The point of a "major foreign policy address" is for a presidential candidate, who typically lacks foreign policy experience, to show that he or she is in the process of learning and capable of learning more in the future. Any president, after all, relies heavily on staff. It’s no shame not to know everything, but you have to show that you know you don't know everything and are going to work with others to fill in the gaps.
On this score, Donald Trump’s speech this afternoon failed utterly. The bulk of it was dedicated to demagoguery, xenophobia, and bizarre lies about status quo immigration policy in the United States and Hillary Clinton’s proposals for gun regulation.
But the brief section — amounting to just over 150 words — in which Trump did talk about foreign policy as such was a mess. Over the course of seven sentences, Trump managed to contradict himself, distort his own record of statements on the relevant issues, and undermine the key policy plank — a ban on Muslims entering the United States — on which he’s built his entire national security agenda.
An effective president needs ideas that make sense, and he needs a team full of people who know more than he does about specifics and whom he trusts to stand up to him and steer him in the right direction. After hearing Trump’s speech on Monday, it’s clear that Trump has none of that and no interest in developing any of it.
Trump’s foreign policy: less nation building but also more
To a casual observer, Trump is pushing a doctrine of non-intervention and calling for a refocus of American foreign policy toward a simple goal: "defeat Islamic terrorism, not nation building."
But read that line in the full context (it’s brief, I promise you), and you see that Trump’s case on foreign policy is not much more than a remarkable mishmash of incoherence.
Here he is in full:
It also means we must change our foreign policy.
The decision to overthrow the regime in Libya, then pushing for the overthrow of the regime in Syria, among other things, without plans for the day after, have created space for ISIS to expand and grow. These actions, along with our disastrous Iran deal, have also reduced our ability to work in partnership with our Muslim allies in the region.
That is why our new goal must be to defeat Islamic terrorism, not nation-building.
For instance, the last major NATO mission was Hillary Clinton's war in Libya. That mission helped unleash ISIS on a new continent.
I've said NATO needs to change its focus to stopping terrorism. Since I've raised that criticism, NATO has since announced a new initiative focused on just that. America must unite the whole civilized world in the fight against Islamic terrorism, just like we did against communism in the Cold War.
For such a short statement, there is a remarkable amount here that is wrong.
- For starters, Trump supported the war in Libya even though he's spent the entire 2016 campaign pretending that he didn’t.
- The collapse of the Syrian state can’t be the fault of a US intervention to overthrow Assad, because we never mounted any such intervention.
- Trump, in the past, said the United States should intervene in Syria to create protected zones outside the authority of the Syrian government: "What I like is build a safe zone, it’s here, build a big, beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier."
- Trump criticizes military interventions conducted "without plans for the day after" but his signature idea for fighting ISIS is to "bomb the shit out of" them, which is not much of a day-after plan.
- For that matter, planning for the day after is also known as nation building but Trump says he’s against nation building.
- Trump criticizes the Iran deal on the grounds that America’s Persian Gulf allies didn’t like it, but Trump’s signature campaign proposal on terrorism is to ban all citizens from those countries from entering the United States, which they are really not going to like.
- Last but by no means least, Trump’s habit of insisting that every US military alliance — from NATO to our defense treaties with Japan and South Korea — should be scrutinized in narrow financial terms is the exact opposite of replicating the Cold War strategy to unite the civilized world.
The really scary thing is Trump doesn't care
Any candidate can say something that's wrong or doesn't make sense. At one point during a debate, Bernie Sanders referred to the late king of Jordan as if he were still alive.
Any candidate can have a blind spot or two on policy. Nobody knows everything about everything.
But an effective president needs a degree of humility. A president needs to work on weak spots and have the self-awareness to know what he or she doesn’t know. Humility is not exactly Trump’s strong suit. Trump claims to believe that he is personally responsible for NATO rolling out anti-terrorism ideas, and I believe him that he believes this.
And in delivering this speech — a rare prepared address with text emailed to journalists and read off a teleprompter — Trump is making clear that he has no interest in faking it. He wants to say what he wants to say, and he doesn’t care if people who know what they are talking about think it makes sense. He believes the moral of the 2016 primary campaign has been that the voters don't really care what experts and party elites think, and he may be right.
The problem for Trump — and for the country — is that reality does care.
- If Trump becomes president and seeks to bar Muslims from entering the United States, he is going to get less cooperation from Muslim allies, not more.
- If Trump becomes president and talks about welching on defense commitments to America’s longstanding treat allies, he is going to get less international counterterrorism work, not more.
- If Trump eschews nation building while bombing the shit out of countries, he is going to create more space for ISIS to expand and grow.
Running a major country is hard work. You need to know a lot to get the job done, and you also need to know what you don't know so you can work with other people to figure it out. Trump either doesn't realize this, doesn't care, or some combination of the two. It’s impossible to tell from his stated agenda what his foreign policy would actually look like, but it’s easy to see that it’s going to be a muddle driven by impulse and catchphrases, unguided by actual understanding or reliance on the support of anyone who has it.