Donald Trump has wrecked the best plans of nearly a score of “serious” Republican presidential candidates. Yet, what may be most extraordinary about his campaign is that, on foreign policy at least, he may be the most sensible Republican in the race. It is the “mainstream” and “acceptable” Republicans who are most extreme, dangerous, and unrealistic.
First, the Republicans scream that the world has never been so dangerous. Yet when in history has a country been as secure as America from existential and even substantial threats?
Hyperbole is Trump’s stock in trade, but he has used it only sparingly on foreign policy. Referring to North Korea, for instance, he claimed: “this world is just blowing up around us.” But he used that as a justification for talking to North Korea, not going to war.
Second, the Republicans generally refuse to criticize George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. In contrast, Trump said, “I was not a fan of going to Iraq.”
Third, the Republican candidates blame the rise of the Islamic State on President Obama. This claim is false at every level. The Islamic State grew out of the Iraq invasion and succeeded with the aid of former Baathists and Sunni tribes who came to prefer an Islamist Dark Age to murderous Shia rule. There were no U.S. troops in Iraq because George W. Bush had planned their withdrawal.
Trump understands that the basic mistake was invading Iraq. He said: “They went into Iraq. They destabilized the Middle East. It was a big mistake. Okay, now we’re there. And you have ISIS.”
Fourth, Republicans see other waiting enemies, such as China. But Trump apparently doesn’t view war as an option against Beijing. Rather, he sees China primarily as an economic competitor: he declared that he would “get tough with” and “out-negotiate” the Chinese, not bomb them.
Fifth, all the other Republicans apparently view Iran as an unspeakable enemy. All would block the Obama nuclear deal and most appear ready to tear it up. Trump criticized the agreement, but announced: “I will police that deal,” a far more realistic response.
Sixth, the GOP candidates almost uniformly treat handing out security guarantees as similar to accumulating Facebook friends: the more the merrier. Yet as I point out on Forbes online: “most of America’s major allies could defend themselves. The Europeans, for instance, have a combined population and GDP greater than America and much greater than Russia. South Korea has twice the population and around 40 times the GDP of the North.”
Some potential allies are security black holes, such as Ukraine. The latter would set the United States against nuclear-armed Russia. America has nothing at stake warranting that kind of risky confrontation.
Many of America’s official friends are more oppressive than Washington’s enemies. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a totalitarian state. Egypt today is more repressive than under Mubarak.
Here Trump is at his refreshing best. Decades ago he called on the United States to “stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves.” He then pointed to Japan and Saudi Arabia.
A couple years ago he said: “I keep asking, how long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?” Similarly, Trump recently explained: “Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous.” Regarding Ukraine, he asked: “Where’s Germany? Where are the countries of Europe?”
As I wrote in the Forbes article: “Trump obviously is not a deep thinker on foreign policy or anything else. Nevertheless, on these issues he exhibits a degree of common sense lacked by virtually every other Republican candidate. The GOP needs to have serious debate over foreign policy.”