The political establishment generally reacts in horror to President Donald Trump’s brash style, lack of conventionality and apoplexy over his political incorrectness, with its over-the-top revulsion serving as a form of virtue-signaling. But Trump’s national security and foreign policy posture, as reflected in his new National Security Strategy (NSS), actually puts him at odds with the political class on substantive grounds.
When Trump speaks out in support of Iranian protestors against the mullocracy, the political class guffaws. When Trump tweets about the size of the American “nuclear button” at Kim Jong-Un, the political class howls. When Trump touches the third rail of (gasp) Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the political class shudders.
These are insubstantial compared to Trump’s new NSS, which is a real challenge to the national security and foreign policy establishment that has so savaged him, because it challenges the very premises of the establishment’s prevailing progressive Wilsonian internationalist orthodoxy.
The strategy draws the establishment’s ire, because Trump’s vision presented there will undercut their power. To accept the tenets of what the NSS terms “principled realism” is to reject the worldview that has pervaded our diplomatic and foreign policy apparatus for decades. And it calls into question the credibility of our elites, thus threatening their standing and influence.
This in part explains the vociferous resistance to the Trump administration among high-ranking and often politically shrewd policymakers, particularly ex-Obama administration officials. Trump’s policies not only contradict their desire to maintain the Obama policies of the last eight years, but also threaten their livelihoods.
The NSS strikes at three myths in particular, the premises of which are under appreciated, but worthy of our attention. If we are to imbue our policies with the core tenets that underlie these myths, we will have a national security and foreign policy agenda truly based on America’s national interest. Indeed, the Kirkpatrickian nature of this strategy, if implemented, will redound to America’s great benefit.
Myth #1: Economic liberalization leads to political liberalization
The Reality: Economic liberalization does not guarantee political liberalization, but may in fact be used to strengthen authoritarian regimes.
Relevant NSS excerpt: “The United States helped expand the liberal economic trading system to countries that did not share our values, in the hopes that these states would liberalize their economic and political practices and provide commensurate benefits to the United States. Experience shows that these countries distorted and undermined key economic institutions without undertaking significant reform of their economies or politics.”
The assessment that economic liberalization leads to political liberalization makes intuitive sense — if a nation is going to foster commercial activity it must develop a system of private property rights, promote the individual liberty that drives entrepreneurship and maintain a stable political system that inspires confidence in foreign investors and trading partners. But simply engaging in transactions with international actors ensures nothing, as we can attest to based on our history with China and Russia, just to name a couple major powers.
What China and Russia show, ironically, is that Communist and/or authoritarian states can exploit the materialist tendencies of the purportedly idealist free world to their own benefit. China and Russia opened themselves up to foreign capital and trade, not because they are enamored with liberalism, but because it served and continues to serve their strategic interests.
Euphemistic “state capitalism” enables our adversaries to fund their malign activities, acquire technologies useful to their political and military aims, increase their leverage over trading partners, and in the process, cultivate assets and co-opt useful idiots. Our belief that free trade would lead to free nations, and that would lead to a more peaceful world, since free nations tend not to fight each other, ignores human nature.
If all peoples everywhere were driven by economics only, then everyone would see that capitalism was the superior model, and that war, which destroys capital and often times forces collectivist measures, is futile and in no one’s interest. That is not the world in which we live. The Iranian constitution, for example, is instructive in that it defines the economy as the means to exporting the Islamic Republic’s revolution. Many other rogue regimes around the world appear to adhere to a similar philosophy. We are not all driven by a fulfilling job, a comfortable house and a quality education for our kids. Certainly, the world’s regressive regimes prioritize their power over such luxuries for the masses.
Myth #2: Israel is the root of the Middle East’s problems
The Reality: Israel is a stabilizing force in a Middle East in chaos because of Islamic supremacists and authoritarians.
Relevant NSS excerpt: For generations the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region. Today, the threats from jihadist terrorist organizations and the threat from Iran are creating the realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems. States have increasingly found common interests with Israel in confronting common threats.
