Trump’s Foreign Policy ‘Flip-Flops’: More Fake News

Trump did not campaign as an isolationist and thus cannot be charged with “flip flopping” because he is not acting like an isolationist in office. Both the original charge and its new twist are examples of “fake news” concocted by Trump’s opponents and being properly ignored by his supporters.

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By William R. Hawkins l May 2, 2017

President Trump with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

In the wake of the April 6 missile strike on a Syrian airbase, critics of President Donald Trump sparked media frenzy about his supposed “flip flop” on foreign policy which would allegedly alienate his anti-establishment followers and open the door to the return of “neoconservatives” to power in Washington.

This charge was predicated on the notion that Trump had run as an “isolationist” who had won votes by pledging to keep the country out of war along the lines of Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The problem with this charge is that it was based on a false narrative created by critics of Trump who tried to discredit his qualifications to be Commander-in-Chief. If Barack Obama was weak because he wanted to “lead from behind,” a successor who didn’t want to lead at all in world affairs could not protect American interests or security. Those who took part in this smear campaign ran the gamut from rivals in the Republican establishment to Hillary Clinton supporters who stressed her active record as Secretary of State.

Candidate Trump gave these critics some ammunition with statements that could be taken out of context. For example, Trump’s claim that he had opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The record was mixed on exactly when he first voiced this objection, in part because in 2003 Trump was a businessman and not a public official or candidate directly involved in the issue. A better guide to the future president’s vision was his attack on President Obama for his “cut and run” policy of a total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011; a policy based on the calendar rather than the situation on the ground. That withdrawal meant Washington was throwing away the victory it had won during the “Surge.” The U.S. had been able to win the support of the Iraqi Sunnis against al-Qaeda by promising they would get a fair shake in a democracy even though their Shiite rivals were a majority of the population. However, once there were no American troops to enforce that promise, the country fell into a civil war as the Shiite regime, backed by Iran, moved to oppress the Sunnis. This is what led to the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) movement, which posed as the protector of the Sunni community.

At a critical moment in the conflict, it was Obama who was the “non-interventionist.” Obama’s record of opposing the invasion was clear, as was his campaign pledge in 2008 to pull out and let chaos reign. And in terms of the larger regional conflict, again it was Obama who had tried to keep direct U.S. involvement out of the war against ISIS in Syria except for aerial bombing. In contrast, candidate Trump promised to turn strategy over to the Pentagon and do whatever it took to destroy ISIS. His approach to world affairs was summed up by one word: WIN. His theme at rally after rally, greeted with thunderous applause, was America had to start winning again.

Who could have reasonably thought, given Trump’s personality, experience and campaign rhetoric, that as president he would adopt the isolationist view that America could safely allow an “invisible hand” to run the world, while he dozed off in the Oval Office.

Trump did adopt an unfortunate slogan which drew concern from those who know history, although, as a result, it has taken on a fresh meaning. He talked of putting “America First” which every national leader should do. The problem is that this was the name of an organization founded by isolationists in 1940 to lobby against the U.S. entering the war against Nazi Germany after France had been defeated and England was standing alone. This group drew on the isolationist sentiments which had grown in the 1920s to dominate policy discussions in the 1930s. They did not believe the U.S. had gotten anything out of its plunge into World War I in 1917 and wanted to avoid a second “mistake” in World War II. America First even opposed the “Lend-Lease” program that provided aid to the British so they could defend themselves. But just as it was American intervention that saved France and England in 1918, it would save the day again. Yet, it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an attack predicated on America’s perceived unwillingness to fight, to turn public opinion around. As John Dower, an expert on Japanese military thought has written, “Westerners were assumed to be selfish and egotistic, and incapable of mobilizing for a long fight in a distant place.” How many of America’s adversaries came to believe the same thing in recent years, encouraging them to challenge the U.S.?

