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What’s a ‘Jacksonian’ to Do?

Is there any Trump decision that Walter Russell Mead won’t try to shoehorn into his “Jacksonian” interpretation of the president’s foreign policy? Apparently not:

Explaining his decision to pull U.S. troops away from the Turkish-Syrian border at the cost of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and open the way for Turkish forces to create what Ankara calls a “safety zone,” President Trump tweeted early Monday that “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”

Hitting the caps-lock button, Mr. Trump went on to restate one of his bedrock beliefs, and a cornerstone of Jacksonian foreign-policy thinking: “WE WILL ONLY FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.”

If the president has any “bedrock beliefs,” I don’t think this is one of them. When Trump says that “we will only fight where it is to our benefit,” this doesn’t account for why he has repeatedly escalated the wars he inherited in countries where the U.S. has little or nothing at stake. The U.S. gained no benefits from his decision to escalate the war on ISIS, and it certainly hasn’t benefited from his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. The war on Yemen is an ongoing disgrace and has actually helped to boost enemies of this country by strengthening Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). When he says that we will “only fight to win,” that doesn’t explain why he has signed off on open-ended and unauthorized wars that have no real chance of ending successfully for the U.S. Trump may sometimes talk like one of Mead’s “Jacksonians,” but he doesn’t act like one. Trump isn’t bringing our soldiers home. He is moving them from one part of a war-torn country to another part and then congratulating himself on the “accomplishment.”

One of the supposed hallmarks of “Jacksonian” foreign policy is a willingness to defend national honor. There is no evidence that Trump cares about this, and judging from his nakedly transactional approach to relations with other governments I feel confident in saying that the concept of honor is completely alien to him. He reneges on commitments made by our government on a whim, and he exploits U.S. foreign policy for his own petty ends. Mead’s column is titled “Trump’s Jacksonian Syria withdrawal,” but based on Mead’s own definition of what “Jacksonians” are supposed to believe the president’s decision is neither “Jacksonian” nor is it a withdrawal. American troops will continue to operate in Syria illegally for some undefined period of time. They are being moved to stay out of the way of a Turkish assault that has reportedly already begun. That doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing that “Jacksonians” would respect. Then again, maybe the “Jacksonian” label isn’t all that useful for making sense of anyone’s foreign policy views.

If I had to guess what happened on the call between the president and Erdogan, it is that Erdogan made some generic statements about his opposition to “terrorists” and made empty promises to Trump on this score. Just as he fell for Saudi and Emirati propaganda about Qatar and believed whatever Sisi told him about Haftar in Libya, he fell for whatever Erdogan was selling him because his grasp of the relevant issues is superficial at best and he views all of these things through the narrow lens of counter-terrorism. This is not evidence of a “Jacksonian” sensibility. It is simply proof of extraordinary gullibility and confirmation that the president can be easily swayed into doing what other governments want him to do for them.

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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