Tag: foreign policy

President Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal; Or, How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb

During the Republican primary season, most candidates railed against the Iranian nuclear deal promising to rip it up. Indeed, Donald Trump, our new President-elect, described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPoA) as “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen.” With Trump’s unexpected success in yesterday’s election, the future of the Iran deal—one of the major diplomatic successes of Barack Obama’s presidency—has become murky.

Over the last year, Trump’s campaign was impressively inconsistent on the question of the Iran deal. Various Trump surrogates—including Rudy Giuliani in his speech at the Republican National Convention—suggested that Trump would “rip up” the deal on day one in office. Trump himself strongly criticized the deal, promising in a speech to AIPAC in March that dismantling the deal would be his number one priority. Yet later statements focused instead on the idea that he would “fix” the deal, by going back to the negotiating table with Tehran, a line later adopted by many of his campaign advisors.

Unfortunately, though this might indicate that Trump’s stance was more rhetoric than reality, he is likely to face strong pressure from the GOP-dominated congress to upend the deal. The pressure is liable to come from inside his administration too: not only did Mike Pence, Trump’s VP pick, take a hard line on the Iran deal in debates, but several of Trump’s potential advisors have similarly argued that the deal should be destroyed. It’s hard to imagine an administration featuring Bob Corker, John Bolton or Michael Flynn taking a conciliatory approach to Iran on any issue.

America’s Foreign Policy Tribes

Even if one had the stomach for more prognostication after last night, when it comes to Trump foreign policy looking ahead seems like a fool’s errand (see my last op-ed if you don’t believe me). As Max Fisher notes in the New York Times today, Donald Trump has been so inconsistent on foreign policy specifics that no one feels confident in making bold predictions. Uncertainty, at home and abroad, rules the day.

However, even though the election can’t tell us much about what might happen in the future, Trump’s victory does reveal a great deal about how Americans think about politics in general and foreign policy in particular.

One thing we have learned is that the divide in Americans’ foreign policy views now mirrors the broader political fault lines in the nation. As I wrote after the final presidential debate, in the absence of a compelling external threat, Americans have become more polarized as the “national interest” has devolved into an array of competing interests. The foreign policy debate is no longer about how to keep America safe; it’s a clash over competing conceptions of America and its role in the world.

Foreign Policy Schizophrenia

In last night’s presidential debate, policy issues were barely discussed among the conspiracy theories and scandal-mongering. But even the limited discussion of foreign policy highlighted a pretty strange fact: the Republican ticket effectively has two distinct foreign policy approaches. And though it’s hardly unusual for running mates to differ to some extent on issues – indeed, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine differ on some key foreign policy points – Trump’s statements last night, publicly repudiating his running mate’s proposals for Syria, were bizarre.

Despite his choice of vice presidential candidate, Trump and Pence have been largely at odds on foreign policy since day one.  Trump’s approach to foreign policy is highly inconsistent but has certainly been unconventional. The GOP nominee advocates a militaristic, ‘America First’ foreign policy, but differs from GOP orthodoxy on key topics like Russia, the Iraq War, U.S. alliances, and trade. In contrast, Pence is a hawk’s hawk, supporting the war in Iraq, increases in defense spending, and further Middle East intervention. In 2005, then-Representative Pence even introduced a House Resolution which would have declared that President Bush should not set an ‘arbitrary’ date for the removal of troops from Iraq until nation-building was complete.

The result has been a curious dichotomy in the Republican ticket’s foreign policy proposals. At last week’s vice presidential debate, Pence ignored Trump’s prior foreign policy statements, advocating for intervention against the Assad regime, the creation of safe zones in Syria, and a substantially harder line against Russia. Yet last night, when moderators pushed Trump on these differences, the Republican presidential candidate bluntly rejected Pence’s stance, noting that “he and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”  Trump then further contradicted his running mate, arguing for better relations with Russia, even refusing to attribute recent hacking incidents to Russia despite substantial evidence from the intelligence community on the issue.

Refugees, Immigrants, and the Polarization of American Foreign Policy

If I asked you whether Americans were more likely to name immigrants and refugees a critical threat to the United States in 1998 or in 2016, which year would you guess? Most people, I think, would quickly choose 2016. Most people, however, would be wrong.

According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in 1998 53% of Americans did so, compared to 43% in 2016. The error would be understandable, of course, given the homegrown terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. over the past year, Trump’s tough talk about Muslim immigrants, and the vigorous debate about Syrian refugees. Indeed, at first glance the numbers are puzzling.

When we break down the responses by political affiliation, however, we get our first clue about what is going on. As it turns out, in 1998 Republicans and Democrats were closely aligned in their assessments – 56% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats saw refugees and immigrants as a critical threat, a difference smaller than the margin of error in the survey. But by 2016 67% of Republicans did so compared to just 27% of Democrats.

Congress Takes on the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

In yesterday’s Washington Post, a headline proclaimed: “Saudi Arabia is Facing Unprecedented Scrutiny from Congress.” The article focused on a recently defeated Senate bill which sought to express disapproval of a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, though the presence of a genuine debate on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – and the ongoing war in Yemen – is a good sign, Congress has so far been unable to turn this debate into any meaningful action.  

