Why Attacks on Trump's Foriegn Policy Views Backfire
Without a doubt, the decision of Donald Trump to define his Foriegn Policy using the words America First, recalling the much maligned pre-WWII isolationist movement associated with Charles Lindbergh will lead to anger on the right and mockery from the left. Or at least will among those parts of the media that feel themselves too "responsible" to focus on the Trump/Cruz feud over marital infidelities, a war that Trump has been certain to win from the start by virtue of not even attempting to fight it. Trump's wording, which he used on Fox and Friends, will provide further fuel to attacks that have been as strenuous as they have been ineffective. For anyone wondering at Trump's relative success has to look no farther than his heresy in dissenting from bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, where that consensus has placed him on the right side of the American public. The New York Times Op-Ed this weekend denouncing Trump could easily have functioned as an endorsement, so far did its author fail to understand their audience. Even the title of the article, InDonald Trump's Worldview, America Comes First, Everybody Else Pays, could function as a Trump stump speech.
I have argued for several years that nowhere in American politics is there a greater disconnect between elite opinion and that of the electorate than in the field of Foriegn Policy. For different reasons, the Democrats after the defeats of the 1980s, and the Republicans after George H W Bush lost reelection in 1992, have come to embrace a view of American interests that emphasizes "duty" instead of "interests". What these duties are tends to differ between neoconservatives, neoliberals, and the dissenting left, but all agree that they exist and America needs to fulfill them. For Democrats, the success of the Dayton process in Bosnia and intervention in Kosovo reinforced the idea that America had a duty to make international law work by intervening against regimes that violated the human rights of their own people. It is not a coincidence that Barack Obama's UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, got her start as a journalist in the Balkans denouncing American inaction, an experience that inspired her to write a Pulitzer Prize winning book about America's past inaction in the face of genocide. Reconciling this moral obligation with a coherent policy was not easy; Power both condemned the Nixon Administration for intervening in Cambodia in 1970 in order to prevent the Khmer Rouge from coming to power, and the failure of the Ford and Carter Administrations to remove them. That such assumptions lead to situations in which Pentagon and CIA-backed "moderates" shoot at each other is hardly a surprise.
As for the Republicans, the failure of the Bush Administration to remove Saddam Hussein in 1991 became the final sin of the real politik wing of the party, though at the time it represented the culmination of anger over American acquiescence in the ends of Civil Wars in Africa and Latin America on lines that seemed to abandon the (imagined) idealism of Reagan policies. After September 11th, neoconservatives reveled in the idea that the United States was an empire, a trend which has continued in the way in which legitimate concerns about Iran's destabilizing influence or Russia's inclination to interfere in the domestic affairs of its neighbors have turned into outright calls for military responses. "Balancing" or suggesting that the US might have to pick and chose conflicts is unthinkable as doing so would imply the US has limitations that cannot be resolved through "will". Marco Rubio,whose campaign became in many ways the embodiment of neoconservative narratives such that Rubio's statements often read like AEI press releases, avoided every possible specific answer on foreign policy. Donald Trump may have lacked familiarity with details during debates. Rubio's familiarity with details failed to disguise the fact that his positions on each individual issue failed to form any coherent strategy. By advocating simultaneously the arming of Syrian rebels, intervention against ISIS, the removal of Assad, and the shooting down of Russian aircraft Rubio in effect called for a war on everyone in Syria.
It is hardly surprising then that Trump's relatively simple approach of running a cost-benefit analysis for policies has been so intuitively appealing. In 2012 I watched an Ohio focus group of swing voters turn their dials down as far as they could go when shown Mitt Romney's declaration that under a Romney Administration there would be "zero daylight" between the United States and Israel. It was not because they disliked Israel or had sympathy with the Palestinians. They viewed the latter by and large as terrorists, and would have been quick to endorse halting Muslim immigration. Rather, they interpreted Romney's pledge as a commitment to invade Iran much as Bush 43 had invaded Iraq and had no interest in fighting another expensive war on someone else's behalf, even if that someone else was Israel. That the Romney campaign, with access to this data, continued to promote those positions(albeit in dialed back form later in the campaign) demonstrates how far group think had gone.
The New York Times shows similar contempt for dissent. Complaining of the audience Trump has found, David Sanger and Maddie Haberman are shocked to note that
Mr. Trump explained his thoughts in concrete and easily digestible terms, but they appeared to reflect little consideration for potential consequences. Much the same way he treats political rivals and interviewers, he personalized how he would engage foreign nations, suggesting his approach would depend partly on “how friendly they’ve been toward us,” not just on national interests or alliances.
The consequences they outline, however, are seen as so self-evident that there is no need to make the case for them, even though they are by and large expressed in the form of concerns for others.
