Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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 Has No Real Plan to Defeat ISIS

The big news from Donald Trump counterterrorism speech Monday is his proposal for an “ideological litmus test” to screen Muslim immigrants, which comes in lieu of his prior call to ban them outright. The focus here is the rest of Trump’s speech, which consists largely of shaky facts meant to exaggerate the terrorist threat to the United States, dubious arguments meant to blame President Obama and Hillary Clinton for that threat, self-congratulation for having taken smarter positions, which requires some invention, plus a touch of his special innuendo.

What’s lacking, unsurprisingly, are new policy proposals. After all his criticism of current U.S. counterterrorism policy, Trump offers a vague rehash of it, plus a desire to be tougher on Muslim immigrants.

The speech begins with a recitation of recent terrorism meant to convey a sense of rising menace, with the Islamic State (ISIS) leading the way. That doesn’t require dishonesty. One can exaggerate danger by selecting scary facts and failing to put them in context. For example, Trump doesn’t say that ISIS has been losing territory, which costs it cachet and recruits. Unsurprisingly, he mentions neither the miniscule odds that an American will be killed by terrorists nor the absence of a major attack organized by ISIS in the United States. The San Bernardino and Orlando shooters cited ISIS as an inspiration but, in its absence, might have acted in the name Qaeda or some other group.

Still, Trump can’t help molding the facts to his story. First, he claims that “this summer, there has been an ISIS attack launched outside the war zones of the Middle East every 84 hours.” That figure comes from a July 31 CNN article, which itself repeats a contractor’s non-public data covering a period—June 8 until late July—when attacks were unusually frequent. The count seems to include attacks, like the Orlando massacre, where the attacker had solely ideological links to ISIS. Using that broad definition and public lists of ISIS attacks for the period from June 8 until Trump spoke, attacks have come every 136 hours. Counting Orlando, the United States has gone 1560 hours without an ISIS attack.

Second, Trump contends that ISIS is “fully operational in 18 countries with aspiring branches in 6 more.” Trump doesn’t mention that he is directly quoting an NBC news report on a leaked White House briefing from the National Counterterrorism Center. The story doesn’t define “fully operational,” but it can’t mean much. To get 18 nations, one has to count just about every terrorist entity that has endorsed ISIS, though the main outfit in Syria only slightly controls a few of them. Mostly they’re splinter jihadist groups that embraced ISIS’s brand once it eclipsed al Qaeda’s.

Third, Trump argues that a new Congressional report shows that “the administration has downplayed the growth of ISIS, with 40 percent of analysts saying they had experienced efforts to manipulate their findings.” As Politico notes, the report was about analysts at Central Command, not all U.S. intelligence analysts, as Trump implies. Nor do we know that the pressure came from higher administration officials, rather than Centcom leaders, or that their take was entirely misguided, given ISIS’s recent decline.

Thai Military Junta Rigs Constitutional Referendum, Preserves Dictatorship

The Thai people voted on the latest constitution pushed by the reigning military junta. By banning any opposition, General/Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha won approval to continue his dictatorship from behind the scenes.

For decades military coups were frequent and the court, along with the military, bureaucracy, and business, long dominated democratic politics. Well-connected elites prospered while the rural poor languished, seemingly forgotten by their own government.

That came to a dramatic end in 2001 when flamboyant business mogul Shinawatra Thaksin (the latter his given name, by which he is known), ran a populist campaign and won the support of the long-suffering rural poor. The usual governing elites refused to accept their loss of control and an extended, often violent political struggle ensued, culminating in coups in 2006 and 2010.

Missile Accident Reminds U.S. of Dangers of Taiwan Commitment

Taiwan long has been one of the globe’s most dangerous tripwires. Other than a brief period after World War II, the island has not been ruled by the mainland for more than a century. The 23 million people living on what was once called Formosa have made a nation.

