If you’ve followed Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, you will undoubtedly be aware that a significant piece of his campaign pitch revolves around his claim that President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have presided over a shambolic international policy that has left the United States weak and powerless in the world.
It is undoubtedly the case that Hillary Clinton has been on the wrong side of a great many debates on international and national security policy. Her predilection for aggression and for ill-conceived intervention is shared by most of the national security establishment, and particularly by the Republican Party. She was a poor choice to bear the Democratic Party’s standard, but represents less of a danger than the alternative, as the analysis below illustrates.
President Obama has steered the U.S. through one of the most dangerous periods of its recent history, avoiding the first very real possibilities of entanglements in wars with major global and regional powers that the U.S. has faced since the end of the Cold War.
That the U.S. is not involved in a shooting war with Russia in Ukraine, and in a full-fledged war involving Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Britain in Syria is a testament to the President’s cool head and refusal to embrace the jingoistic hysteria of neo-conservatives. This is hardly a blanket endorsement of the foreign policy of a president who has embraced barbaric tools offered him by an overmighty security state.
But the fact is, his Republican predecessor launched a war of aggression against the advice of Western intelligence experts who warned that such a war in Iraq would lead to the proliferation of international terrorism and lead to a sectarian civil war in the country.
Not only was the war undertaken on the basis of lies told by the Vice President, distortions rammed through the UN by the Secretary of State, and blithe dismissals of critics by the President. It was undertaken without any notion that the exercise of massive, violent, destructive military power needed to be accompanied by planning for the post-war. It was a war that was morally wrong, strategically stupid, and abysmally executed.
Just to be very clear: a Republican administration lied about connections between a dictator and terrorists, cooked up intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, and ignored warnings that a war would make Americans less safe rather than more safe.
The result was a lengthy conflict that plunged our country into debt, led to the deaths and woundings of thousands of American soldiers, and sparked a sectarian war. The institutional void this war created led to the empowerment and spread of international terrorists who threaten the existence of states in the region and the lives of citizens in the U.S. and Europe. The conflict critically weakened the U.S. in the international sphere, and threatened in recent years to draw in the U.S. into wars involving regional powers (Iran) and global powers (Russia).
We should be grateful that the President avoided such conflicts, and resisted efforts for the U.S. to take a more inflammatory position in both Ukraine and Syria. I can well imagine that a President Trump, who flies off the handle over unfavorable media coverage, might have failed to resist efforts to draw the U.S. into war.
But back to Trump’s claims about the disastrous nature of recent U.S. foreign policy. If we can accept the reality that the President has avoided some potentially disastrous moments in trying to clean up after the damage wrought our country and the world by the Bush administration, we should acknowledge that one real test of Trump’s judgment--in the total absence of policymaking on his resume--is evaluating the kind of decision he might have made in 2002-3.
This takes us to Trump’s central big claim about foreign policy: namely, that he consistently opposed the war in Iraq. This is meant to create a contrast with Hillary Clinton, and Trump repeats this claim at every opportunity.
The problem with this claim, as with so much of what Trump says, is that it is untrue.
It is true that as things began to go sour with out war on Iraq, Trump joined a host of other opportunists--Hillary Clinton among them--in criticizing the conduct if not always the rationale for the war. But at key moments in the run-up to the war--i.e. at those moments when as President, Trump would have been making big calls--Trump is on record having supported it.
But let us be far more generous toward Trump than evidence demands or than he is to his opponents. Let’s say that we acknowledge his mangled claim to have opposed a disastrous war with its disastrous consequences. In order to assess whether this half-hearted opposition after the fact is really indicative of good judgment, we would then have to see how Trump behaves when confronted with other, similar situations.
When it comes to the decision to intervene in Libya--another intervention that caused the proliferation of terrorism, destabilization, and crises in neighboring states--Trump once again claims to have opposed intervention. This is a bald-faced lie.
At a recent forum that featured both Clinton and Trump, the former committed not to embroiling U.S. soldiers in a new war in Iraq, whereas Trump suggested he would be prepared to launch a conflict using small numbers of ground troops to secure and hold access to oil sources in Iraq.
This demonstrates that even if we take the wriggling fascist at his weasel-like word and believe that he opposed the war in Iraq in 2003, he is still demonstrating his inability to learn from that conflict. Not only in a military sense--Rumsfeld and the neo-cons also sent an absurdly small and under-equipped force into a maelstrom of their own making. Also in a geopolitical sense--regime-change, aggressive war, and historical and political ignorance seldom yield good results.
-Donald Trump did not really oppose the war in Iraq at the crucial point when it was being debated, but instead piled on the band-wagon of opposition as it became clear to even obtuse believers that the ill-conceived war was going wrong.
-Donald Trump did not oppose the war in Libya, undertaken in a more limited fashion but in a broadly similar set of circumstances (from an American perspective).
-Now Donald Trump proposes to embroil the U.S. in a new war in Iraq, and suggests that we undertake the war in question in a manner calculated to fail and with the full knowledge that such a unilateral invasion to extract resources is guaranteed to backfire spectacularly.
Even leaving aside Trump’s fascism, he is a candidate who supported the disastrous war that our President opposed and sought to extricate us from. He now supports renewing the war in question. Trump is someone who possesses little knowledge of the world and--perhaps because of his patrician, insulated upbringing--little idea about the consequences of his actions.
Anyone who thinks that this man has what it takes to navigate the geopolitical challenges of our era needs to reacquaint themselves with reality, and with the big stakes associated with it.