Originally appeared at The American Conservative.
Gideon Rachman tries to find similarities between the foreign policies of Trump and Obama:
Both men would detest the thought. But, in crucial respects, the foreign policies of Donald Trump and Barack Obama are looking strikingly similar.
The wildly different styles of the two presidents have disguised the underlying continuities between their approaches to the world. But look at substance, rather than style, and the similarities are impressive.
There is usually considerable continuity in U.S. foreign policy from one president to another, but Rachman is making a stronger and somewhat different claim than that. He is arguing that their foreign policy agendas are very much alike in ways that put both presidents at odds with the foreign policy establishment, and he cites “disengagement from the Middle East” and a “pivot to Asia” as two examples of these similarities. This seems superficially plausible, but it is misleading. Despite talking a lot about disengagement, Obama and Trump chose to keep the US involved in several conflicts, and Trump actually escalated the wars he inherited from Obama. To the extent that there is continuity between Obama and Trump, it has been that both of them have acceded to the conventional wisdom of “the Blob” and refused to disentangle the US from Middle Eastern conflicts. Ongoing support for the war on Yemen is the ugliest and most destructive example of this continuity.
In reality, neither Obama nor Trump “focused” on Asia, and Trump’s foray into pseudo-engagement with North Korea has little in common with Obama’s would-be “pivot” or “rebalance.” US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a major part of Obama’s policy in Asia. Trump pulled out of that agreement and waged destructive trade wars instead. Once we get past generalizations and look at details, the two presidents are often diametrically opposed to one another in practice. That is what one would expect when we remember that Trump has made dismantling Obama’s foreign policy achievements one of his main priorities.
The significant differences between the two become much more apparent when we look at other issues. On arms control and nonproliferation, the two could not be more different. Obama negotiated a new arms reduction treaty with New START at the start of his presidency, and he wrapped up a major nonproliferation agreement with Iran and the other members of the P5+1 in 2015. Trump reneged on the latter and seems determined to kill the former. Obama touted the benefits of genuine diplomatic engagement, while Trump has made a point of reversing and undoing most of the results of Obama’s engagement with Cuba and Iran. Trump’s overall hostility to genuine diplomacy makes another one of Rachman claims quite baffling:
The result is that, after his warlike “fire and fury” phase, Mr. Trump is now pursuing a diplomacy-first strategy that is strongly reminiscent of Mr. Obama.
Calling Trump’s clumsy pattern of making threats and ultimatums a “diplomacy-first strategy” is a mistake. This is akin to saying that he is adhering to foreign policy restraint because the US hasn’t invaded any new countries on Trump’s watch. It takes something true (Trump hasn’t started a new war yet) and misrepresents it as proof that the president is serious about diplomacy and that he wants to reduce US military engagement overseas. Trump enjoys the spectacle of meeting with foreign leaders, but he isn’t interested in doing the work or taking the risks that successful diplomacy requires. He has shown repeatedly through his own behavior, his policy preferences, and his proposed budgets that he has no use for diplomacy or diplomats, and instead he expects to be able to bully or flatter adversaries into submission.
So Rachman is simply wrong he reaches this conclusion:
Mr. Trump’s reluctance to attack Iran was significant. It underlines the fact that his tough-guy rhetoric disguises a strong preference for diplomacy over force.
Let’s recall that the near-miss of starting a war with Iran came as a result of the downing of an unmanned drone. The fact that the US was seriously considering an attack on another country over the loss of a drone is a worrisome sign that this administration is prepared to go to war at the drop of a hat. Calling off such an insane attack was the right thing to do, but there should never have been an attack to call off. That episode does not show a “strong preference for diplomacy over force.” If Trump had a strong preference for diplomacy over force, his policy would not be one of relentless hostility towards Iran. Trump does not believe in diplomatic compromise, but expects the other side to capitulate under pressure. That actually makes conflict more likely and reduces the chances of meaningful negotiations.
It is true that both Obama and Trump have been falsely accused of presiding over “withdrawal” and “retreat.” In Obama’s case, Republican hawks made this false claim so that they could attack a fantasy version of Obama’s record instead of arguing against the real one. Members of the foreign policy establishment have been warning about Trump’s supposed “isolationism” for four years and it still hasn’t shown up. Both presidents have been criticized in such similar ways despite conducting significantly different foreign policies because these are the automatic, knee-jerk criticisms that pundits and analysts use to criticize a president.
Because there is a strong bias in favor of “action” and “leadership,” the only way most of these people know how to attack a president is to say that he is “failing” to “lead” and is guilty of “inaction.” It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or matches the facts. It is the safe, Blobby way to complain about a president’s foreign policy without suggesting that you think there is something wrong with the underlying assumptions about the US role in the world. Instead of challenging the presidents on their real records, it is easier to condemn nonexistent“isolationism” and pretend that presidents that maintain or increase US involvement overseas are reducing it.
Rachman ends his column with this assertion:
In their very different ways, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump have reduced America’s global commitments – and adjusted the US to a more modest international role.
The problem here is that there has been no meaningful reduction in America’s “global commitments.” Which commitments have been reduced or eliminated? It would be helpful if someone could be specific about this. The US has more security dependents today than it did when Trump took office. NATO has been expanded to include two new countries in just the last three years. US troops are engaged in hostilities in just as many countries as they were when Trump was elected. There are more troops deployed to the Middle East at the end of this year than there were at the beginning, and that is a direct consequence of Trump’s bankrupt Iran policy. We should debate whether US commitments overseas need to be reduced, but we really have to stop pretending that the US has been reducing those commitments when it has actually been adding to them.
Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.