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Misunderstanding Trump’s Foreign Policy

Bolton’s firing this week is welcome news, but it has also generated a lot of nonsense about Trump’s approach to foreign policy in order to exaggerate the differences between him and his former National Security Advisor. Take this passage from a Wall Street Journalreport about Bolton’s departure as one example:

Mr. Trump has said he shuns the need for consensus, hailing opposing views among his top advisers as an asset. As one of the last independent foreign policy voices in the administration, Mr. Bolton conveyed an unapologetic, ultra-hawkish but experienced view that frequently contradicted Mr. Trump’s boisterous but anti-militaristic approach to foreign policy matters [bold mine-DL].

Mr. Bolton joined the administration in April 2018, a point at which some of the administration’s more moderate figures were already gone. With Mr. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a fellow hawk, Mr. Trump’s foreign policy was expected to take a dramatic turn.

But Mr. Trump has opted for dialogue over conflict [bold mine-DL].

Descriptions of Trump’s foreign policy views are frequently incomplete or misleading, but these descriptions of Trump as having an “anti-militaristic approach” to foreign policy and “opting for dialogue over conflict” are simply wrong as a matter of fact. The president has consistently sought to gut and undermine U.S. diplomacy and development efforts at the same time he increases the military budget. He has continued and escalated all of the wars he inherited. Drone strikes have increased dramatically and have rapidly outpaced the number of drone strikes that took place during both of Obama’s terms. Rules of engagement have been relaxed, and that in turn has led to a significant increase in civilian casualties from U.S. bombing campaigns in the war on ISIS and the war in Afghanistan. Trump has been arming and supporting the Saudi coalition as they destroy and starve Yemen, and he has vetoed Congressional resolutions that sought to end U.S. involvement in order to protect current and future arms sales. That is as far removed from an “anti-militaristic approach” to foreign policy as one can get.

Contrary to the story we often hear, the president is not averse to using force. Trump has twice ordered illegal attacks on the Syrian government. Even when Trump decides at the eleventh hour not to use force, as he did earlier this year with Iran, there is not much evidence that he is “opting for dialogue.” Waging economic wars on multiple countries, explicitly seeking regime change in Venezuela, and delivering what are effectively ultimatums of surrender to foreign governments are not the hallmarks of someone who is “opting for dialogue over conflict.” On the contrary, Trump has been courting conflict with his “maximum pressure” campaigns and regime change policies. His administration resorts to imposing sanctions on one government after another at the drop of a hat. These economic wars may not involve military action, but they are destructive and hostile measures that hurt and kill people in the targeted countries all the same. The victims of Trump’s aggressive policies are mostly invisible to the American public, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The people on the receiving end of these policies know that Trump is neither an anti-militarist nor someone interested in dialogue, and it is absurd to describe his foreign policy in these terms.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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