by Cinzia Croce
All of us have experienced moments when everything comes into focus and questions that lingered in one’s mind for a long time find their answer. For years I wondered why America’s foreign policy – ever since the end of the Cold War – has been marked by a series of debacles and a high level of incompetence. Supposedly our foreign policy was being shaped by the best and the brightest, individuals with long, impressive resumes and a deep knowledge of ‘how the world works’. With such an illustrious brain trust working on behalf of the American people how does one explain the decades of failure? After watching the reaction to Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech, I finally have my answer.
The persistent criticism of Trump’s foreign policy approach is that it is “incoherent”. Much of the consternation seems to be caused by Trump stating that “America is going to be a reliable friend and ally again” and later in speech he calls for our “nation, be more unpredictable.” One cannot be both reliable and unpredictable, declared pundits, editorial boards and former foreign policy advisors. It is contradictory, incoherent. Trump criticizes Obama for “picked fights with our oldest friends” and says he “bows to our enemies” while pledging to end the “horrible cycle of hostility” toward Russia. It is contradictory, incoherent. Trump states first that our weakened economic state means we can longer afford to fund defense commitments — and later laments our depleted military and pledges to make it stronger. It is contradictory, incoherent.
If that is all it takes to confuse our intelligentsia, is it any wonder our foreign policy is in shambles? If they actually bothered to listen to Trump instead of selectively hearing a word here and there taken out of context, they could spare themselves a lot of angst and keep themselves from looking like buffoons. Trump speaks about being reliable in terms of meeting our commitments, following through ultimatums, and unpredictable in terms of not telegraphing to our enemies what we are prepared to do or not do. In other words: the opposite of the Obama administration, which seems to believe that red lines are rhetorical devices and that holding press conferences outlining the number of troops being sent along with a description of the scope of their role is good strategy. Had the Obama administration been in power during WWII, it would have insisted General Eisenhower hold a press conference announcing the Normandy invasion. As to the other two examples of contradictions, there is a difference between seeking a working relationship with Russia and the Obama approach, which is to seek the approval of our enemies at the expense of our allies. One can call for a stronger military and still insist that our allies live up to the financial commitments they have made in exchange for American protection.
In his April 27th speech, Trump stated that the foundation of his foreign policy will be “always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else.” Some may say that putting America’s security interests above all else is an objective shared by all running for office and the differences are over how to achieve it. That may have been true in previous elections but it is not the case this presidential election. We have a candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has justified military interventions on humanitarian grounds and and has said we are obliged to go along with our allies — apparently whether or not such actions promote America’s interests. That was the case in Hillary’s decision to push for the removal of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. No consideration was given to whether such action would enhance or harm America’s interests. If such consideration had been given the inescapable conclusion would have been that removing Gaddafi hurt our security.
One of the benefits of toppling Saddam Hussein was Gaddafi agreeing to give up his stockpile of WMDs and ending his chemical and nuclear weapons programs in exchange for a commitment from the United States that it would not try to remove him. The Bush Doctrine stated, in part: “you are either with us or against us”. Hoping to escape Saddam’s fate, Gaddafi decided to be “with us” and began to cooperate. In 2006, Libya was removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. By joining the Libyan intervention, America dealt a severe blow to its credibility and sent a signal around the world that American assurances have an expiration date: the day the president making them leaves office. After watching Gaddafi unilaterally disarm his most powerful weapons — thus making his removal possible — no other dictator will willingly give up his arsenal of WMDs in the future. And not only that: it created an incentive for countries to seek nuclear weapons as insurance against a possible military intervention by the United States and its allies. America, and the world, is less secure because of the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya.
With respect to having to acquiesce to our allies’ every wish because it is the only way to foster a close working relationship, Mrs. Clinton should take a page out of the Eisenhower administration. In 1956, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company in retaliation for the United States withdrawing its offer to fund the Aswan dam. The French and British had controlled said company for decades and threatened to go to war. Eisenhower refused to go along with our allies saying that “Egypt had a right to nationalize the canal because it was located in Egyptian territory” and stated that as long as the canal was open and functioning he saw no cause for military action. Undaunted, France and Britain hatched a secret plot with Israel whereby the Israelis would invade the Sinai Peninsula, triggering a military response from the Egyptians; the French and British would then issue an ultimatum demanding that Israel and Egypt cease fighting and accept Anglo-French occupation of the canal zone. Nasser was expected to refuse, which was to provide the French and British an excuse to start bombing Egypt, followed by troops landing. France and Britain believed that once they acted, the old WWII ally would come along and bail them out with funds and supplies. Instead, Eisenhower responded: “Those who began this operation should be left to boil in their own oil.” That is the difference between a president who puts American interests first — in this case ensuring that the Suez Canal stays open — and a Secretary of State who goes along without any regard to America’s credibility and long-term security interests, as Hillary did in the Libya debacle.
Before detailing the components of his approach to dealing with the world, Trump identified the causes of America’s weak and ineffective foreign policy: exporting Western values taking precedence over security interests; overextending our military; our allies not paying their fair share of the cost of their security; trade deals that have weakened our economy; failure to follow through commitments leading to our allies questioning our resolve and emboldening our enemies. From his assessment of what ails our foreign policy and the commitment to put America first flow the key elements of his policy: Trump promises to focus on creating stability in the world instead of pursuing nation-building; preserving the nation state and national sovereignty instead of a slavish dedication to enhancing the power and supremacy of global institutions, and a willingness to revisit existing security arrangements and forging new relationships with former enemies. It is not a foreign policy about lofty ideals and soaring rhetoric. It is a coherent, nationalist, pragmatic and somewhat transactional foreign policy. A legitimate criticism of Trump’s foreign policy would be his failure to outline America’s role in the world given the new approach he is proposing. Does he consider America the ‘indispensable nation’ or does he feel the world can find its way without American leadership? But I suspect that labeling Trump’s policy as incoherent is not so much a criticism, it is an attempt to discredit his proposal without addressing the substance of it.