However, the People’s Republic of China views Taiwan–also known as the Republic of China (ROC)–as part of the PRC. As China has grown wealthier, it has created a military increasingly capable of defeating Taiwan.

At the same time, economic ties between the two nations have grown, yet the Taiwanese population has steadily identified more with Taiwan than the PRC. The election of Tsai Ing-wen of the traditional pro-independence Democratic Progress Party as president in January greatly discomfited Beijing.

Why Should America Defend Europeans Who Won’t Defend Themselves?

Once again Donald Trump has shocked the foreign policy establishment. He suggested that maybe the U.S. should no longer defend its prosperous, populous allies in Europe.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization made sense when created in 1949. War-ravaged Western Europe faced an aggressive Soviet Union. The American defense shield allowed Washington’s allies to recover and rebuild.

Nearly seven decades later the alliance has become a means rather than an end. The world has changed, yet Washington continues to guarantee the security of its 27 (soon to be 28) NATO allies (as well as Japan, South Korea, and others). Yet only four European nations bother to devote even two percent of GDP to the military, barely half America’s level.

Trump sees this as just a free-riding problem. He said he’d like to keep the alliance, but doesn’t know if it’s possible. “Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make,” he complained.” He “would prefer not to walk,” but if the Europeans don’t “fulfill their obligations to us,” perhaps Washington shouldn’t defend them.

Syria Is Not Obama’s Worst Mistake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues that the failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war represents President Obama’s worst mistake, “casting a shadow over his legacy.” The war has certainly been a monumental tragedy. Almost 500,000 have died and millions now struggle as refugees. The truth, however, is that Obama’s refusal to bow to political pressure stands as a significant accomplishment of his tenure, not a mistake.

Kristof joins a bipartisan choir in accusing Obama of wrongly believing there is nothing the United States can do to make things better in Syria. Among his suggestions: implementing a no-fly zone, creating safe zones for civilians, and grounding the Syrian government’s air force. The immediate goal of such efforts would be to prevent harm to civilians. The longer-term goal is to put pressure on the Assad government to come to the negotiating table and put an end the civil war.

Though Kristof’s heart is in the right place, all of these suggestions – as well as the other, more interventionist recommendations made by many over the past several years – gloss over the obstacles to successful intervention. Obama’s more cautious approach implicitly acknowledges the reality of the situation in Syria as it stands today.

Most fundamentally, the political interests of those engaged in the civil war far outweigh America’s humanitarian interests in Syria. Calling Syria ‘Obama’s mistake’ both misdirects moral responsibility for the conflict and obscures the fact that the combatants are far more motivated than the United States. Both the Assad regime and the rebels have suffered incredible losses; all sides are clearly in it for the long haul.

Against such motivation the United States can certainly bring overwhelming military force. But as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq, military superiority does not always translate to peace and stability. More American intervention in Syria is thus unlikely to change the calculus of those fighting for the future of their country. In the end, Syrians’ stomachs for taking casualties to control their own future will prove stronger than America’s stomach for taking casualties to prevent Syrians from dying.

Kristof also imagines that military humanitarian intervention on such a scale can be precise and limited. It cannot. The effort to exert control over events in Syria would lead inexorably to ownership of the broader conflict. This would lead to a massive and open-ended American commitment to Syria. It would also lead those currently fighting each other in Syria to find it increasingly necessary and useful to fight the United States – witness the attacks already conducted by the Islamic State and its supporters in Europe and the United States in response to Western engagement in Syria and Iraq.

Stop Treating South Korea Like a Helpless Dependent

Despite the success of America’s post-World War II policy, its advocates act as if it is an abysmal failure. No matter that the ROK took advantage of Washington’s defense shield to develop into one of the world’s most important, largest, and advanced economies. The U.S. must continue to protect the South from the latter’s decrepit northern neighbor.

For instance, analyst Khang Vu offers no argument that South Korea is vital for America. He refers to another Korean war posing “an adverse prospect for future U.S. administrations.”