Donald Trump recently gave a lengthy interview to The New York Timeson the all-important subject of foreign policy. During the campaign thus far, Trump has distinguished himself among the other presidential candidates for his willingness to be the most outrageously horrible on this subject in some cases, while also being the sharpest voice of reason against the conventional wisdom in others. So in the aftermath of the Brussels Attacks, Trump bizarrely suggested that torture could be part of the solution to terrorism. Yet Trump has also harshly criticized the Iraq War to Republican audiences, going so far as to state (correctly) that the Bush Administration deliberately went to war under false pretenses. Thus, you never know which Trump you’re going to get when it comes to foreign policy. And anytime he speaks publicly on the matter, it ought to be cause for both dread and hope, in roughly equal proportions.
Fortunately, in this most recent interview with The New York Times, it was mostly the reasonable Trump that came through. He was still bad on many issues and revealed substantial ignorance in some spots. But he made a coherent, economical case in favor of reducing American involvement around the globe. In essence, he suggested that the US is subsidizing the defense of many of its allies, and that, unless these allies are willing to reimburse America for the trouble, US troops should come home. Indeed, he even proudly adopted the label of “America First” for his worldview, a reference to the prominent US antiwar / noninterventionist movement prior to World War II.
Based on the NYT’s write-up of the interview, here’s a quick summary of the good and the bad from Trump:
- Questioned the need for NATO, given the fact that the US pays the lion’s share of the costs
- Questioned the need for significant US troop presences in Japan and South Korea, unless the host countries start financing more of the cost
- Suggested Saudi Arabia’s regime wouldn’t last long without American support (their grip on power is probably more dependent on their ability to make massive transfer payments to their population based on oil revenue, but still, the US veto on all potential Saudi criticism certainly helps the regime)
- Suggested there’s little reason for the US to be in the Middle East (in the context that oil scarcity doesn’t seem to be a big issue post-fracking)
- Suggested that now we need to destroy the oil in the Middle East instead of taking it. Not entirely sure what he meant by that, but it can’t be good.
- Reaffirmed support for a “safe zone” in Syria, which would require a massive US military presence to really enforce and would antagonize Russia. For better or worse, Trump’s superficial treatment of this matter seems to suggest he doesn’t understand what it entails.
- Repeated the BS neocon talking point that the Iran Deal involved the US giving Iran ~$150 billion, when in fact, it merely unfroze money that already belonged to Iran (and which the US had effectively confiscated). Oddly, this was partially offset by the fact that he appeared to want remaining sanctions to be relaxed further so American companies might benefit from new trade with Iran.
- Extolled the merits of an unpredictable US foreign policy, channeling former President Richard Nixon who committed massive war crimes by carpet bombing Cambodia on this pretext.
- Implicitly suggested a US trade war against China as part of a negotiating strategy.
So it’s a mixed bag. But the good things he said are the sorts of messages that are likely to resonate with right-leaning nationalists as well as antiwar types on both sides of the aisle. Why does the US still have so many bases and troops in Japan when there are infrastructure and other needs at home? Why are US troops still on the front line of the decades-old ceasefire in Korea? Why does the US pay so much for Europe’s defense when they express little concern themselves? And why should more US troops join the fray in a complicated proxy war in the Middle East that many of our allies have helped fuel – indirectly helping the very extremists that are trying to cause harm to Europe and the US? Couldn’t the money saved by withdrawing from these obligations be better spent on just about anything else in the US?
In short, Trump made the quintessential, populist case for a peace dividend – withdraw from needless and costly military involvement overseas, and bring that money back home. Complicated geopolitical theories may offer some possible answers (mostly bad) to the questions posed above. But to the average American that is deeply contemptuous of all things elite right now, those answers are not going to be convincing. Meanwhile, the noninterventionist aspects of Trump’s remarks appeal to basic common sense. So for people who have a clear interest in preserving the interventionist nature of foreign policy, like those at The New York Times, Trump’s proposals are very dangerous.
That might explain why reading the NYT’s write-up of Trump’s remarks is so amusing. Most of his patently crazy interventionist positions – like favoring the dubious legacy of unpredictability in foreign policy, setting up “safe zones” in Syria, or wanting to “destroy the oil” in the Middle East – were recounted without a peep of judgment from the Times. But when it came to his more sensible noninterventionist suggestions, the NYT consistently stepped in to offer a passive aggressive (and mostly nonsensical) critique of his position. For instance:
After Trump suggested withdrawing US military involvement from the Middle East, here’s the NYT:
[Trump] made no mention of the risks of withdrawal — that it would encourage Iran to dominate the Gulf, that the presence of American troops is part of Israel’s defense, and that American air and naval bases in the region are key collection points for intelligence and bases for drones and Special Operations forces.
Of course, there’s little evidence that Iran has aspirations to dominate the Gulf, and even if it did, it’s not at all clear why the US should care, since they’d obviously still need to sell the oil to get any economic benefit from such domination. Israel is more than capable of defending itself, as it has the strongest military in the region by a large margin, unless we count Turkey which is supportive of Israel anyway. And while it may be true that US bases in the region are used for Special Ops forces and drones; these would appear to be part of the problem. Assuming the primary purpose of such resources is to stop terrorism, the current state of the War on Terror, 15 years on, is strong evidence that it’s not working. Back to the Times.
After Trump suggested he would be willing to reconsider long-standing US alliances (and possibly reducing US involvement in Europe), here’s the NYT:
At no point did [Trump] express any belief that American forces deployed on military bases around the world were by themselves valuable to the United States, though Republican and Democratic administrations have for decades argued that they are essential to deterring military adventurism, protecting commerce and gathering intelligence.
Yes, he didn’t mention that. Because it’s absurd.
Even if we assume for the moment that it’s true that US troop presences around the globe have reduced other countries’ military adventurism, we must acknowledge they have dramatically encouraged US military adventurism. Indeed, as one example, new evidence suggests we couldn’t be waging the drone war today without bases in Europe and throughout the Greater Middle East.
Just as important, it’s not at all clear whose military adventurism the US global presence has deterred. Russia still intervened to protect its perceived key interests in Syria and Crimea. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen (with US support). Iran has offered increased support to Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS. And NATO, with US support of course, intervened in Libya to create a failed state there. Where’s the deterrence in any of this? Are we supposed to assume that the US bases in Germany have prevented the evil Putin from invading Western Europe? Or is it that China would have already conquered Japan by now if not for US military’s ownership of most of Okinawa? Or maybe the US Navy has prevented the rise of a modern-day Blackbeard terrorizing the high seas? Choose your fable and we’ll call it the foreign policy consensus.
All this and more await you in the encouraging, passive aggressive summary of Donald Trump’s latest thoughts on foreign policy. It’s worth your time to check out – for informational or comedic purposes. Here’s the link:
Eric Schuler is the author of The Daily Face Palm blog, which focuses mostly on foreign policy and bad economics.