By Bonnie Kristian
As with any presidency, and as all but the blindest partisans realize, there are plenty of legitimate critiques to be lobbed at the Trump administration—but President Trump’s willingness to question the assumptions of Washingtonian orthodoxy is not among them.
Nowhere is this truer than where foreign policy is concerned, because the post-9/11 status quo is self-evidently broken. We are stuck in a costly, dangerous, and counterproductive pattern of treating every threat as existential; prioritizing military action as the solution to every problem; and refusing to make an honest assessment of strategies past.
At Washington’s direction, U.S. troops are “more or less permanently engaged in ongoing hostilities,” writes Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich at Foreign Affairs, while “as if on autopilot, the Pentagon accrues new obligations and expands its global footprint, oblivious to the possibility that in some parts of the world, U.S. forces may no longer be needed, whereas in others, their presence may be detrimental.”
The result across two very different administrations has been one military intervention after another, each waged significantly or entirely at the discretion of the executive branch without regard for strategic necessity, congressional authority, astronomical cost, humanitarian catastrophe, and the increased destabilization of an entire region of the globe.
Enter Trump, who has proven himself willing to level real challenges against recent foreign policy in a way most politicians on both sides of the aisle refuse to do. This willingness isn’t so much to Trump’s credit as it is to the bulk of the Washington establishment’s severe discredit: The questions were crying out for persistent public address, as anyone outside the beltway could see. Trump’s interrogation of the wisdom of nation-building and the United States’ self-assigned role as world police was long overdue. If he’d kept quiet, the very stones would cry out.
The trouble is that asking good questions is not the same as giving good answers, and this is where the Trump administration has come up woefully, confusedly short.
As president, Trump has yet to develop anything close to the prudent, realist approach the best of his campaign rhetoric promised, thanks at least in part to his selection of many key advisers drawn from the ranks of the establishment he was elected to oppose He has not pursued the “new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past,” and instead of his plan to “stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments,” he seems to be inching toward regime change in Syria—if not Iran and North Korea.
Trump’s December pledge of “stability, not chaos” and a “new era of peace, understanding, and goodwill” is conspicuously absent in July, and his failure to answer well his own much-needed questions is bigger than his policy toward any individual country or conflict. Indeed, “labeling his defense policy a difficult task,” as a Chatham House assessment of Trump’s slant on foreign affairs dryly comments, “since one can find in it elements of isolationism, realism and interventionism, sometimes even in the same statement.”
In a single speech, the report notes, Trump has been known to “denounce regime change, military occupation and nation-building while insisting that the U.S. should ‘keep the oil’ in Iraq and Libya after intervening there,” or to oppose U.S. military intervention in Syria while supporting Syrian no-fly zones enforced by the very U.S. military he ostensibly wants to keep out.
Six months into his presidency, Trump is answering his own call for fresh thinking and innovation in foreign policy with a reckless inertia, picking up where his predecessors left off and escalating the conflicts he skeptically inherited. Why Trump has drunk so deeply of the swamp he pledged to drain is up for considerable debate—but that he has done so is not. The rather pyrrhic travel ban victory aside, the Washington foreign policy consensus has reasserted itself in the White House, and Trump the questioner has been replaced by Trump the protector of the failed status quo.
A new approach is still possible, but only if President Trump is able to articulate and commit to a sober and consistent grand strategy that defaults not to military solutions but to diplomacy, economic cooperation, and restraint, re-balancing U.S. foreign policy to enhance American security.
“Before rushing ahead,” Bacevich persuasively argues, Trump must “take stock. After all, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, U.S. troops have made considerable sacrifices. The Pentagon has expended stupendous sums. Yet when it comes to promised results—disorder curbed, democracy promoted, human rights advanced, terrorism suppressed—the United States has precious little to show.” Trump seemed to grasp this when he questioned, and now he must learn to remember it in his answers, too.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by U.S. News and World Report on July 19, 2017. Read more HERE.