Trump opposed Iraq. Hillary voted for war: Let's take his foreign policy vision seriously

Trump gets some things very wrong. But today's speech was still daring, spot on and important contrast with Hillary

Published April 27, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up after giving a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Trump's highly anticipated foreign policy speech Wednesday will test whether the Republican presidential front-runner, known for his raucous rallies and eyebrow-raising statements, can present a more presidential persona as he works to unite the GOP establishment behind him. (AP Photo/) (AP/Evan Vucci)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up after giving a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Trump's highly anticipated foreign policy speech Wednesday will test whether the Republican presidential front-runner, known for his raucous rallies and eyebrow-raising statements, can present a more presidential persona as he works to unite the GOP establishment behind him. (AP Photo/) (AP/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump on foreign policy. You start out thinking this is going to be roughly akin to George W. discoursing on, say, phenomenology or that Camus novel his handlers made him pretend to be reading one summer when the world was waking up to how stupid Bush II actually was. Hopelessly silly, an adventure in buffoonery.

I think we need to think again. I urge everyone to watch Trump as he delivered his big foreign policy banana Tuesday at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. I am not a Trump man by any stretch, and I will not pretend to assign percentages to what Trump got right and what wrong. Only this for now: What he gets wrong he gets very wrong, while what he gets right he gets stunningly, pithily right. It is not a combination destined to prove at all workable. But in a single morning he has made himself worth listening to, from whatever distance one may choose.

The semiology Tuesday was clear and ought not be missed. A few blocks from the White House, the Mayflower has been associated with presidential politics for nearly a century. Coolidge spoke there; FDR stayed there before one of his inaugurations. More curiously, Judith Exner and Monica Lewinsky also found the Mayflower a convenient billet during the Kennedy and Clinton years respectively. The place lends political weight to the occasions it hosts.

The speech is on a YouTube feed here. The transcript, courtesy of Time, is here.

I do not know how long earlier it was planned, but it came a day after Trump swept five Republican primaries and now stands just short of certain to have enough delegates to avoid a contested GOP convention in Cleveland. And it was sponsored by The National Interest, the hawkishly conservative bimonthly founded by Irving Kristol in the 1980s and associated with the right-wing “realist” school. The realists have been among those quaking as Trump and the other Republican presidential aspirants have espoused something other than realistic foreign policy agendas.

Before taking up Trump’s remarks, this background is worth considering in itself. It suggests that elite party cliques and those known as Republican intellectuals—is this an oxymoron?—may be preparing to face the inevitable, avoid an internal coup in Cleveland and line up behind The Donald. It is worth taking note. David Brooks, Ross Douthat and these sorts of people may have to go quiet and eat some humble pie—which they will do in private while they bend their thinking to match the new orthodoxy, should one emerge along these lines.

As to Trump’s presentation, we have what it is and what it is not. It is interesting in both respects, but more the former than the latter.

It is not, to begin backwards, an accurate depiction of the world as it lies beyond our shores or America’s place in it. Neither did Trump describe foreign policy under Obama and before him the Clintons (President Bill, Secretary of State Hillary) with any sophistication. He displayed no knowingness in these respects. He is the novice in the foreign policy sphere that most people who have given the matter any thought have taken him to be all along.

“Our rivals no longer respect us,” Trump said at one point. In fact they’re just as confused as our allies, but an even bigger problem is they don’t take us seriously anymore. The truth is they don’t respect us.”

No, Donald. Our rivals think we are reckless but respect us the way one respects what is fearful. The word you are looking for is "admiration," and you can forget about that across the board. And our allies are not confused: They know the score perfectly well. It is only we Americans who find our conduct abroad confusing.”And later: “America is going to be strong again. American is going to be reliable again. It’s going to be a great and reliable ally again. It’s going to be a friend again. We’re going to finally have a coherent foreign policy….”

No, Donald. Drop the nostalgia because there is no going back. You have to distinguish between a strong nation and one that is merely powerful. We are the latter, not the former. And our foreign policy is perfectly coherent: It is only that its purposes cannot be articulated to a democratically minded people whose ignorance of our conduct abroad is essential to sustaining it.

“I want to talk today about how to develop a new foreign policy for this country,” Trump began. It was an excellent opener. One can think of few things this country needs more urgently. When was the last time you heard any presidential candidate—or a sitting president or anyone else holding high office, for that matter—even raise the thought of a new foreign policy?

But the blur begins in the second half of the very same sentence: “… one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, chaos with peace.”

No twice more, Donald. One, there is nothing random and all too much purpose in the policy framework that has prevailed since global domination passed from an implicit to an explicit objective in the early years of this century. Two, ideology and strategy do not self-cancel: The former underwrites the latter.

