tillis [R-NC]

    Cornyn [R-TX]

    Sullivan [R-AK]

    Wicker [R-MS]

    Lankford [R-OK]

    Young [R-IN]

    Boozman [R-AR]

    Isakson [R-GA]

    Rounds [R-SD]

    Alexander [R-TN]

    Roberts [R-KS]

    Enzi [R-WY]

    While many of us in the Trump Base are red-flagging all 70 “endless-war” Senators who voted “Yea,” we are taking special notice of these 24 Republican co-sponsors of this amendment.

  2. SteveM says:

    I don’t get the recurrent naïveté of supposed “defense analyst” Daniel R. DePetris. Trump only wants to extract the U.S. from Afghanistan and Syria so that he can point even more War Machine at Russia, China and Iran.

    The updated National Security Strategy fronted by the now-departed cartoon War-Monger for Life James Mattis fully articulates a hyper-belligerent militarized Global Cop Gorilla foreign policy in which money is no object.

    Make no mistake, the sanctified Generals and Admirals comfortably ensconced in the 5-Sided Pleasure Palace are plenty happy. Defense spending out the wazoo, then the soft retirement parachute as fat and happy “consultants” into the Merchants of Death La La Land of stupidity and waste.

    Here’s what’s on tap post Syria and Afghanistan care of Trump’s nominee to Chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff Nut-Job Mike Milley:

    Nut-Job Milley, brother Nut-Job Bolton, Fat Pompeo, Dragon Lady Haspel. Connect the dots Daniel and get back to us…

  3. bad friends says:

    Sorry, I’m not buying it. Not until Trump gets rid of Bolton, Pompeo, and Abrams. As long as neocon creeps like that are around there will be more intervention. They don’t care what he thinks, and if he goes against the interventionist grain, they overrule him, as they have done re Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

  4. TomG says:

    Trump has yet to have his anti-interventionist rhetoric match his staffing picks and actions on the ground. Our proactive role in Guido’s power grab is but the latest hypocrisy. There seems to be no precipice of military conflict we can resist in arming, aiding and abetting with no clue as to the value of basic diplomacy.

  5. WorkingClass says:

    Trump talks peace while he makes war. And you find this encouraging?

  6. Mark B. says:

    I just ask one more thing from Trump. Let him state clear and loud that there is no justifiable reason whatever anymore why 360 million Americans should pay for and conduct the military protection of 500 million rich Europeans and that we need to get off the bandwagon asap.

    Europeans are like children or dogs in this. Mixed signals create mucho confusion on how to behave. So please mr. President, slap us a bit around.

  7. Sid Finster says:

    Let’s see if Trump actually manages to end any wars before taking a victory lap, what say?

    For that matter, even if he brought every single American soldier home today, Trump still deserves the gallows for Yemen alone.

  8. Stephen J. says:

    I will be a believer that there is a “New Era on Foreign Policy” if the answer to the question below becomes a Yes:

    “Will The War Criminals Be Brought To Justice in 2019? Or Is Justice Dead and Buried”?

  9. Myron Hudson says:

    This is just grabbing for straws. Foreign policy is in the hands of Rubio, Bolton, Pompeo, and Abrams. Can Feith, Wolfowitz and Perle be far behind?

  10. EliteCommInc. says:

    I will believe it when I see it.

  11. Minnesota Mary says:

    Trump boasts that the U.S. routed ISIS. It was Russia that did it, but Putin, being the mentally healthy man that he is, has not challenged Trump on his boast. Putin, like Reagan, doesn’t care who takes the credit so long as the job gets done.

  12. Why O Why? says:

    If it’s a “new era”, how come we’re still fighting stupid wars in the Middle East? And how come repeatedly proven incompetents like Elliot Abrams are working for the State Department again?

  13. TR says:

    Mark B’s comment is interesting. Why do 500 million Europeans need anyone’s help in defending themselves against 144 million?

    Apparently the majority of both parties in Congress believe that they do. If I were a member, I wouldn’t want Mark B showing up with those figures at a town meeting.

  14. EliteCommInc. says:

    I think the establishment actually wins the Afghanistan argument for now. We are so deeply entrenched and have created too many expectations for an abrupt withdrawal.

    We never should have been there, but how to prevent a catastrophe and nationwide reprisals and worse mayhem is beyond me. That transition needs to be very slow and smooth.

  15. furbo says:

    Wow, tough audience…. IMHO Trump is the least interventionist type we’ve had in a very long time. He’s told his generals that we want out of Syria (coulda handled the messaging better…) and we are leaving. We’ll likely stay awhile in the ‘Stan as we’ve made some promises to people who will die if we leave and there’s a good deal of National honor on the line there. He at least has the Nork’s talking and not shooting off missiles and the Chinese understand he means business when he says something. The Russians do to, and that’s good. Unfortunately the current domestic political climate makes direct engagement with Russia impossible at a time when it’s most needed.. Make no mistake tho – two of Putin’s goals are the break up of NATO and the EU. NATO is the trunk on which the EU has grown. If NATO falls, so will the EU, European economies will tank and take ours with them. Can the Europeans grow a European Army and defend themselves – not without far more political unity than they currently have. But is a militarized Europe lead by Germany really in our National interests….I think not.

  16. Inner Banks says:

    “there is no justifiable reason whatever anymore why 360 million Americans should pay for and conduct the military protection of 500 million rich Europeans”

    This is true.

    He also needs to say there’s no reason for America to pay wealthy, nuclear-armed Israel $4 billion a year to sit on its hands and watch us fight. Hundreds of billions wasted on that one, and that’s not counting the wars we’re fighting over there.

    The biggest ripoff in our history. Probably in the history of the world.

  17. AZ Joe says:

    Sure, Trump has pulled the football away every time, so far, but, ah, this time, this time. . .

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