Americas

The Bloom is Officially Off the Trump Foreign Policy Rose


A little over a year ago, then presidential candidate Donald J. Trump laid out his foreign policy ideology in the New York Times. Trump noted that he was open to rethinking the United States’ relationship to other countries, and, although “not an isolationist,” was decidedly “America first.” The most notable thing about Trump’s early foreign policy moves a little over two months into his first term, however, is how quickly Trump foreign policy supporters have become dissatisfied with their chosen standard bearer. Entering his third month in office, the Trump administration has presided over global escalation in military operations—most notably in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia—stage managed a distinct chill in German-American relations, and stumbled over U.S. strategic posture in East Asia. Such missteps have, understandably, not gone unnoticed.

Image courtesy of James Mattis, © 2017.

Take, for instance, the garment rending by self-appointed Trump foreign policy prophet Doug Bandow. A senior fellow at the Cato Institute and one of the most vociferous backers of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy amongst D.C. pundits, Bandow decried Trump’s abandonment of the foreign policy tenets that, in his view, boosted Trump to victory last November. Although acknowledging that “substantively candidate Trump appeared to offer not so much a philosophy as an inclination,” Bandow remains concerned that “so far the Trump administration is shaping up as a disappointment for those who hoped for a break from the liberal interventionist/neoconservative synthesis.”

Among Trump’s many missteps, Bandow believes that his unwillingness to staff the White House with non-traditional foreign policy thinkers and inability to focus on one policy issue long enough to achieve real change—instead being “ready to treat minor concessions as major victories and move on”—have hamstrung true foreign policy innovation. As a result, “The American people, having voted against the promiscuous military intervention of Trump’s predecessors, may well end up with more of the same foreign policy.”

There are too many logical flaws with Bandow’s analysis to detail them at any length, including the preposterous notion, likely shared only by international relations scholar Randall Schweller if at all, that Trump voters were primarily motivated by an aversion to foreign policy interventionism. It is well known that voters are woefully uninformed about foreign policy minutiae and it rarely factors into their voting calculus. More revealing than his analytic shortcomings, though, is Bandow’s transparent angst that he may have unknowingly hitched himself—and by extension his ideas—to an all-time lemon of a presidency.

Trump’s erratic foreign policy execution is unsurprising for more detached Trump observers who, unlike Bandow and others of his ilk that grabbed the thin straw of relevance that Trump’s candidacy offered, were not blinded by personal or professional opportunism and greed. Candidate Trump was a pathological liar who demonstrated an equal distaste for policy consistency as he did facts. Why would President Trump be any different?

While Bandow’s opportunistic fears are noteworthy for their feverishness, it is important to recognize that worry has set in for more level-headed analysts as well. Given the level of vitriol directed at Trump and his nascent administration in the immediate aftermath of the election, Trump supporters have argued, understandably if not necessarily correctly in my opinion, that critics should give him and his advisors the opportunity to demonstrate competence rather than assuming incompetence. With early dismal reviews of Trump and his department heads, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, trickling in, however, the patience of the D.C. elite may soon prove to be overstretched.

The willingness of Bandow and other Trump allies to pull the fire alarm on the Trump presidency so soon may only reveal the opportunistic roots and fickle nature of their allegiance. Still, given the fervor with which some, President Trump included, have hyped the abilities of the current administration to bring about transcendent political, social, and economic change, means that the sour taste of unmet expectations will spread quickly and sharply.

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