But his rationale for abandoning the region was that “the reason we’re in the Middle East is for oil, and all of a sudden we’re finding out that there’s less reason to be there now.” He made no mention of the risks of withdrawal — that it would encourage Iran to dominate the Gulf, that the presence of American troops is part of Israel’s defense, and that American air and naval bases in the region are key collection points for intelligence and bases for drones and Special Operations forces.
Nowhere in the article does it note either why Iran dominating the Gulf would be a threat, even presuming it was possible. Of course, inflating Iranian ambitions, capabilities, and the potential impact of Iranian actions has a long history in American intellectual life. Hence there is no need to point out that the "Shia" threat that Marco Rubio talked about constantly at debates suffers a fatal limitation, namely the fact that Sunnis outnumber Shia 7-1 within the Islamic world and 4-1 in the Middle East. Just as ISIS has struggled to operate outside of Sunni majority areas in Iraq and Syria, so too have Shia militias struggled to operate outside of Shia areas. This has been true of Hezbollah, the Iranian revolutionary guard, and even the US-trained Iraqi army.Reading the analysis, one would think this is a fight to death between Sunni and Shia, but outside a local level, it is far more a fight within the communities except in the two countries with histories of minority rule. Sunni-majority but Shia(well Alawite)-ruled Syria, and Iraq which was historically ruled by its Sunni minority.
Nor is it clear, what exact role the United States military plays in defending Israel. Note, I say the American military. Obviously a dependence on American goodwill, aid, and spare parts helps to keep Egypt and Turkey on at least correct terms with Israel, but that would continue regardless of any US military presence. And Israel has its own second strike capability. At the point at which Israel could destroy Iran in response to any Iranian attack, it is unclear what more US forces could do to deter.
Finally there is more than a share of truth to Trump's claims about the fact that the main reason the US was in the region was due to oil. The strategic importance of the Gulf has almost always been to keep the waterway safe for the transit of Oil, but increasingly the United States is independent and therefore unaffected by Middle Eastern oil supplies. It is rather Europe and China which depend on the Gulf states for their oil, and by asking the question as to why they, as interested parties, should not take up a greater part of the burden to protect those supplies, Trump has hit on something that is disturbingly sensible.
The problem it faces is that it is sensible only in a world in which the US is one among many powers, each with interests. It may be that the US is the greatest power, but in order for other states to have a duty, then they must also have the ability to carry it out. This almost self-evident conclusion runs afoul of the fantasies and premises both Democrats and Republicans have embraced for over 25 years, namely that the United States is the world's only superpower. To go from uni-polarity to even an unbalanced multi-polarity requires a "relative" decline in American power. And this is something observers do not want to accept.
Hence Rubio's constant talk of a "New American Century" during his campaign. But neoliberalism is equally dependent on such a worldview. Neoliberalism has always had a good deal of Francis Fukayama's "End of History" about it. If neoliberals reject saying out loud that Western Liberal Democracy is the ultimate form of social organization, they are nevertheless invested in the ideas that its values, especially regarding individual rights, are universal. And with the rise of activism on LGBT issues, the left has become if anything more invested in it. It is hard to imagine Bill Clinton or George W. Bush subordinating US policy towards Russia to Russia's treatment of its own gay citizens. But that is exactly what the Obama Administration has done, and such efforts can only be justified in a world where US power is so great that the cost of such a policy is negligible. In other words a world where Russia needs the US, but the US does not have the slightest need of Russia.
The irony then is not that Trump is extreme. He is ill-informed, yes, but no worse than Bernie Sanders, or most of the rest of the Republican field. Rather, it is that in advocating deal-making and efficiency he is challenging not just the bipartisan consensus about the world held by both parties, but the factual premises required for that consensus. In doing so he is threatening to move the overton window.
At the current time Neoconservatives have far more to fear from Trump because their position within their own party is far weaker. Always an intellectual clique with limited appeal either to the electorate or the donor class, they offer little to the party, and hence, can be easily and painlessly sacrificed when the need arises. In the long-run however, it is the Democrats who have more to fear. Whereas the Republicans can abandon Neoconservatism relatively easily, the very absolutist nature of discourse about gay rights, women's liberation, and race in left-leaning circles make it much harder for Democrats to abandon moral universal-ism, at least without the schisms the center-left is seeing in Europe. That means it is likely that going forward the Democrats will resume their post-WWII position as the interventionist party, an identity that lasted until Vietnam.
I warned almost three years ago about the danger of the Democratic party giving up the cause of non-intervention. Having thrown overboard social conservatives, and now increasingly aligning themselves with causes(Black Lives Matter, Illegal Immigration) that are seen as anti-white, Democrats have little left to attract downscale white voters. For nearly seven years between 2005 and 2012 opposition to Iraq kept many of those voters away from the GOP. Abandoning it and becoming the party that not only wants to give benefits to illegal immigrants and go after the police, but also the party that wants to spend billions sending people to die in civil wars in Syria is a good way to give up a whole lot of the so-called demographic destiny of the party.