Yesterday’s resolution, proposed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, would have been primarily symbolic. Indeed, support for the bill wasn’t really about impacting Saudi Arabia’s military capacity. As co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken noted, “the very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we are watching your actions closely and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children.” This message was intended as much for the White House as for the Saudi government, with supporters arguing that the Obama administration should rethink its logistical support for the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, opponents of the measure carried the day, and the resolution was defeated 71-26. These senators mostly argued that the importance of supporting regional allies outweighed any problems. Yet in doing so, they sought to avoid debate on the many problems in today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship. In addition to the war in Yemen – which is in many ways directly detrimental to U.S. national security interests, destabilizing that country and allowing for the growth of extremist groups there – Saudi Arabia’s actions across the Middle East, and funding of fundamentalism around the world are often at odds with U.S. interests, even as it works closely with the United States on counterterror issues. As a recent New York Times article noted, in the world of violent jihadist extremism, the Saudis are too often “both the arsonists and the firefighters.”

Should Realists Denounce Trump’s Foreign Policy?

The 2016 election season continues to unfold in increasingly bizarre ways. Donald Trump’s latest attempt to construct a coherent foreign policy speech may have failed to impress, but his campaign’s use of the word ‘realism’ led once again to calls for realists to openly denounce the Republican candidate and his views. As Dan Drezner argues over at the Washington Post,

In the interest of political self-preservation, realists need to get out in front on this. Because the thing about Trump is that every foreign policy position he touches has become less popular over the past calendar year. If realism gets lumped together with Trumpism, that is very, very bad for realists.

There are a bunch of problems with this argument, starting with the fact that Trump really isn’t espousing a realist worldview. To be sure, the Republican candidate has said a couple of things that are more restrained than his party’s foreign policy has been in recent years. Skepticism of nation-building and the idea that American allies should contribute more to their own defense are relatively uncontroversial (and generally popular) ideas that would move U.S. foreign policy in a more restrained direction. Most of Trump’s other proposals, however, including his ill-defined strategy to combat ISIS, his determination to reverse the nuclear deal with Iran, his apparent and disturbing willingness to consider the use of nuclear weapons, and his eagerness for trade wars, are not.

As many have noted, Trump’s foreign policy is best defined as incoherent. Monday’s speech provides another case in point: though the campaign described it as a return to “foreign policy realism,” the approach outlined by the candidate sounded more like a form of nationalist imperialism – complete with the seizure of natural resources from distressed countries – than anything else. Frankly, the only major similarity between Trump’s policy proposals and realism is his willingness to view the world in a win/loss framework. As a theory, realism is more than cost-benefit analysis, but one can see why a simplistic understanding of it would appeal to the candidate.

Here’s another problem with the demand that realists should repudiate Trump: they already have, loudly and repeatedly. In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt admonished Donald Trump to “keep your hands off the foreign policy ideas I believe in.” Cato’s own Trevor Thrall highlighted Trump’s know-nothing approach to foreign policy here. Many others have done likewise. As I wrote back in April, the primary defining characteristic of Trump’s foreign policy is not restraint, but inconsistency.   

And there is no evidence that realists (or restrainers) support Donald Trump. Reporters from Defense News recently tried to ascertain who a potential Trump administration might call on to staff key positions. It’s unlikely that John Bolton, recently suggested by Trump as a potential Secretary of State, will be mistaken for a realist any time soon. Not only did they find no realists willing to take such positions – one prominent advocate of restraint is mentioned in a purely speculative way – but they found few foreign policy experts willing to consider it, period.

Finally, the notion that realists can only repudiate Trump specifically by signing an open letter is unhelpful. The first open letter of the campaign season – signed by over 120 Republican foreign policy specialists – was valuable, signaling their broad disgust for their party’s nominee and his policies. But it was narrowly written, and since that time at least four other open letters have been published, each with a slightly different rationale, and slightly different signatory lists. Indeed, most have already been signed by prominent advocates of both restraint and realism. And there are a variety of reasons why some realists might not have signed the prior letters: they may not agree with everything proposed, they may be barred by professional or legal obligations from supporting or opposing political candidates, or perhaps they are simply not Republicans! Another open letter will not solve these problems.

Such criticism often comes with the implicit – or explicit – demand that realists endorse Hillary Clinton. Yet Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy approach is also problematic. Her support for the interventions in Iraq and Libya, and her continued support for unwise ideas like a no-fly zone in Syria remain concerning. Ultimately, those who call for realists to denounce Trump may be right about one thing: for realists, this election is a lose-lose proposition. 

Trump Versus the World

In 2015 we witnessed an astonishing sight: by the end of the year news coverage of Donald Trump in major U.S. newspapers eclipsed coverage of every major world hotspot and the dreaded Islamic State.

 

At the most basic level, this reflects the American tendency to focus on domestic politics during presidential campaigns. Foreign affairs often fade from view as the presidential campaign season heats up and economic and social issues take the fore. But this year foreign policy has in fact been a major focus of the campaign, making this a less powerful effect than in most years.

More importantly, the news flow is a function of Trump’s uncanny ability to set the news agenda. This ability stems only in part from the fact that he holds a commanding lead in the polls. More critical is his tendency to make outrageous statements, tapping into anger and frustration in the electorate, which has not only stimulated outrage and concern on left and right but also discussion about what the Trump phenomenon means beyond the election itself. In December Trump appeared in twice as many stories as both Ted Cruz, his closest competitor in both the polls and coverage, and President Obama. Simply put, Trump is incredibly newsworthy given the way in which American news outlets define news and given the news Americans appear to want.

But less obviously, this pattern also reflects the long-term shrinking of the international news hole in the United States. Since the late 1980s the share of American news devoted to international affairs has shrunk by as much as half in major U.S. newspapers and broadcast television news. With occasional and temporary reversals, this trend has persisted despite increasing globalization, despite constant U.S. military intervention abroad since the early 1990s, and despite 9/11 and the war on terrorism.