It was a strange sight to be marveled at and remembered in amazement. Donald Trump addressing the foreign policy establishment in Washington, reading from a prepared but meandering speech, obviously written by a committee of advisors. The man who mocked President Obama for delivering his speeches by reading them with the help of a teleprompter, stood behind a teleprompter, and was ill at ease reading for 40 minutes without wildly gesticulating, or making exaggerated poses, and refraining from hurling insults at large groups of people.
The man who personifies anti-intellectualism was talking to the scholars, journalists, and pundits he usually revels in denigrating them. This was part of a long held tradition in presidential campaigns; every candidate has to deliver a ‘major’ foreign policy address to establish his knowledge of world affairs and his understanding of the complex national security challenges he is likely to face as a president. But the presidential veneer did not hide the real Donald Trump who gave us an incoherent collage of inconsistencies, superficial slogans, dangerous and simplistic solutions to complex issues, misstatements, and downright falsehoods.
The speech betrayed a shocking ignorance of the intricacies of the international system that the U.S created after WWII and the new European dynamics that emerged after the end of the Cold War. In Trump’s world, globalization is seen only as a negative force, and not as the engine of growth that the US ushered in, and mega deals can be struck with Russia and China regardless of their belligerent behavior, and alliances should be based solely on transactional and not value-based considerations, and autocratic regimes can be tolerated if they are good business partners, regardless of what they do to their citizens. He naively believes that the US has already surrendered to the ‘false song of globalism’, as if globalization could have been conceived without America at its core.
Trump chastised America’s allies supposedly because they are not paying enough for American protection, while he showed deference to America’s adversaries. Trump probably did not know that the major theme of his speech ‘America First’ is a slogan with an ominous history. In the 1930’s and early 1940’s, ‘America First’ was the name of an isolationist movement that did not want to help England and the other European countries fighting Nazism and Fascism.
Pity these strange American times, when the presumptive nominee of a major political party after delivering such a hollow speech, is given a cover of legitimacy by the likes of Republican senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who described the speech as ‘very thoughtful’ and praised the candidate for 'challenging the foreign policy establishment.’ Jacob Heilbrunn the editor of the National Interest Magazine which hosted Trump extolled the candidate because he ‘was quite disciplined’ and ‘more retrained’.
A toxic brew of distrust, ignorance and isolationism
To claim a presidential posture and a more disciplined and restrained temperament, Trump’s aides must have advised him to sound less nativist and to drop any explicit references to his most toxic and outrageous proposals that have become the staple of his public rants and stump speeches.
Trump did not back away from his well-known Catechism of bigotry and hatreds; he just simply alluded implicitly to some of them. He did not back away from his outlandish proposals to build a wall with Mexico, or to deport undocumented immigrants, or to bar Muslims from entering the United States, including refugees fleeing war zones, but he nonetheless made sure that we understood where he really stand when he said ‘We must stop importing extremism through senseless immigration policies... A pause for re-assessment will help us prevent the next San Bernardino.’
The America that Trump wants to revive is a power that is unto itself, unwilling to be magnanimous, or benevolent, while at the same time serves and protects its interests as a sovereign nationHisham Melhem
Trump wants to work ‘very closely with our allies in the Muslim world, all of which are at risk from radical Islamic violence’, but he does not tell us how he will reconcile this approach with his wholesale discrimination against Muslims
Trump did not repeat his previous threat to walk out of NATO, but his core message remained the same; if he is elected he will call for summits with NATO and Asian allies for the ‘rebalancing of financial commitments’, a euphemism for pony up, or the US will abandon you, to your own devices. Trump assumes that many NATO members are free riders. He wants to restructure NATO, assuming that members increase their military budgets, to combat ‘Islamic terrorism’. The US has been calling on NATO members to honor their required 2 percent of GDP expenditure on defense. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates has shamed them publicly to do so. As to fighting terrorism, the NATO involvement in Afghanistan was precisely to combat al Qaeda. In his speech and in previous statements and interviews Trump was tougher on America’s strategic allies in Europe and Asia, while conciliatory towards Russia, vowing to end ‘this terrible cycle of hostility’ with Russia, as if the United States is in the main responsible for it. Trump threatens to abandon America’s old allies; while in the same breadth excoriates President Obama for allegedly picking up ‘fights with our oldest friends’ while ‘bowing ‘to our enemies’. When Trump says that America’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been ‘incoherent’, describing it as a ‘complete and total disaster…No vision. No purpose. No direction. No strategy’, he is in fact indicting all past American presidents, Republicans and Democrats.
