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Is Trump a Realist?

His improv foreign policy may infuriate hawks, but ultimately it lacks coherence.
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If Donald Trump has distanced himself from some of the positions held by two of the powerful wings of the conservative movement—free marketeers and evangelical Christians—he has provoked a fury among members of the third GOP wing, the neoconservatives, who for all practical purposes dominate the party’s foreign policy thinking.

To say that the neocons don’t like Trump would be an understatement. If you read the daily anti-Trump screeds in The Washington Post, Weekly Standard, and National Review, you get the impression that they view Trump with the kind of scorn they once reserved for Pat Buchanan, who they accused of being “anti-Israeli,” if not “anti-Semitic.” But these are labels that they may have trouble assigning to the Donald. After all, in addition to his pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim rhetoric, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism and married into a modern Orthodox Jewish family.

What’s more, Trump has not challenged that central tenet of the neoconservative movement, support for close ties with Israel. He blasts the nuclear deal with Iran, and identifies the fight against radical Islam as a top U.S. strategic interest. Trump even appeared in television ads supporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during that country’s last parliamentary elections, and has pledged to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In some respects, Trump seems to be more “pro-Israel” than many Israelis, including those who pressed Netanyahu to disinvite the Donald after Trump called for barring Muslims from entering the United States.

And yet, while many evangelical Christians express strong support for Trump (even as they recognize that unlike Senator Cruz he doesn’t attend church every week), several leading neoconservative pundits have threatened to vote for Hillary Clinton, or even to bid farewell to the GOP if Trump is nominated as the party’s presidential candidate.

Neoconservatives may not share Trump’s forceful anti-immigration approach and are probably appalled by the support he is supposedly receiving from white nationalists. But then Cruz, who is favored by several leading neoconservative donors and activists, is also in favor of restrictive immigration policies. And wasn’t Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” later pursued by Ronald Reagan and other Republican politicians, based in part on exploiting opposition to racial integration among whites?

More likely, the anti-Trump sentiments are driven by concerns among neoconservatives and those tied to their network of foreign policy donors, think tankers, and publicists. They have become the foreign-policy establishment of the GOP, controlling the national security agenda of the party. They provide presidential candidates with the advisors who would prepare their talking points in key areas such as Iran, Russia, and Israel. They are the people who would normally manage the foreign policy of a new Republican president.

Just listen to the campaign speeches being made by Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, or John Kasich. Well, you don’t have to listen to them, you can just read the editorials of the Wall Street Journal: We need to maintain American global diplomatic and military hegemony, especially in the Middle East, including by deploying U.S. ground troops to not only destroy ISIS but to show Russia, China, and Iran who’s boss. We will rescind the nuclear deal with Iran (and then phone “Bibi”), arm the “moderates” in Syria so that they can fight Assad, back the Ukrainians so they can stand up to the Russians, and challenge the Chinese in South China Sea.

Things could have looked different for Trump. Before announcing his candidacy, he might have invited Bill Kristol and his associates to his Palm Beach castle for a weekend retreat, where he would have received foreign policy tutorials from all the usual suspects and assigned a group of advisors to write his foreign policy speeches. The Washington Post op-ed page might have been flooded with commentaries comparing Trump to Teddy Roosevelt and crowning him as the next Ronald Reagan.

But that didn’t happen. Unlike Rubio and Cruz, Trump had no need for the financial resources provided by the donors who also help sustain the neoconservative networks in Washington. And even more importantly, he apparently thinks for himself. When it comes to managing American foreign policy, Trump doesn’t buy the neoconservative line.

Recall that all hell broke loose after Cruz, during an interview with Bloomberg last December, called for embracing a little less interventionist of a foreign policy, which he identified with the “neocons.” Two of them, Elliott Abrams and Eliot Cohen, then suggested that the senator from Texas was engaging in Jew-baiting. Ben Domenech of The Federalist actually felt compelled to write an article titled, “Ted Cruz Is Not An Anti-Semite.”

