When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he seemed opposed to the right-wing establishment’s liberal interventionism. He condemned the Iraq War and regime change attempts in the Middle East, arguing that we helped destabilize the region through our military actions. To Americans tired of military campaigns to social engineer governments in distant lands, the ire Trump raised within the political elites seemed like a sign that he might embrace a less belligerent foreign policy.
But the longer Trump is in the White House, the less that view seems to hold water. His deal-making promises in 2016 gave way to promises of “fire and fury” in 2017. Now, with his intention to make Mike Pompeo the new secretary of state and Gina Haspel the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Trump has stepped further down the overly hawkish path of his predecessors.
The warning signs were all there from the beginning: While Trump seemed eager to adopt a more constructive stance toward Russia, and suggested the United States shouldn’t be as involved in Syria, he was emphatically opposed to the Iran nuclear deal and said he wanted to “bomb the sh-t” out of ISIS’s oil operations. On North Korea, Trump called Kim Jong-un a “maniac” and said he wanted to be tougher on the nation than President Obama was.
Letting Events Control Him Rather Than the Opposite
By all accounts, Trump’s foreign policy messaging has always been a mixed bag. But one thing stands out, looking back: Trump has always wanted to be the tough guy—the guy no one on the world stage wants to mess with, who uses intimidation and swagger to keep foreign threats at bay.
In that sense, Trump’s foreign policy messaging has always been centered on personality rather than principle. That makes him more likely to align himself with hardline neo-conservatives, who also like to emanate a tough-guy persona, instead of more conciliatory or prudent diplomats.
Without a grand strategy or even coherent set of foreign policy principles, Trump has created space for himself to act inconsistently and reactively. Despite his condemnation of previous wars abroad, Trump’s administration has continued to support Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a war with massive humanitarian implications. And although Trump promised during his campaign to avoid military action in Syria, he responded to a chemical attack by President Bashar al-Assad last year by ordering a missile strike, marking the first time the U.S. took military took direct action against the Syrian regime.
Perhaps most notoriously, Trump has escalated tensions with North Korea over the course of his presidency, leaning on threats of preventive war over diplomacy throughout the past year. Upcoming talks between Trump and Kim offer little hope for real de-escalation, situated as they are within Trump’s larger determination to pursue “maximum pressure” over deterrence.
From Neocon Target to Neocon Ally
Since his election, many of Trump’s foreign policy measures have been wholeheartedly supported by the staunchest neoconservatives, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The only Republican currently fighting Trump’s suggested nominees for the State Department and CIA is Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), whose foreign policy has long stood out as counter to the establishment. Paul’s opposition shows how much Trump has strayed from his early messages of independence from the status quo.
But posturing and personality have always mattered more to Trump than principle: Pompeo may be as establishment as they come, but Trump explained to reporters that he feels more “chemistry” with Pompeo than he ever did with former secretary of state Rex Tillerson: “We’re always on the same wavelength,” Trump said. “We have a very similar thought process.”
Pompeo, like Trump, wants to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal and coerce North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ICBM programs. Prior to his secretary of state nomination, he promised the CIA would become “much more vicious” under his leadership.
Haspel, meanwhile, oversaw a CIA “black ops” site in Thailand during George W. Bush’s presidency where suspected terrorists were tortured. Although she was not base chief when suspected Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was tortured, as original reports claimed, Haspel did oversee the base when other waterboardings took place—and assisted in destroying video evidence of torture.
Trump may even go one step further in coming days: It’s rumored he wants to replace National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, former Bush ambassador to the United Nations. Back in 2015, Bolton wrote an op-ed for The New York Times calling for the United States and its allies to strike Iran and seek regime change in Tehran. Bolton has also argued for a preventive strike against North Korea.
If Bolton is appointed, Jacob Heilbrunn wrote Thursday for The National Interest, “you have what amounts to a war cabinet against Iran.” Apart from Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump will be surrounded by military interventionists eager for war and further attempts to reshape the Middle East and North Korea—both disastrous possibilities for American security and prosperity.
More Endless Foreign Wars?
“I’m perplexed by the nomination of people who love the Iraq War so much that they would advocate for a war with Iran next,” Paul said last Wednesday in reference to Haspel and Pompeo. “It goes against most of the things President Trump campaigned on, that the unintended consequences of regime change in Iraq led to instability in the Middle East.”
It’s difficult to determine why Trump would see this neoconservative posturing as a winning strategy. It did not work for Bush; indeed, many see Bush’s legacy as forever tainted by the failures of the Iraq War. But Barack Obama, who also ran for president with more measured foreign policy goals, did not fully withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and struggled to adhere to his former foreign policy stances when the Arab Spring erupted throughout the Middle East.
Perhaps those at the head of our executive branch often feel responsible to “do something”: to appear as tough as possible on the world stage, to put teeth behind the concept “leader of the free world.” Perhaps, in the aftermath of 9/11, these presidents fear appearing lax or unvigilant.
But jumping recklessly into more military commitments and wars abroad is not truly tough, and it is not putting “America first.” For Americans who hoped Trump would distance himself from the harmful foreign policy strategies of his two predecessors, the last week’s developments should be an alarming wakeup call. This is not what realism or restraint look like—and this is not how to effectively advance American interests in the world.