The unpredictable leader
Trump correctly criticizes George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and Obama’s line in the sand in Syria, and the nuclear deal with Iran, but he does not address what he will do to stop Iraq’s and Syria’s slide towards greater fragmentation. On Iran he repeats that he will not allow it to obtain a nuclear device, but there is no mention of Iran’s destructive behavior in Iraq or Syria. He criticizes the administration’s poorly thought out military intervention in Libya, but he loses the big picture by sticking to the canard that then secretary of state Hillary Clinton ‘misled the nation’ regarding the killing of ambassador Christopher Stevens and his three colleagues.
Then he falsely claims that ‘ISIS is making millions and millions of dollars a week selling Libyan oil’. But, Trump has a simple message to deliver to ISIS: ‘their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must as a nation be more unpredictable.’ Trump is telling us he has a secret plan to get rid of ISIS ‘very quickly’. In 1968, candidate Richard Nixon allowed the notion that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam quickly to take hold, a notion that may have helped Nixon win the presidency. Now we call it Nixon's secret plan that never was. Trump is pulling a Nixon.
Trump has a final not so subtle message to the peoples of the Middle East: ‘our goals must be, and I mean must be, to defeat terrorists and promote regional stability, not radical change.’ In other words if autocrats and tyrants maintain stability and are willing to engage us in profitable business, we will not strenuously object to how they practice governance. However, the only time the US pushed hard for radical change in a given Arab country was the disastrous invasion of Iraq. For years and decades American administrations, tolerated and helped maintain the kind of stability in the Arab world that can best be called the stability of cemeteries.
The America that Trump wants to revive is a power that is unto itself, unwilling to be magnanimous, or benevolent, while at the same time serves and protects its interests as a sovereign nation. This America would not have gotten involved in Europe’s wars, or to save it from all the destructive ideologies of the 20th century; Communism, and Fascism, or rebuilding the destroyed continent through the Marshal Plan, one of the 20th century’s best examples of enlightened self-interest. Trump’s America would be parochial and not imaginative or perceptive enough to create the international institutions that helped it become the greatest power in modern times; the NATO alliance, the United Nations, the World bank and the International Monetary Fund. Trump’s America would not have created the Peace Corp, or invested enough resources to help the societies of Eastern Europe in their struggle against communism and the Soviet Empire.
Trump’s America would not have gotten involved in saving Kuwait from the deadly embrace of Saddam Hussein, or protecting the Kurds from his chemical weapons. Trump surely would not have intervened to stop the mass killings of the mostly Muslim civilians in the Balkans in the 1990’s, the first such killings of civilians in Europe since Nazi Germany’s savage war on European Jewry, particularly since America had no strategic or economic interests in Bosnia or Kosovo. Trump’s selfish America would not have dispatched three thousand American soldiers to West Africa to contain the spread of the Ebola virus.
America’s disastrous military blunders in countries like Vietnam and Iraq, and its other costly interventions and missteps do not justify a new retrenchment in the name of an ill-conceived concept of national self-interest. For all of its flaws, American leadership –when it is practiced wisely and firmly- is still indispensable in a rapidly changing world. Much has been written about the reasons that make Trump’s themes and schemes resonate with many electorates, such as the economic dislocation of many Americans in recent decades, the demographic changes that are unsettling to some social strata, the flight of American jobs overseas, the costs of the still raging two longest wars in the nation’s history, and the dysfunctions of the two party system and the entrenched professional political class in Washington.
But Americans should not succumb to the dangerous sirens of nativism, and the politics of fear and the demonization of immigrants and Muslims. It is not enough for Trump’s opponents be they Republicans or Democrats to point out his inconsistencies and inaccuracies or debunk his dangerous proposals; it is imperative that they try to offer viable approaches and alternatives to address the legitimate concerns and fears of his supporters. This is a hinge struggle; for the stakes are high, not only for America but for the world.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem