Donald Trump was elected president on the strength of two campaign promises. He would end foolish wars and shrink our military footprint in the Middle East, preferring to police U.S. borders rather than the world. Now, leading 2020 Democratic contenders threaten to take these issues away from him.
President Trump campaigned on and has continued to advocate for more restrained foreign policy. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he declared in his State of the Union address. While many members of the president’s national security team are experienced and well credentialed, they are not the best people to implement the foreign policy vision that got Mr. Trump elected.
Mr. Trump proposed winding down America’s longest war in Afghanistan and ending a military intervention in Syria that wasn’t even authorized by Congress, as required by the U.S. Constitution. By all appearances, he has been slow-walked and undermined by his own appointees at every turn.
Michael Mulroy, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East, was quoted by a Kurdish news website as saying the United States is in Syria “for the long haul” and is “not in a bad situation” amid the foreign civil war. Just weeks after Mr. Trump publicly disclosed his plans, the RAND Corporation’s James Dobbins observed, “the Trump administration has begun to roll back the president’s announced pullout from Syria.” National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty describes “continued low-grade conflict between Trump and his advisers” over Syria withdrawal. A CNN headline said it all: “Confusion reigns over America’s impending pullout.”
At this point, it is fair to ask: What pullout?
Mr. Trump has picked advisers fundamentally at odds with the foreign policy vision he has laid out for the country. “Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years,” Mr. Trump said in the State of the Union. “In Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 7,000 American heroes have given their lives. More than 52,000 Americans have been badly wounded. We have spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East.” He has also pursued diplomacy with North Korea.
National Security Adviser John Bolton called for preventive war against North Korea before assuming his current position in the Trump administration. He doesn’t want U.S. troops to leave Syria until the Iranians do, a prescription for a long-term military commitment. He has advocated military strikes against Iran. He was a major booster of the war in Iraq that Mr. Trump called “a big, fat mistake” on the eve of winning the South Carolina Republican primary.
Mr. Trump is also an Iran hawk, a fact that has led to some of the biggest departures from his “America First” foreign policy, which ostensibly explains his veto of a resolution that would have ended U.S. support for the war in Yemen (even though Iran’s role is limited). Despite a series of such moves, Mr. Trump has been hesitant to pursue Iraq-style regime change against Tehran. “We’re careful not to use the language of regime change,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently, according to Axios, stating the administration opposed military intervention in Iran. “Rand Paul has persuaded the president that we are not for regime change in Iran,” Politico quoted a Republican foreign policy expert close to the White House as saying last year.
A recent New Yorker profile highlights how much closer Mr. Bolton is to the policies of George W. Bush, which Mr. Trump forcefully rejected in 2016, even as Dick Cheney complains the current administration isn’t interventionist enough. It is hard to find a major official who isn’t closer to Mr. Cheney or Mr. Bush than Mr. Trump. Mr. Pompeo gets along better with the president than did former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but he is an interventionist. Longtime neoconservative stalwart Elliott Abrams has been pulled out of retirement to run the administration’s policy toward Venezuela as politicians Mr. Trump beat in the primaries cheer him on from the sidelines.
Personnel is policy, according to the old Washington truism. Without some people in place who share Mr. Trump’s basic premise that the United States should not be the policeman of the world or the globe’s military problem-solver of first resort, it will simply not become a reality. It is like asking supporters of open borders to build the wall or Planned Parenthood to come up with a list of judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade.
In his resignation letter, former Pentagon chief James Mattis told Mr. Trump he “had the right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned” with his own. So far, there is no sign he has gotten one — and the American people are paying attention.
• W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative and a senior adviser to Defense Priorities.
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