So you didn’t have to be a political prognosticator to imagine what would happen when Trump not only recalled his earlier opposition to the Iraq War and his prediction that it would lead to chaos in the Middle East, but also started challenging some of the main tenets of neoconservative orthodoxy. He suggested that we shouldn’t send troops to Syria (forget about deposing Assad) and instead can allow the Russians to destroy ISIS there. Trump claimed that Putin isn’t such a bad guy and that he could work with him. He asserted that the idea of exporting democracy to the Middle East doesn’t make a lot of sense, and that we might be better off leaving certain dictators in power.

Trump was immediately bashed as an “isolationist” who according to some in the media is a cousin of “protectionists” and “nativists.” Meanwhile, some anti-interventionists speculated that his feud with the neoconservatives was a sign that Trump was one of them.

The more serious analysts, who have been trying to deconstruct his foreign policy agenda, proposed that he exudes a nationalist disposition. According to Walter Russell Mead, “Donald Trump, for now, is serving as a kind of blank screen on which Jacksonians project their hopes.” Jacksonian America sees “traditional rivals like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran making headway against a President that it distrusts; more troubling still, in ISIS and jihadi terror it sees the rapid spread of a movement aiming at the mass murder of Americans.” Theirs is a nationalist agenda that centers on using U.S. diplomatic and military power to advance core national interests and not to spread liberal democracy around the world or engage in “nation building.”

Coupled with his pledge to launch trade wars against China and other emerging economies and to impose strict restriction on immigration, the occasional statements that Trump has made on foreign policy would suggest that he is more of a nationalist than an internationalist, a Jacksonian as opposed to a Wilsonian, a Hamiltonian, or a Jeffersonian, to apply Mead’s classification of American foreign policy traditions.

But then Trump’s bombastic rhetoric doesn’t reflect any coherent foreign policy agenda, and certainly not one that could be described as “realist.” He seems to be telling us what he won’t do as opposed to what he would do as commander-in-chief, and he never really explains his own definition of the U.S. national interest and what U.S. geostrategic goals should be. Should the United States reduce its military commitments in the Middle East and elsewhere? What role should the United States play now in East Asia? If he is opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran, does he believe that the United States should use its military power to prevent the ayatollahs from acquiring access to nuclear capabilities? And what is so “realist” about the idea of bombing ISIS if you cannot explain what would replace it? Bombing is a means to achieve a goal, and Trump has yet to clarify his strategic goals in Syria and Iraq.

Trump doesn’t provide any answers to these and other questions and is basically telling us that we should trust him to make the right choices. And we cannot direct those questions to his foreign policy advisors since he has none. Apparently, as he told Chuck Todd from NBC News, he relies on the pundits he watches on television news shows as well as on former UN ambassador John Bolton (who urged Washington to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites) and retired Colonel Jake Jacobs. And according to Bloomberg View’s Josh Rogin, “Trump has also spoken with controversial historian Daniel Pipes and Israel’s current envoy to the UN Danny Danon, among others.”

The meetings with Bolton, Pipes, and Danon, provide us perhaps with a sense of what would actually happen if Trump emerges as the presumptive Republican presidential candidate and tries to mend his relationships with the various wings of the Republican establishment and the conservative movement.

Does anyone seriously expect the donors and lobbyists affiliated with the GOP to propose that Trump hire, say, John Mearsheimer or Andrew Bacevich as his foreign policy advisors? More likely, the foreign policy types who were staffing the campaigns of Rubio, Bush, and Cruz would be assigned to coach the Republican candidate and write his speeches after all, as part of the deal that would be reached between the “outsider” and the “insiders.”

Moreover, speculating whether President Trump’s foreign policy would resemble that of, say, Nixon or Reagan would probably be a waste of time. Without coming up with a new foreign policy paradigm to replace the old one that has been dominating Washington since the end of the Cold War, expect the new president, whether it’s Trump or any of the other candidates, to maintain the status quo as he muddles through and reacts to crises abroad. President Trump may prove to be more pragmatic than a President Rubio in handling world affairs, but his definition of core U.S. national interests would not be much different.

Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.