But then three, something else: Trump may hardly yet grasp how right he was in suggesting that the cliques now making policy find chaos more useful than peace in any number of contexts. (If I start naming them I will not know when to stop.) The tradition of fomenting disorder, indeed, runs back as long as the American Century, a thread in the weave from the first.

All this is to say Trump has an underdeveloped framework. He likes nomenclature: He calls policies or the people who devise them derogatory names without thinking through what the names mean or what names would be more accurate. See above. This produces positions—a wall on the border with Mexico, a ban on all Muslims entering the country—that are so impractical as to offend (as sociology, let’s say) without worrying (as potential policy). They can never be put into practice.

My take on this point: If Trump finishes in Cleveland as the GOP candidate, he will spend a long time listening to lectures from emeritus wise men such as James Baker or his still-active successors. It will be a process of vetting. Or maybe house-breaking. To risk a prediction, by November 8 Trump will be marginally more worrisome than Hillary Clinton on the foreign policy side, and in some cases—his call for a rethink of NATO, for instance—less so.

Now, I am having a hard time with this next sentence, so please bear with me.

When Trump ticks off specific policies, as he did Tuesday, in some cases for the first time, he can be positively a relief from the fearsome prospect of four years of Clintonism. (And to risk another prediction, Clinton will barely survive one term, let alone win re-election for a second.) The speech is rich with examples, so I will settle on three for now as it is likely there will be more to say about Trump’s foreign policy thinking. (“Trump’s foreign policy thinking.” Never imagined I would write such a phrase.)

Here he is on Russia, an especially stark example given the prevailing state of relations. (He lumps the Russians in with the Chinese. See what I mean about blur?)

“We are not bound to be adversaries,” says Trump. “We should seek common ground based on shared interests. This horrible cycle of hostility has to end.”

Were I a younger man I would say something like, “Dude. Like totally cool.” Instead—another sentence I will take a sec to brace for—I am thoroughly in agreement with Trump on this point and think he should hit Hillary “I Urged Him to Bomb” Clinton over the head with it every chance he may get. As noted in a previous column, Trump prefers making deals to force. Implicit in the preference is a recognition of alternative perspectives and interests, which I count essential equipment in the 21st century.

It is past time, to make a broader point, that one can dismiss all Trump says simply because it is Trump saying it.

On the Middle East, a straight-ahead swing at the Obama administration’s habit of arming the very people we purport to oppose: “We need to be clear sighted about the groups that will never be anything other than enemies. And believe me, we have groups that no matter what you do, they will be the enemy. We have to be smart enough to recognize who those groups are, who those people are, and not help them.”

On strategy and tactics: “War and aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy.”

If you do not accept that Trump gives us things to think about in assertions such as these, I wonder what you may mean by thinking. Be as surprised and feel as intellectually awkward as you like, but think it through. Tip: Start by detaching thoughts from names and associations. At least in this case it is the song, not the singer.

I find an import in Trump’s speech that runs deeper than any specific policy proposal he advanced. Trump is far outside the Beltway. He is an exceptionalist, yes, but he does not drink the Kool-Aid that runs from faucets in Washington. He is not beholden. And in consequence, in his first serious foray into the foreign policy space he is taking on the cliques in gladiatorial style.

The revived confrontation with Russia is bedrock in the current policy framework, an article of faith. “Military preponderance” has been an American objective since Brzezinski declared it so in his later years as Carter’s national security adviser. Force or the threat of it as the starting point of any policy has been catechism for a longer period. “Diplomacy is for weak nations. The strong have no need for it,” Boutros-Ghali wrote plaintively after the Americans shoved him out as secretary-general at the U.N. Most people in Washington would probably agree forthrightly.

The policy cliques and their clerks filling the opinion pages, then, are likely to cream Trump in coming days. He is belching in their chapel. But against them may stand—all hypothetical at this point—the GOP’s elders and all those taken up with policy and presidential power as against policy. They seem to think it is time to get the Donald inside the tent so he can urinate out, rather than the other way around.

It will be interesting to watch. Trump more or less guaranteed this when he landed on on the cliques themselves. “We have to look to new people,” he said toward the end, “because many of the old people frankly don’t know what they’re doing, even though they may look good writing in the New York Times or being watched on television.”

Watching Donald Trump himself will be interesting, too. Whatever one may think of him, he has always been his own man. It is part of his draw among those who support him: He acts out what they cannot, by and large. But what will become of The Donald now. Is that a waiter approaching with a glass of Kool-Aid? And will he drink it?

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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