At last week’s Republican National Convention, one could be forgiven for being confused about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
On the one hand, his endorsers praised his smashing of the Islamic State’s caliphate and killing of Iran’s terror mastermind. On the other, speakers also touted Trump’s commitment to reduce America’s military footprint in the world.
Trump’s speech Thursday night to accept his party’s nomination struck both chords as well. “America,” he said, “is the torch that enlightens the entire world.” He praised past presidents for overthrowing fascism and communism. Then, a few minutes later, he attacked his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, saying he shook the hands and accepted the votes of blue-collar workers and then went to Washington and shipped them off to “endless foreign wars.”
This tension was perhaps best captured, though, in a line from Wednesday evening. “Make no mistake,” said Keith Kellogg, retired general and national security adviser to the vice president. “President Trump is no hawk. He wisely wields the sword when required, but believes in seeking peace instead of perpetual conflict.”
Of course, one could say that about almost any president. Even the most militaristic ones have justified war in the name of seeking peace. Kellogg, though, was also threading an ideological needle. Trump’s foreign policy has been marked by a muscular, unilateral strain, as well as a strain that rejects nation-building wars.
Two speeches at the GOP convention highlighted these two ideas. The first was from the libertarian senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul. He delivered the speech that emphasized the isolationist strain of Trump’s statecraft. He praised him as “the first president in a generation that seeks to end war, rather than start one.”
This should come as no surprise. Paul has long been a skunk in Republicans’ foreign policy garden party. This summer, for example, he tried and failed to revoke the authorization for the wider war on terrorism. Paul also tried and failed in 2018 to lift some of the sanctions Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, imposed on Russia for its stealth invasion of Ukraine.
The yin to Paul’s yang is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He delivered a speech from Jerusalem that emphasized how Trump has delivered on “his duty to keep us safe.”
Here, Pompeo pointed to examples of Trump’s flashes of force, such as his killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the successful completion of his predecessor’s strategy to destroy the Islamic State’s caliphate. Pompeo also trumpeted Trump’s decision to withdraw from two international agreements: the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia. Of the latter, Pompeo said the U.S. can “now build missiles to deter Russian aggression.”
This is not to say that all of Pompeo’s speech was a paean to militarism. He said that U.S. forces in Syria can start coming home, now that the mission to destroy the Islamic State is complete. So far, though, no one in the Trump administration has given a timetable for that withdrawal. It’s worth noting that twice during his presidency, Trump has tried to pull out of Syria only to reverse himself after his advisers talked him out of it.
Meanwhile, Pompeo as recently as two weeks ago signaled that U.S. forces would be remaining in Iraq. A joint statement after the completion of the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue reaffirms a “commitment to achieving common objectives through bilateral security coordination,” and puts off technical discussions of any possible reductions in U.S. forces in Iraq to a later date.
Pompeo, it should be said, has not led American diplomacy as either a unilateralist or a multilateralist. He has lavished attention and aid on some allies, such as Israel and the Arab Gulf monarchies, while distancing the U.S. from and at times openly criticizing Western European allies, like France and Germany. Pompeo has pursued a multifaceted diplomatic campaign against China, while being Trump’s principal envoy to the hermit kingdom of North Korea. Pompeo has endorsed popular uprisings in Iran and Hong Kong, while holding his tongue on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
So Pompeo, like his boss, has not been ideologically consistent. Then again, no president ever is. What is more interesting is how Trump manages to convince voters that he seeks to end overseas entanglements and also that he will punish America’s enemies. Since the end of World War II, grand strategists have largely agreed that the presence of American forces overseas is the deterrent hedge against hot wars. Trump has consistently resisted this notion, particularly in the Middle East.
The real answer for Trump’s seemingly contradictory policy is that he wages aggressive economic and political warfare against American enemies like China, Iran, Venezuela and more reluctantly against Russia, while favoring a withdrawal of military forces from the Middle East and, more recently, a NATO ally like Germany.
The best example of this approach is Iran. Although it’s true that Trump authorized the strike that killed Soleimani, he did so after eight months of Iranian escalation against shipping in the Persian Gulf and U.S. forces in Iraq. He boasted last year that he called off a retaliatory strike against Iran when he learned it would cause disproportionate loss of life on the Iranian side. Despite all of this, Trump has steadily increased the secondary sanctions on sectors of Iran’s economy, over the vigorous objections of U.S. allies in Europe.
It’s too soon to say what will come of this strategy with China, Iran or Venezuela. But if history is any guide, sanctions sooner or later lead to military confrontation. Consider the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese justified their aggression that brought the U.S. into World War II because President Franklin Roosevelt had effectively ended all U.S. exports of oil and frozen Japanese assets in the U.S. Put another way, economic war is not an enduring substitute for kinetic war. Often it’s merely a prelude.
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