Others have written at length about the problems Donald Trump’s candidacy presents for the party of Lincoln and Reagan—the philosophical disconnects, the pettiness, the out-of-bounds comments about religious minorities and women and immigrants and war heroes. Those are issues Republican voters and party officials will have to deal with. But precious little is being said about the problems a Trump election would present for national security and foreign policy. These are issues the nation and the entire world may have to deal with.
Let’s start with the image Trump projects.
As head of state, the president represents America to the world. For a moment in time, he (or she) reflects the character and image of America: Truman the no-nonsense Midwesterner; Ike the steely and sure warrior; JFK the energetic vanguard of a new generation; Carter the down-to-earth Southerner eager to promote human rights; Reagan the sunny optimist at the gateway to the city on a hill; the elder Bush the patrician with a steady hand on the ship of state; Clinton the lovable rogue eager for approval; the younger Bush a go-with-the-gut doer happy to be known as a cowboy; Obama the nuanced thinker happy to be known as cool and detached.
Trump’s bigger-than-life persona reflects another image of America: boastful and brash, angry and loud, ostentatious and showy, vain and vulgar, hard and intolerant. He wields it to make deals, produce reality-TV shows, and peddle merchandise. This image serves him well as a celebrity pitchman and ringmaster, but is it the right image for America’s head of state?
Another element of Trump’s image is his moth-to-the-light need for applause and affirmation.
Consider his enthusiastic acceptance of the flattering words of Vladimir Putin, who called Trump “a brilliant and talented person.” Rather than deflect or disavow the praises of a thuggish autocrat, Trump said of Putin, “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond…I’ve always felt fine about Putin…I think that he’s a strong leader.”
Strength is a big deal for Trump, who has spoken approvingly of how China crushed the pro-democracy movement in 1989—“They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength”—and how Saddam Hussein was “good at killing terrorists.” In fact, Saddam Hussein was a terrorist who was good at killing anybody. One estimate puts Saddam’s toll at 125 civilian deaths for each and every day he ruled.
Can anyone imagine Truman or Eisenhower, Johnson or Reagan responding in a similar manner if Stalin, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev complimented them? Did they praise Moscow for blockading Berlin, for crushing Hungary, for snuffing out the Prague Spring, for smothering Poland, for being strong, for killing terrorists, for keeping restive peoples in line?
Does this worldview really reflect our democratic republic?
Now let’s consider Trump’s temperament. Trump admits, “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.” That’s not what you want to hear from someone entrusted with 1,920 deployed nuclear weapons.
Trump, like most first-graders, is mercurial; it describes him perfectly. And in an era shaped by short memories and shorter attention spans, Trump’s mercurial, unpredictable style fits the times perfectly. What he said or tweeted five years ago or five weeks ago or five minutes ago doesn’t matter. All that matters is what he is saying right now.
Over the years, Trump has taken several positions that are reasonable, but that’s largely because, over the years, he has taken several positions on the same issue. Here are just a few examples of Trump’s zigzagging approach to foreign policy and national defense.
He has advocated a safe zone in Syria and has said “I might have gone in” to Syria after Assad used WMDs. He said President Obama should have “really gone in with force, done something to Assad—if he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn’t have millions of people displaced all over the world.” According to Trump, “We have to get rid of ISIS.” Toward that end, he has conceded that the U.S. might need “boots on the ground” to fight ISIS and has endorsed sending up to 10,000 troops into Iraq and Syria.
Yet Trump has also said, “I don’t want to see the United States get bogged down” in Syria. He has dismissed suggestions of intervening in Syria by asking, “Are we going to start World War III over Syria?” He has asked, “Why are we knocking ISIS and yet at the same time we’re against Assad? Let them fight, take over the remnants. But more importantly, let Russia fight ISIS…Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care?”
Trump has said he opposes “the policy of appeasement” and that he’s “unwilling to shrug off the mistreatment of China’s citizens by their own government.”
Yet Trump has also said, “I look at Assad, and Assad to me looks better than the other side.” Given Assad’s record, that amounts to a policy of appeasement, and it is the very definition of shrugging off a government’s mistreatment of its subjects.
Trump has criticized President Obama for intervening in Libya and President Bush for intervening in Iraq (more on that in a moment).
Yet he has declared, “I would let Pyongyang know in no uncertain terms that it can either get out of the nuclear arms race or expect a rebuke similar to the one Ronald Reagan delivered to Ghadhafi in 1986.” In other words, if North Korea refused to surrender its nuclear arsenal, a Trump administration would launch airstrikes, which would trigger a massive and bloody war. Trump apparently doesn’t understand that North Korea is no Libya. Kim Jong Un’s arsenal includes 13,600 artillery pieces/rocket-launch systems. The U.S.-ROK command expects every third North Korean artillery round to be a chemical weapon. The North is bristling with 4,100 tanks, 730 combat aircraft and hundreds of missiles, some capable of striking Japan and Guam. And 70 percent of the North’s ground forces are deployed within 60 miles of the DMZ, with Seoul precariously sitting just to the south of the border zone.
Trump has said, “We’re going to protect Christianity,” suggesting a Trump administration would intervene to rescue Christian minorities under attack in the Middle East. “If you look at what’s going on throughout the world,” he said, “Christianity is under siege.”
Yet Trump has also said, “My rules of engagement are pretty simple. If we are going to intervene in a conflict it had better pose a direct threat to our interest.”
Christianity is indeed under siege. What ISIS is doing to Christians shocks the conscience and cries out for U.S. leadership and U.S. action. But the hard truth is that it doesn’t pose a direct threat to the national interest. This is not to defend such a cold, calculating approach to the world, but rather to highlight Trump’s inconsistency on foreign policy.