One of the seminal enduring myths in American foreign policy has been that a solution to the Palestinian Arab-Israel conflict — a “conflict” that exists chiefly because of said Arabs’ desire to destroy the New Jersey-sized Jewish state in a sea of Islamic tyranny — would fix all of the Middle East’s ills. It is laughable on its face that the free, pluralistic, Silicon Valley-esque nation of Israel, surrounded by lands perpetually enmeshed in Sunni-Shia civil war and intra-tribal conflict, is the root cause of the Middle East’s maladies.
More to the point, when one takes off politically correct blinders, it’s quite clear that the Islamic world’s internal strife, ruled as it is almost universally by strong horses of either jihadist or authoritarian flavor, explains the Middle East’s tumult. Israel’s existence, and the savagery of the jihadists triggered by the Jewish nation in their midst, have merely served as a convenient distraction for other Arab regimes in the region, deflecting attention from their nations’ failings.
And yet, self-evident as these points may be, the Trump administration’s statement regarding Israel in the National Security Strategy qualifies as a major break from convention, and a welcome one to all who believe that world affairs require starting from a point of reality. That the Trump administration included this statement, following its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and intent to move the U.S. embassy there, along with its dogged defense of Israel at the UN, reflects that the ground is fundamentally shifting in the Middle East. To what end? Specifically, a growing alliance between several of the Arab powers, the U.S. and Israel to thwart the Iranian mullocracy’s regional hegemonic aims.
Myth #3: The violent extremists that threaten us are nihilists
The Reality: Jihadists, not “violent extremists,” are the enemy, and they seek to make us submit to Sharia law.
Relevant NSS excerpts: The United States continues to wage a long war against jihadist terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida. These groups are linked by a common radical Islamist ideology that encourages violence against the United States and our partners and produces misery for those under their control …
Jihadist terrorists … continue to spread a barbaric ideology that calls for the violent destruction of governments and innocents they consider to be apostates. These jihadist terrorists attempt to force those under their influence to submit to Sharia law …
[T]hese fanatics … advance a totalitarian vision for a global Islamist caliphate that justifies murder and slavery, promotes repression, and seeks to undermine the American way of life.
The mere use of the term “jihadist,” a verboten word under the Obama administration’s euphemistic “countering violent extremism” policy, in the strategy reflects an acknowledgment of the truism that Islamic terrorism is Islamic. More importantly, it communicates the Trump administration openly and honestly defines not only the enemy’s basis for fighting, but also the enemy’s goal: to subject the world to the theocratic, totalitarian rule of Sharia law.
In other words, the enemy is not primarily driven by nihilism, economic struggle or political disenfranchisement. Jihadists are not anti-religious, but rather are acting explicitly according to religious doctrine. The administration’s defining of the enemy and what animates him reflects an understanding that was either ignored or obfuscated during the Obama administration, and which had been purged steadily out of national security following the early years of the Bush administration.
A realistic understanding of the enemy and his threat doctrine is essential to devising a strategy to defeat him. “Defeat Jihadist Terrorists” is one prominent section of the Trump National Security Strategy. This verbiage and bold aim runs counter to a national security and foreign policy apparatus that has sought to define Islamic terrorism out of existence, while lowering expectations about what we can do to keep our citizens safe from it. These are monumental changes in rhetoric and substance that fly in the face of our Wilsonian internationalists.
There is much more deserving of praise in Trump’s NSS, including: Its clear-eyed assessment of the goals, strategies and tactics employed by the Chinese, Russians and North Koreans, its focus on immigration policies as integral to national security, demanding ideological vetting and a merit-based system, its recognition of the existential threat posed by EMP, its commitment to defending the rights of Americans against international institutions that would violate them, and its doing away with the absurd argument that climate change is a threat to the homeland, while advocating for unleashing abundant energy for the benefit of our national strength.
But in these three myths I have laid out core principles that a national security and foreign policy in our interest requires, which include the following:
- A recognition that different peoples are driven by different things
- A clear understanding of what motivates our adversaries free of our own biases
- A willingness to speak forthrightly about the challenges that face us
- A boldness to challenge convention when convention fails
The Trump National Security Strategy is a critical roadmap for once again putting America’s interests first, while enabling us to continue to thrive as a free, dynamic and vibrant society that stands as a model to which all the world should aspire.