On the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump insisted that as an integral part of his America First platform, we could not afford any more endless wars and that it was time to bring our troops home. He was adamant and unequivocal in his position. During the South Carolina debate, his bellicose rebuke of George W. Bush and the Iraq War made clear he wasn’t going to bend on this issue.
Now, his position during and since the 2016 campaign trail has never been completely isolationist. He has always claimed we should combat terrorism aggressively, whether at home or abroad. Shortly after the election, in December 2016, when announcing the appointment of Defense Secretary James Mattis, he said: “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with. Instead, our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will.”
Based on that policy, anyone would be hard-pressed to criticize the president’s decision last week to take out Qasem Soleimani, major general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and a dangerous terrorist, as designated by the Obama administration. But there is a big difference between combating terrorism around the globe and maintaining forces in a region, which could potentially be used for overt military intervention, designed to influence or alter the political makeup of foreign countries. Unfortunately, the president has made the distinction between the two as clear as mud.
Trump Has Been Inconsistent on Middle East Policy
After announcing a troop withdrawal from Syria last October, Trump stood in the Roosevelt Room and said: “I don’t want to stay there for the next 40 years. It’s not going to do anything. I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home, and bring them home as rapidly as possible.”
Those words were certainly consistent with his stated foreign policy. Unfortunately, the facts belie his intentions. According to Chatham House, in June 2017, approximately 40,500 troops were in the Middle East. By the fall of 2018, that number had risen to about 54,000. Central Command tells us there are now 60,000-70,000 troops in the region. Shifting troops from Syria to other parts of the Middle East is not “bringing our soldiers home.”
The president was elected, in part, because he was a blunt, no nonsense, straight shooter. Yet in the case of his Middle East policy, intentionally or not, he seems to be playing a risky shell game with the American public. His schizophrenic position is blurring the lines and tearing the Republican Party apart at a time Republicans desperately need to unify as we move closer to the 2020 general election.
He needs to come clean with America on this issue, once and for all.
Did Trump Keep His Promises?
During the 2016 primary campaign, Trump separated himself from the pack with an America First platform buttressed by three critical planks: immigration, trade, and foreign policy. His 16 opponents assailed him in these areas, but it didn’t matter. He defeated them all handily and went on to record an historic upset in the presidential election.
Since then, even some of the most resistant members of his party have at least begrudgingly conceded that his policies related to immigration and trade are taking America down the right path. One of his fiercest opponents on the campaign trail, Sen. Marco Rubio, has said, “I’m not a tariff fan in terms of a normal course of policy, but I know of no other method to get [Mexico’s] attention.”
Staunch free-trader Sen. Rick Scott said: “I don’t like tariffs, but I’m going to support the president because I believe Mexico could be a better partner. They need to reduce the number of people who are being apprehended at the border.” Those who absolutely refused to bend, including Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, are no longer in government.
More importantly, much of the American public clearly sees he is working to keep his campaign promises in immigration and trade. These have recently had notable successes with the recent signing of the phase one China trade deal, and that an appeals court recently gave the green light to diverting $3.6 billion in military funding to constructing the border wall.
Foreign policy, however, specifically in relation to the Middle East, is a completely different story. Trump promised to end the “forever wars,” yet the nearly 20-year conflict in Afghanistan continues. He said it was “time to bring the troops home,” yet our troop presence in the Middle East has increased at least 30 percent since summer 2017.
Republican lawmakers remain severely polarized by “the hawks and the doves” in the party, with each side aggressively warning the president that if he doesn’t align himself with their position, it will not only damage the safety and security of America, but it could also seriously threaten his chances for reelection this year.
Trump Is Facing Pressure from Every Side
In fairness to the president, he is in a no-win situation, and many of his supposed allies have put him there. This is best exemplified by his decision this past October to withdraw troops from Syria. That same day, in response to Trump’s intentions, Sen. Lindsey Graham said: “I am looking to President Trump to change this. I will do anything I can to help him, but I will also become Trump’s worst nightmare.” He went on to say, “This is a defining moment for President Trump. He needs to step up his game.”
In a following press conference, Trump said, “Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years.” Tough words indeed, but for a president who had just been informed that the House was about to begin an impeachment inquiry, ticking off someone like Graham could indeed turn into the president’s worst nightmare. That same week, Trump effectively reversed his position on troop withdrawal, effectively conceding that Graham’s thousand-year occupation would, at least for the time being, remain on track.
Regardless of the pushback from members of his own party, this does not excuse Trump from doing everything he can to bring some clarity to the issue. In fact, it makes it essential if he wants to maintain the trust of the American voter.
It was, of course, events occurring this past week in Iran and Iraq that have brought the issue of Middle East intervention to a boil, and Republicans are divided. One side wants our troops to pack up and get out immediately, while the other side is prepared for all-out war, should any further retaliation by Iran scuff the boot of one American soldier.
Appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show Thursday night, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump most loyal congressional allies, commented, “The thing is I think you’ve got a few advisers to the President who are trying to slow-walk the administration into war.” Gaetz is exactly right. On one hand is the “Trump Doctrine,” which essentially states we will kill the terrorists and come home, and on the other hand are those individuals responsible for implementing and executing that doctrine, who want to render it impotent.
Only one person can put an end to this paradox. That would be the president himself.
Trump Is in His Own Way
During Laura Ingraham’s show last Friday night, the president had a golden opportunity to set the record straight. All he did was muddy the waters. Ingraham said: “The Iraqi prime minister has notified Mike Pompeo about potential plans for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, period. You ran on pulling out of the Middle East. Why not use this opportunity to say ‘We’re done’?”
The president’s reply? With all the enthusiasm of a sloth during nap time, he said, “I’m okay with it.” Ingraham pressed, “Well, why not leave?” The president replied, “I’m not so bad with it.” Well, isn’t that the sort of assertive position we are all hoping for from the leader of the free world!
What he later communicated is even more concerning. Regarding troop buildup in the region, Trump confirmed we have sent additional troops to Saudi Arabia, but it had to pay us. He then reiterated the same claim in reference to South Korea. So now, added to all the other confusion surrounding military intervention, we learn the U.S. Armed Forces, the greatest fighting force in the history of mankind, is effectively open for business as a mercenary brigade for interested partners and allies — not exactly a stalwart America First defense posture.
The president should stop one day talking like a devoted noninterventionist, and the next day putting a great big smile on the faces of neoconservatives. The Democrat debate on Tuesday was proof that this issue will play a prominent role in Democrats’ electoral challenge to Trump this year. He needs to start sticking to his campaign promises on foreign policy like he has been doing so effectively on the others.