When Trump is speaking at Christian universities, he talks about protecting Christians. But when Trump is playing the role of a realist, he asks, “Why do we care?” The answer is because no one else has both the means and the will to help the Christians of Iraq or the Muslims of Kosovo, because “to whom much has been given, much is expected.”
To make the threshold for U.S. military intervention “a direct threat to our interest,” as Trump puts it, is to ignore the postwar foreign-policy consensus. Contrary to what the disengagers and isolationists tell us, presidents from both parties have intervened militarily to address humanitarian problems and assaults on human rights:
- President Truman launched the Berlin Airlift for a mix of humanitarian and strategic reasons.
- President Ford deployed military forces to rescue orphaned Vietnamese babies.
- President Bush (41) dispatched U.S. forces to help the friendless Kurds and the starving Somalis. President Clinton did likewise to end the bludgeoning of Bosnia and protect Kosovo from the same fate.
- President Bush (43) intervened in Haiti and responded to the Indian Ocean tsunami on humanitarian grounds. President Obama followed suit in Libya after Ghadhafi vowed to exterminate his opponents, and in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Nor is this a purely modern phenomenon: In the 1840s, when Ireland was ravaged by famine, the U.S. response included “two sloops of war, four merchant ships and two steamers” full of aid, as Robert Bremner writes in “American Philanthropy.” In the 1890s, Spain’s brutal treatment of Cuba sparked outrage from the American people. As Robert Kagan observes, “The fact that many believed they could do something…helped convince them they should do something, that intervention was the only honorable course.” In the early 1900s, TR argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed,” concluding that even when “our own interests are not greatly involved, strong appeal is made to our sympathies” and “action may be justifiable and proper.” In the 1920s, Coolidge rushed the U.S. Pacific Fleet to Japan to aid its recovery from a devastating earthquake and hurricane.
Trump’s mercurial approach to foreign policy may be a function of his penchant for playing to the crowd, or it may be a function of a fundamental misunderstanding of foreign policy and national security. It pays to recall that when recently asked, “Who do you talk to for military advice?” Trump answered, “I watch the shows.”
Contrast this with Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom worked in the Navy Department before seeking the presidency; Dwight Eisenhower was the general of generals, the liberator of Europe, the commander of NATO; John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were Navy combat veterans and senators with a keen interest in foreign affairs; for 20 years leading up to his first run for the presidency, Ronald Reagan researched and refined his views about America’s purpose in the world and the evils of communism and the power freedom; George H.W. Bush served as vice president, UN ambassador, CIA director and congressman; Bill Clinton was a policy wonk thirsty for information and insight.
But Donald Trump gets his military advice from “the shows.” So, when questions about the Iraq War come up, Trump responds with a false media mantra: “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew there were none.”
The Bush administration did not lie about Iraq. As Judge Laurence Silberman, former chairman of the bipartisan Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, explains:
The intelligence community’s 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated in a formal presentation to President Bush and to Congress its view that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction—a belief in which the NIE said it held 90 percent confidence…Presidential daily briefs dating back to the Clinton administration were, if anything, more alarmist about Iraq’s WMD than the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate…It is one thing to assert, then or now, that the Iraq war was ill-advised. It is quite another to make the horrendous charge that President Bush lied to or deceived the American people about the threat from Saddam.
Indeed, the U.S. military interviewed several regime leaders and found that “when it came to weapons of mass destruction, Saddam attempted to convince one audience that they were gone while simultaneously convincing another that Iraq still had them,” and that Saddam maintained “the illusion of having WMD,” even within his ruling circle. If Saddam’s generals didn’t know about his deadly game, one wonders how President Bush and his generals could have.
Interestingly, while President Bush did not lie about Iraq, it appears that Donald Trump did. Trump says he “fought very, very hard against us going into Iraq” and that he was a “vocal” opponent of the war before 2003. (The war began March 20, 2003.) But as The Washington Post details in an extensive review of the record, Trump’s account is a case of historical revisionism. When asked in autumn 2002, “Are you for invading Iraq?” Trump answered, “Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish the first time it was done correctly.” And in early April 2003, Trump asked the crowd at a concert gala, “Isn’t George W. doing a marvelous job?” (Perhaps the worst part of Trump’s “They lied” attack is what it reveals about his capacity to create an alternate universe.)
But Donald Trump gets his military advice from “the shows.” So, when asked what he would do if/when U.S. military personnel refused to carry out orders that would violate the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) or laws of war, Trump fired back with a “L’état, c’est moi” rejoinder: “They’re not going to refuse me, believe me. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.” As retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former commander of U.S. Army Forces-Europe, explained, “The military is not his palace guards…I’m not sure he understands the science and the art of soldiering and the connection of military strategy with national security strategy.” (Marc LiVecche’s analysis of Trump’s misunderstanding of civil-military relations is excellent.)
But Donald Trump gets his military advice from “the shows.” So, he advocates “diverting money from the planned missile defense system,” even as the ballistic-missile threat mushrooms. Three decades ago, there were nine countries that fielded ballistic missiles. Today, there are 31. Several of them are unstable (Pakistan and Egypt) or unfriendly (Iran and North Korea) or both (Syria). Not coincidentally, the world has seen an increase of more than 1,200 ballistic missiles over the past five years.
Donald Trump gets his information from “the shows”—and it shows.
Alan Dowd is a contributor to the Providence journal’s daily blog.
Photo Credit: Donald Trump speaking with the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona in December 2015, via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.