Well, that was fast.
In the space of roughly three months, president Donald J. Trump went from voicing much-needed skepticism of American foreign policy to embracing previous administrations’ foreign-policy orthodoxy of endless military interventions abroad.
On the campaign trail, Trump frequently criticized America’s forever-wars in the Middle East—for which, as candidate Trump reminded his adoring fans, “we have gotten nothing.” He also questioned the Obama administration’s needless and counterproductive antagonism of Russia, the world’s leading nuclear power, largest oil producer and fourth-largest military power.
A year ago last April, as it was becoming alarmingly clear that Trump just might become the Republican nominee, candidate Trump gave what was billed as a major foreign policy address in which he declared his intent “to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy.”
Trump told a crowd of Republican foreign policy specialists that, in his view, America was dangerously overstretched. Under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said Trump, “We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to president Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper.” The root cause of the all the turmoil was, according to Trump, “a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy.”
Declarations of this sort infuriated the self-appointed guardians of the foreign policy establishment, particularly the neocons who threw their support behind the doomed candidacies of Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. Some critics mocked Trump’s “America First” foreign policy as “confused and unpredictable” and one that would “threaten our allies.”
Yet Trump’s repeated criticism of the wars of choice in Iraq and Libya, as well as his criticism of the Obama’s policy towards Russia, gave others hope that Trump was, at the very least, no neocon. JD Gordon, a former Naval commander and Pentagon spokesman under George W. Bush, wrote that in his view, “Donald Trump is a realist and a tough negotiator.” Gordon, who served as a policy adviser to Mike Huckabee and Herman Cain, said that Trump “understands that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us dearly in blood and treasure, yet haven’t fundamentally made us much safer.”
Former Clinton State Department official and Foreign Policy columnist Rosa Brooks wrote a column entitled: “Donald Trump Has a Coherent, Realist Foreign Policy.” According to Brooks, “Trump has little time for either neoconservatives or liberal interventionists; he thinks they allow their belief in American virtue to blind them to both America’s core interests and the limits of American power.”
Brooks doubled down on her thesis in July, just as the Republican convention was wrapping up. Only Trump, wrote Brooks, “can end 70 years of dangerous tensions with Russia—by extending a hand of friendship to our longtime adversary.”
On the eve of the election, sensible realists like The American Conservative’s Daniel McCarthy wrote that “Donald Trump represents a rejection of the path America’s leaders have followed for a quarter-century.” Likewise, TAC founding editor Scott McConnell said that he “will vote enthusiastically for Donald Trump.” For McConnell, Trump’s “skepticism about military intervention (and opposition to the Iraq War), rejection of the exceedingly dangerous Beltway groupthink moving us toward confrontation with Russia—are as important as ever and ought to be primary concerns of the GOP going forward.”
In a way, Trump’s elliptical (and at times baffling) diction allowed for otherwise astute observers to hear in Trump’s foreign-policy pronouncements exactly what they wanted to hear. Trump had also asserted, particularly at the Republican primary debates, that he was “the most militaristic guy on the stage.” But many people critical of American interventionism overlooked these moments, hoping—in vain as it turns out—that real change was in the offing.
Now, hopes for a policy truly based on narrower, more realistic, and more ethical conception of US national interests have foundered on the shoals of post-election reality. In roughly three months in office, Trump has appointed virulent anti-Iran hawks like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster to his cabinet; has appointed an inexperienced mountebank and extreme anti-Russia hawk as his UN Ambassador; has ratcheted up tensions on the Korean peninsula; and has launched an illegal, unilateral and reckless air strike against Syria. He has kowtowed to all the familiar Beltway shibboleths, assuring the arbiters of establishment opinion that he no longer views NATO as “obsolete” all the while making grotesque overtures to the House of Saud.
Explaining Trump’s apparent transformation into a hardcore neocon is pretty straightforward. Trump is a man with zero guiding or animating principles, but for one: the pursuit of adulation. And Trump quickly found that by playing to the prejudices of the mandarins of the foreign policy establishment—bombing Syria, appointing hardliners to his cabinet and National Security Council, and dropping a horrifically destructive bomb over Afghanistan—he could finally receive the praise that had, until recently, eluded him.
And so people who found themselves agreeing with some aspects of Trump’s platform on the campaign trail must accept this fundamental truth: Trump does not pursue policies because he believes in them. He makes policy choices based on what he thinks will win him praise in an effort to sate his raging megalomania.
Some may point to Trump’s rejection of neocon luminary and Iran-contra convict Eliot Abrams as evidence that Trump really does represent a break with the past. But that is mistaken. Trump rejected Abrams for the job of deputy secretary of state not because of ideological differences but because he felt disrespected by Abrams’ comments about him during the campaign. It was pique, not policy, that torpedoed Abrams.
Hopes for a detente with Russia under Trump have also proved to be misplaced. The tiresome narrative that Trump is a stooge of Russian president Vladimir Putin is belied by Trump’s personnel choices. Consider the fact that Trump has appointed outspoken Putin critic Fiona Hill as the top NSC official on Russia, while putting a number of Heritage Foundation functionaries in charge of staffing the State Department.
Meanwhile, erstwhile Trump supporters are beginning to wonder if they were sold a bill of goods. Writing in the Los Angeles Times last week, the libertarian journalist and stalwart anti-interventionist Justin Raimondo wrote that he feels “the sting of betrayal.” “As the elites rush to embrace the president,” Raimondo wrote, “those of us who supported him are horrified, angry and increasingly convinced that instead of draining the swamp, Trump has jumped headlong into it.”
Somewhere, Bill Kristol is smiling.