Damon Linker gets a bit carried away here:
For the first time in a very long time, the man occupying the Oval Office appears to be almost totally unmoved by moral appeals in dealing with the rest of the world. That understandably troubles many, and if it motivated him to launch wars of outright plunder (to “take the oil” perhaps), it would be a cause for serious concern and stringent opposition.
But the stark and troubling fact is that the U.S. has an extremely bad habit of starting wars (and spreading chaos and bloodshed) with the very best of moral intentions. If Trump can help us to break that habit, laying the foundations for a foreign policy grounded in greater realism and restraint, it will be a very good thing indeed.
I understand what Linker is getting at, but nothing that Trump is doing abroad is “laying the foundation” for greater realism and restraint in foreign policy. It is true that hawkish interventionists often use moralizing rhetoric to mobilize support for their preferred policies of war and regime change, but then Trump and his officials are perfectly willing to do the same when it suits their purposes. He engages in the same selective outrage and moralizing when he wants to, and he has even ordered military action as a result. Trump has twice ordered illegal military attacks on the Syrian government in response to the government’s alleged uses of chemical weapons, and he and his officials have threatened to attack the Syrian government since then. His response to Venezuela’s crisis has been to denounce Maduro for his government’s abuses and even to threaten military intervention with the same recklessness one would expect from a devotee of the so-called “freedom agenda.” When it helps him in justifying his destructive and cruel Iran policy, Trump is happy to highlight the Iranian government’s abuses, and he goes so far as to claim that his administration “stands” with the Iranian people while his policies are impoverishing them. Since his Iran policy is one of regime change in all but name, Trump has more in common with the moralizing interventionists than Linker acknowledges.
The thing to remember about appeals to “moral clarity” in foreign policy is that the people making these appeals have no intention of holding the U.S. or our allies and clients to the same standard that they apply to adversaries. “Moral clarity” is how hawks rationalize crimes committed by “our” side in a conflict while condemning the crimes of others in the strongest terms. Trump has no interest in restraint, whether we are speaking of the grand strategy or the habit, and so the U.S. under Trump gives its clients free rein and loosens the rules of engagement for our own forces. The devastation of Raqqa and the massive civilian casualties there are one example of what happens when you have a president “totally unmoved by moral appeals.” The ongoing enabling of the atrocious war on Yemen is another.
Trump isn’t breaking the habit of abusing moralizing rhetoric, so let’s not give him credit for something he isn’t doing. Trump copies and intensifies many of the worst traits of the foreign policy establishment, and this is another example of that. Where previous presidents might have tried dressing up ugly, destructive policies with talk about “universal values” or the “rules-based order,” Trump continues the ugly policies, destructive policies and dispenses with the usual rhetoric. Trump is more likely to defend his awful policies by talking about arms sales instead of “values,” but the policies are not any better for the U.S. or the world and in some cases they are worse for both.