A major part of the isolationist campaign between the world wars was disarmament; you won’t fight if you can’t fight. The focus of this effort was naval forces, the strategic arm of overseas power projection. From 1921-1935 a series of arms control agreements were signed by the major powers limiting their fleets. The system failed because only half the powers – the liberal democracies, took it seriously. The rising Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan, cheated on the treaties and finally dropped out of the system. The nadir of the disarmament effort was in 1935 when the U.S., Britain and France agreed to keep limits on their fleets even as the Axis embarked on major buildups. Like appeasement, it served to encourage aggression rather than deter it.

Trump is not making that mistake again. From the start of his campaign and since taking office, he has pledged a major expansion of the U.S. Navy; a fleet weakened by years of budget cuts that have reduced its size, modernization and readiness. The Army and Air Force will also be boosted. Candidate Trump also attacked a major legacy of Obama, the Iran nuclear agreement as a flawed arms control measure. He has exposed Syria’s cheating on its 2013 chemical weapons disarmament deal brokered by Russia. These are not positions taken from the isolationists.

There has been confusion about Trump’s unilateralism; equating it with isolationism. But the two terms are not synonyms. Trump’s determination to do what is best for America does not mean he is abandoning allies. The first thing he did upon taking office was to dispatch his national security team (all of whom are veteran actors on the world stage) to trouble spots around the world while hosting a steady stream of foreign leaders at the White House. He feels like George W. Bush, who famously said America “does not need a permission slip” from anyone else to defend its interests. Trump’s attack on Syria followed the failure of a UN resolution to sanction Damascus officials for the use of chemical weapons; a resolution vetoed by Russia and China. This should send a message to Beijing about the sincerity of Trump’s statement that “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”

There was also confusion about candidate Trump’s criticism of NATO. He complained that most NATO members are not contributing the minimum of 2% of GDP to defense that NATO has mandated. And he argued that NATO members were not doing enough to fight terrorism. On both counts, he was correct and past administrations have urged NATO to do more on both counts. Obama’s Secretary of Defense Ash Carter even extended the criticism to our Arab allies who are actively fighting on the front line against Iranian aggression in Syria and Yemen.

Trump has gotten some results. At his joint press conference with President Trump on April 12, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “Mr. President, I thank you for your attention to this issue. We are already seeing the effect of your strong focus on the importance of burden-sharing in the Alliance. We agree that allies need to redouble their efforts to meet the pledge we all made in 2014 to invest more in our Alliance.” He also said, “We agreed today, you and I, that NATO can, and must, do more in the global fight against terrorism.” Score two for Trump, who concluded his remarks “to reaffirm our commitment to this Alliance and to the enduring values that we proudly – and I mean, very proudly – share.”

Finally, there is the old line that has been used for decades by “free traders” to label those who do not believe business globalization is good for national prosperity and security as “isolationists.” But economic nationalism (or nationalism in general) does not mean a general withdrawal from the world. Just the opposite. No major power can act to shape the future to its advantage without the resources and independence needed to sustain the effort. Without strength at home, there is no power to project overseas.

Anyone familiar with classical liberal thought, from which the “free trade” fallacy emerged, knows that it was part of an ideology that sought an end to international relations, to be replaced by solely private/corporate relations. As British Radical Richard Cobden claimed nearly two centuries ago, under free trade “the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great fleets would die away.” Cobden was known as a “Little Englander” who wanted to dissolve the British Empire. Trump is not a “Little American” but a leader who wants to “make American great again.” That is not a classical liberal concept. If you want to see where that ideology still lives on despite centuries of failure, just look at the libertarian Cato Institute where free trade, disarmament, open immigration and geopolitical isolationism form a coherent, if suicidal, world view. There are some libertarians in the GOP who will join with the “anti-war” Left to oppose Trump on his campaign pledges to strengthen border security, American industry and the military.

Trump did not campaign as an isolationist and thus cannot be charged with “flip flopping” because he is not acting like an isolationist in office. Both the original charge and its new twist are examples of “fake news” concocted by Trump’s opponents and being properly ignored by his supporters.


William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the Conservative-Online-Journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.