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Five takeaways from Donald Trump’s jeremiad on U.S. foreign policy

He relies mostly on the standard Republican creed that everything was going great until President Obama screwed it up.

Donald Trump delivering a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Jim Bourg

This is what I learned Wednesday watching Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump lay out his foreign policy vision at a meeting of the Center for the National Interest. The Center is a right-leaning group that calls itself “America’s voice for strategic realism.” It has deep ties to the Republican establishment, especially its neoconservative wing. The Center’s honorary chair is Henry Kissinger. Trump was introduced by Zalmay Khalilzad, a high-ranking diplomat of the George W. Bush administration who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, then Iraq, then the United Nations.

Trump’s talk was organized around five numbered descriptions of problems faced by U.S. foreign and national security policies. Actually, “problems” is a weak word to describe the situation that Trump suggests faces the next president. What he actually said was:

“Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster. No vision, no purpose, no direction, no strategy.”

He later labeled the legacy of  “the Obama-Clinton foreign policy [as] weakness, confusion, and disarray.”

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I’m not sure he’s used this Ted Cruz trope before, but Trump also faulted President Obama, as Cruz has incessantly, for his unwillingness to label the root of the threat to U.S. interests in the Islamic world as “radical Islam.” (For Cruz, actually, it’s “radical Islamic terrorism.”)

But Trump did kick off his jeremiad with discussion of five problem areas. Here are the five, all direct quotes from the prepared text, which Trump followed pretty faithfully:

“First, our resources are overextended. Secondly, our allies are not paying their fair share. Thirdly, our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us. Fourth, our rivals no longer respect us. Finally, America no longer has a clear understanding of our foreign policy goals.”

You may not like them. You may not agree with them. But at least those are five coherent thoughts, if Trump can back them up and, even more ambitious, back that set of problems up by understandable ideas for addressing them. On that score, Trump’s talk is more hit-and-miss-and-miss. He relies mostly on the standard Republican creed that everything was going great until Obama screwed it up. But, because Trump actually gave a real speech with facts and arguments, I’m trying to take it seriously.

Here are my takeaways from his speech in five numbered sections:

No. 1

When Donald Trump reads off a teleprompter a speech that has been professionally written he seems much more normal. The sentences have subjects and predicates and other grammatical niceties. He seldom backs up to change what he just said, or say it over only more offensively. He’s almost polite. He seems much more like a normal presidential candidate; in fact, this is a lot of what they mean when they talk about being “presidential.”

The other day, in one of his more typical ad lib presentations, he said he could, if he wanted to, be so presidential that everyone would be bored stiff. This is what he meant. This speech would be fairly boring if not for the fact that it was being given by Trump, who must now be seriously viewed as a potential future president, whose foreign policy ruminations until now have mostly been incoherent. This talk bordered on coherence, especially graded on the curve of Trump’s foreign policy expressions to date.

No. 2

The problems as presented are coherent. And conveniently for Trump, they are all the fault of Obama. The president is mentioned by name 11 times, all attached to caricaturish description of his many, many failures. Hillary Clinton is mentioned six times, all blaming her singly or jointly with Obama, for problems they created for America. The name George Bush is not mentioned, which is not to say that former President George W. Bush is held blameless — Trump specifies that he, Trump, “was totally against the war in Iraq,” which he blames for destabilizing the Mideast. That war occurred under the leadership of Bush, but in order to prove his newfound Republican bona fides, Trump kept Bush’s name out of the blamefest for the mess Trump hopes to inherit as the next president.

This was even more blatant in the section in which Trump alleged that “President Obama has weakened our military by weakening our economy.” By any traditional measure, the United States has grown stronger since Obama inherited the devastating collapse left behind by his predecessor, who shall remain nameless.

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Before leaving this topic, and taking into account that Trump’s pet name for his chief remaining rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, is “lyin’ Ted,” Trump has been lying, consistently and shamelessly, about his claim to have opposed the war in Iraq. He did not. An exhaustive search of his public statements before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq finds one in which he said he “guessed” he favored it, and one in which he took no position but said President Bush was “doing a very good job” on the issue. The war started in March of 2003, and for the rest of that year, Trump expressed some concerns about how the war was going but never once came anywhere close to saying that he opposed the decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

No. 3

If, as I suggested above, Trump’s talk was hosted by a neocon-dominated think tank, he did not shy away from criticizing that foreign policy movement which goaded the country into the Iraq War, in part on the suggestion that Iraq would be turned into a model Arab democracy from which the good example of democratizing would spread across the region.

Au contraire, Trump said, the mess that now exists in the Mideast “all began with the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western Democracy. We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism; thousands of American lives, and many trillions of dollars, were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill the void, much to their unjust enrichment.”

No. 4

Trump did not repeat his recent statement that the NATO alliance was “obsolete.” But he did complain that most NATO-member countries are playing America for suckers. There is an understanding that all members should spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, but, Trump said, only four of the 28 meet that requirement. Trump said that if those countries continue to shirk their burden-sharing obligations, “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”

Personally, it strikes me as reasonable for Washington to pressure the NATO partners to pay their share, but a flat policy of kicking them out of the alliance if they do not, even if they cannot, is simplistic. Of course, Trump did not rule out more detailed discussions of what an underfunded partner might be allowed to do before being expelled.

No. 5

More than any presidential candidate, Trump sees the job as negotiator-in-chief. He sees the world largely through the prism of “the deal.” I’m in no position to judge, but I don’t doubt that Trump is good at making business deals. The question of how this skill translates into the job he now seeks is murky to me, although I don’t doubt that deal-making comes into it.

In his speech Wednesday, Trump disparaged Obama’s negotiating skills, with the key example being the deal with Iran to end their pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Like most Republicans, Trump thinks Obama’s team in that negotiation got snookered because they don’t know how to negotiate. He said: “In negotiations, you must be willing to walk. The Iran deal, like so many of our worst agreements, is the result of not being willing to leave the table. When the other side knows you’re not going to walk, it becomes absolutely impossible to win.”

Other thoughts

After describing the five foreign policy challenges that face America, Trump talked about other aspects of his thinking. Strangely, given the centrality of the Mexican border and his plan to build a wall to stop illegal immigration, he never mentioned Mexico or that issue in this, his major foreign policy speech of the campaign so far. Perhaps he doesn’t think of it as a foreign policy issue, or perhaps he is shifting to a general-election strategy in which his tough line on undocumented migrants will be unhelpful.

Trump also suggested that the Obama-Clinton team have subordinated the interests of the United States to other priorities, like the good of the world in general. It was a recurring theme of the speech that he will put America first in all things. (He actually used the term “America First” — as in, “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration” — although the term has some unsavory historical associations in some quarters as the name of a lobby and later a political party that opposed U.S. entry into World War II. That wasn’t how Trump meant it. He said:

“Americans must know that we are putting the American people first again. On trade, on immigration, on foreign policy — the jobs, incomes and security of the American worker will always be my first priority.

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“No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first. Both our friends and enemies put their countries above ours and we, while being fair to them, must do the same.

“We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism.”

Here’s a link to the full text of Trump’s remarks, as prepared for delivery.