Donald Trump is the kind of noninterventionist who wants to increase military spending, suggests punishing Iran’s rude “gestures” with immediate air strikes, and takes his national-security advice from an ardent neoconservative who still believes Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.
Which is to say, we should probably stop calling the Republican nominee a noninterventionist. But before examining the latest signs that Trump is not, in fact, an antiwar candidate, it’s worth reviewing how he cultivated that reputation.
Throughout both his primary and general-election campaigns, Trump made his opposition to interventions aimed at regime change — including the Iraq War and the toppling of Qaddafi in Libya — a central point in his foreign-policy pitch. Back in February, his chief policy adviser Sam Clovis likened Trump’s foreign policy to classical realism, and suggested that the candidate only supported deploying military force as a last resort to protect national security.
In truth, Trump did support the invasion of Iraq and the intervention in Libya before they were launched. However, the GOP nominee condemned the former as a disastrous mistake long before Hillary Clinton did. And while most of Trump’s policy convictions prove to be fleeting improvisations or talking points handed down from GOP donors, his sympathy for a kind of isolationism dates back nearly two decades.
During a brief flirtation with a presidential campaign in 1987, Trump questioned the United States’ overseas commitments, arguing that Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other allies could afford to defend themselves — or at least pay for us to defend them. Rather than invest in foreign entanglements, Trump proposed that America should devote its resources to “our farmers, our sick, our homeless.” Trump infamously expanded this argument into a repudiation of NATO, at various points in 2016.
Of course, the mogul has also called for murdering the families of terrorists and confiscating the natural resources of our conquered enemies. But as Peter Beinart has observed, Trump’s skepticism about intervention for the sake of spreading democracy or protecting our allies — and his willingness to violate international law in pursuit of revenge against anyone who spills American blood — fits neatly into the doctrine of Jacksonian isolationism.
[Jacksonians] have little interest in the “Hamiltonian” project of prying other countries open to American commerce or the “Wilsonian” project of spreading democracy and liberty across the globe. But when attacked, especially by what they consider dishonorable foes, Jacksonians believe that “wars must be fought with all available force. The use of limited force is deeply repugnant.”
The ethical premises behind this foreign-policy outlook are stridently nationalist. And, in the abstract, they seem far less conducive to peace than the humanist, multilateral principles of Clinton’s liberal interventionism.
But the inhumane results of the American efforts in Iraq and Libya, both of which boasted significant support from liberal interventionists, raised the possibility that Trump’s uglier ideology could ultimately prove less destructive. And the GOP nominee has widely advertised this possibility, albeit in different terms.
“Sometimes it seemed like there wasn’t a country in the Middle East that Hillary Clinton didn’t want to invade, intervene in, or topple,” Trump told a crowd in Philadelphia last week. “She is trigger-happy and very unstable.”
But this appeal should not be trusted. And not just because Trump has given the American public little reason to trust anything he says. Rather, the events of the past week suggest that Trump’s brand of neo-isolationism is the trigger-happy sort — and that he’ll probably just outsource his foreign policy to his party’s most reactionary neoconservatives, anyway.
The thing about Jacksonians is that they either support nonintervention or total war, depending on whether America is under attack. Which makes how a given Jacksonian defines an “attack” on our country pretty important. Last Friday in Florida, Trump suggested that he would consider an Iranian naval officer giving the middle finger to a passing U.S. vessel an affront worth waging war over.
“Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water,” the GOP nominee promised at a rally in Pensacola, referring to an incident last winter in which the Iranian army detained American sailors who had wandered into the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters.
At that same rally, Trump reiterated his belief that Clinton is dangerously “trigger-happy.”
Perhaps Trump’s saber-rattling rally bluster shouldn’t be taken seriously. But even if Trump wouldn’t have launched a war with Iran for policing its territorial waters last February, his instinct to meet insults with belligerence seems likely to produce a less diplomatic response than the one pursued by the Obama administration. Especially if he’s surrounded by neoconservatives who thirst for confrontation with Tehran. Which, increasingly, he is.
On Monday, Trump named former CIA director James Woolsey as his campaign’s senior national-security adviser. Woolsey is a hawk, even among neoconservatives. Per the Intercept:
Trump has called the Iraq War “a disaster.”
Woolsey, by contrast, was a key member of the Project for the New American Century — a neoconservative think tank largely founded to encourage a second war with Iraq. Woolsey signed a letter in 1998 calling on Clinton to depose Saddam Hussein and only hours after the 9/11 attacks appeared on CNN and blamed the attacks on Iraq. Woolsey has continued to insist on such a connection despite the complete lack of evidence to support his argument. He also blames Iran.
Woolsey’s hiring comes days after Trump committed himself to a massive increase in defense spending, proposing hundred-billion-dollar weapons systems for the Navy and Air Force and, thus, reversing his 2013 support for maintaining the military cuts contained in the sequester.
In defending Trump’s proposal, Woolsey suggested that America must prioritize military spending over domestic investments — reasoning that directly contradicts Trump’s rhetoric on that subject from 1987 through most of his 2016 campaign.
“I think the problem is her budget,” Woolsey said of Clinton. “She is spending so much money on domestic programs — including ones that we don’t even have now, and the ones we have now are underfunded — I think there can be very little room for the improvements in defense and intelligence that have to be made.”
Trump may have a neo-isolationist streak. But evidence strongly suggests that, before anything else, the GOP nominee is a narcissist with little interest in the workaday requirements of executing policy. As a Republican president, Trump’s path of least resistance will be to outsource foreign affairs to his party’s neoconservative Establishment. Woolsey’s hiring strongly suggests he’ll take that path.
So, no matter what the GOP nominee (or certain naïve bloggers) tell you, there’s little reason to think that Donald Trump represents a less “trigger-happy” alternative to Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy.