Hillary Clinton is, without a doubt, a hawkish Democrat. She has been consistently to the interventionist right of the party mainstream on issues like the Iraq War, the Afghanistan surge, and arming the Syrian rebels.
Donald Trump, by contrast, has criticized the Iraq War and the Libya intervention. He's been skeptical of America's commitments to defend traditional allies in Europe and East Asia, and said the Middle East in general is "one big, fat quagmire" that the US should stay out of.
This sure makes it sound like Trump is some kind of dovish neo-isolationist, a principled skeptic of military intervention. Clinton seems like a superhawk by contrast. Steve Schmidt, a prominent Republican strategist who ran John McCain's 2008 campaign, put this theory well during an MSNBC appearance in early May: "Donald Trump will be running to the left as we understand it against Hillary Clinton on national security issues."
But the problem is that the way "we understand" Trump's national security position is bollocks. Trump isn't a leftist, nor is he a pacifist. In fact, Trump is an ardent militarist, who has been proposing actual colonial wars of conquest for years. It's a kind of nationalist hawkishness that we haven't seen much of in the United States since the Cold War — but has supported some of the most aggressive uses of force in American history.
As surprising as it may seem, Clinton is actually the dove in this race.
Trump wants to start wars for oil — literally
In the past five years, Trump has consistently pushed one big foreign policy idea: America should steal other countries' oil.
He first debuted this plan in an April 2011 television appearance, amid speculation that he might run for the GOP nomination. In the interview, Trump seemed to suggest the US should seize Iraqi oil fields and just operate them on its own.
"In the old days when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country," Trump said. "We go fight a war for 10 years, 12 years, lose thousands of people, spend $1.5 trillion, and then we hand the keys over to people that hate us on some council." He has repeated this idea for years, saying during one 2013 Fox News appearance, "I’ve said it a thousand times."
Trump sees this as just compensation for invading Iraq in the first place. "I say we should take it [Iraq's oil] and pay ourselves back," he said in one 2013 speech.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump has gotten more specific about how exactly he'd "take" Iraq's oil. In a March interview with the Washington Post, he said he would "circle" the areas of Iraq that contain oil and defend them with American ground troops:
POST: How do you keep it without troops, how do you defend the oil?
TRUMP: You would... You would, well for that— for that, I would circle it. I would defend those areas.
POST: With U.S. troops?
TRUMP: Yeah, I would defend the areas with the oil.
After US troops seize the oil, Trump suggests, American companies would go in and rebuild the oil infrastructure damaged by bombing and then start pumping it on their own. "You’ll get Exxon to come in there … they’ll rebuild that sucker brand new. And I’ll take the oil," Trump said in a December stump speech.
Trump loves this idea so much that he'd apply it to Libya as well, telling Bill O'Reilly in April that he'd even send in US ground troops ("as few as possible") to fight off ISIS and secure the country's oil deposits.
To be clear: Trump's plan is to use American ground troops to forcibly seize the most valuable resource in two different sovereign countries. The word for that is colonialism.
Trump wants to wage war in the name of explicitly ransacking poorer countries for their natural resources — something that's far more militarily aggressive than anything Clinton has suggested.
This doesn't really track as "hawkishness" for most people, mostly because it's so outlandish. A policy of naked colonialism has been completely unacceptable in American public discourse for decades, so it seems hard to take Trump's proposals as seriously as, say, Clinton's support for intervening more forcefully in Syria.
Yet this is what Trump has been consistently advocating for for years. His position hasn't budged an inch, and he in fact appears to have doubled down on it during this campaign. This seems to be his sincere belief, inasmuch as we can tell when a politician is being sincere.
Trump's dovishness on Libya and Syria is also a myth
Now, you might say that this kind of hawkishness is offset by Trump's skepticism of wars launched by George Bush and Barack Obama. Maybe Trump would realize that his plans for stealing Iraqi and Libyan oil are beyond the pale once in office, and his more dovish instincts would come to the fore.
The problem is that Trump's instincts are not actually that dovish. Trump is selling a story of his own prescience about American military failure that we know, for a fact, is false. Indeed, he has a consistent pattern of saying things that sound skeptical of war, while actually endorsing fairly aggressive policies.
Sometimes this is a matter of outright lying. Throughout the campaign, Trump has trumpeted his opposition to the Libya war, telling Joe Scarborough on May 20 that it was a "disaster" and that "I would have stayed out of Libya."
Except that's not what he said at the time. In a March 2011 vlog post uncovered by BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski and Christopher Massie, Trump full-throatedly endorsed intervening in the country's civil war — albeit on humanitarian grounds, not for its oil.
"Qaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around," Trump said. "We should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it, and save these lives." In a later interview, he went further, endorsing outright regime change: "if you don’t get rid of Gaddafi, it’s a major, major black eye for this country."
Shortly after the US intervention in Libya began in March 2011, Trump criticized the Obama administration's approach — for not being aggressive enough. Trump warned that the US was too concerned with supporting the rebels and not trying hard enough to — you guessed it — take the oil.
"I would take the oil — and stop this baby stuff," Trump declared. "I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil. If we don’t take the oil, I’m not interested."
At no point did he express skepticism about Libya becoming a failed state or express concerns that military intervention hadn't been authorized by Congress. Trump's instincts on Libya were for war, full stop. His only criticism was that Obama wasn't selfish enough in how it was prosecuted.
Today, when it comes to Syria, Trump talks a lot about the risks of military intervention, whereas Clinton has played up our obligation to try to end the conflict. "I would have stayed out of Syria and wouldn’t have fought so much for Assad, against Assad," Trump said. "We’re supposed to fight ISIS, who is fighting Assad."
But the two of them support more or less the same military escalation in Syria. Both Clinton and Trump have proposed carving out "safe zones" in the country, which means clearing out a chunk of its territory and protecting it from aggressors.
Trump sees this as the answer to the Syrian refugee crisis — if you can keep the Syrians there, they won't have to come over here (or to Europe). "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," he said in a campaign appearance. "I mean, they’re gonna learn German, they’re gonna learn all these different languages. It’s ridiculous."
Similarly, both candidates have emphasized the need to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria — with Trump famously summarizing his policy as "bomb the shit out of" ISIS. But the way in which Trump plans to wage war on ISIS is far more aggressive — and illegal — than anything Clinton proposed.
One of Trump's signature proposals is targeting and killing the families of suspected ISIS fighters. "When you get these terrorists," Trump said in December, "you have to take out their families."
He also wants to bring back torture that's "much tougher" than waterboarding. "Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, okay? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work," he said at a November campaign event. But "if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing."
To be clear, both torture and the intentional killing of civilians are crimes under international and US law. Confusingly, Trump said in early March he would not order US military officers to disobey the law. But he subsequently suggested that he'd "like the law expanded" to permit torture.
So Trump has not only supported most of America's recent wars, he also wants to wage wars in a fashion that's far more violent than what Clinton — or most mainstream politicians — would countenance. There's just no evidence, when you look at actual policy positions rather than rhetoric, that Trump is inclined to be skeptical about using force in the midst of an international crisis.
The big Iraq War lie
One thing that Trump has used to build up his dove credibility, repeatedly, is his alleged opposition to the war in Iraq. "Going into Iraq may have been the worst decision anybody has made, any president has made, in the history of this country," he said during a February GOP debate. "I was against the war when it started."
This is a lie. In fact, Trump supported the war before it began, and wasn't even consistently against escalation in Iraq after he turned on the initial invasion.
Take his supposed prewar opposition. Tape from a 2002 episode of The Howard Stern Show, uncovered by BuzzFeed's Kaczynski and Nathan McDermott, proves conclusively that Trump in fact supported the invasion:
Stern: Are you for invading Iraq?
Trump: Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly.
Why did Trump support the war? He's not very specific in the Howard Stern interview, but he suggested in a speech years later that he was hoping Bush would — wait for it — take Iraq's oil.
"When I heard that we were first going into Iraq, some very smart people told me, ‘Well, we’re actually going for the oil,’ and I said, ‘All right, I get that.' [But] we didn't take the oil!" Trump said during a 2013 address to the Conservative Political Action Committee conference.
The first public record of Trump criticizing the decision to invade Iraq, per a LexisNexis search, is in an August 2004 interview with Esquire — around the time Iraq's bloody insurgency had really begun to expand.
In Trump's defense, many of his comments after 2004 were quite critical of the war. "Look, everything in Washington has been a lie," Trump said in 2007. "Weapons of mass destruction. Was a total lie. A way of attacking Iraq, which [Bush] thought was going to be easy and it turned out it was the exact opposite."
However, his antiwar stance was hardly consistent. In 2008 he endorsed John McCain — at the time one of the staunchest supporters of Bush's troop surge in Iraq — for president. When Wolf Blitzer asked Trump during a CNN appearance about this contradiction, Trump backed McCain's position:
TRUMP: Now in terms of the surge, I'm not a fan of the war at all. I'd like to get out as soon as possible. Most people wanted to get out right away. John's idea of the surge, he really wanted it early. He went to win it and get out. Frankly, what he did and even the Democrats are saying it, was right…
BLITZER: Is it smart for American taxpayers to be shelling out $10 billion a month in Iraq?
TRUMP: No, I don't think it is and I hope we get out very soon. The difference is I guess John wants to get out with strength rather than weakness. Doesn't want to just leave. He wants to win and leave but he does want to get out and very strong on the fact he wants to get out as soon as we can. But he wants to get out with victory, not with loss.
It would have been very easy for Trump to say here, "I disagree with the senator on Iraq but believe he's the right choice for some other reason." But he didn't. And while it's kind of hard to parse whether Trump outright supported the surge personally, it's clear from this interview that he's basically fine with the US ramping up its involvement in Iraq, so long as it would someday withdraw.
The point here is that despite occasional comments during the 2000s where Trump criticized the war, his actual policy positions were consistently hawkish. His criticism of the war reflects a surface-level look at the conflict: The war was obviously going badly, so Trump said it was a failure.
Trump's criticisms of Iraq and other wars, then, don't reflect a deep view of foreign policy, because he doesn't really have one; he just says what makes sense to him at the time. Sometimes the situation brings out his hawkish impulses, and sometimes it doesn't.
Today the negative consequences of the US interventions in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 are pretty obvious — so Trump has decided to make it look like he opposed both of them, even though he really didn't at the time. He has a longstanding habit of saying whatever he thinks will make him look the best or smartest, which can make figuring out what he truly thinks somewhat difficult.
But when you actually go back and look closely at his positions over the years, it becomes very clear that he has consistently advocated hawkish policies, like colonizing Iraq and Libya for their oil.
Why we get Trump wrong: His hawkishness doesn't look like what we're used to
I honestly don't know how Trump would govern if elected president. Nobody knows how Trump would govern, because we've never had a president like him before.
All we have to go on is what he's said and done. And any close examination of that record, beyond his high-profile rhetoric at debates, suggests that Trump is an instinctive advocate for US military force. He seems especially interested in it when it can be used to enrich or protect the United States — taking the oil, killing the terrorists, etc.
This isn't the kind of hawkishness we're used to. During the Bush administration, hawkishness became equated with neoconservatism. You're a hawk if you support sending in ground troops to fight terrorism or bombing Iran's nuclear program; you're a dove if you oppose those things.
Trump's instincts are not neoconservative, and he's skeptical of neoconservatism's more grandiose ambitions to remake the world in America's democratic image. That makes him sound dovish by American standards, because we've come to equate dovishness with opposing policies that neocons support.
But historically, there are lots of other forms of American hawkishness. Trump fits well with one of those — one that Bard College scholar Walter Russell Mead calls the "Jacksonian tradition," after President Andrew Jackson.
Jacksonians, according to Mead, are basically focused on the interests and reputation of the United States. They are skeptical of humanitarian interventions and wars to topple dictators, because those are idealistic quests removed from the interests of everyday Americans. But when American interests are in question, or failing to fight will make America look weak, Jacksonians are more aggressive than anyone.
"The Gulf War was a popular war in Jacksonian circles because the defense of the nation’s oil supply struck a chord with Jacksonian opinion," Mead writes. "In the absence of a clearly defined threat to the national interest, Jacksonian opinion is much less aggressive."
Unlike neoconservatives or liberal interventionists, who have well-fleshed-out foreign policy doctrines, many Jacksonians think about war and peace more instinctively. "With them it is an instinct rather than an ideology — a culturally shaped set of beliefs and emotions rather than a set of ideas," Mead writes. Sound familiar?
Historically — and here's the important part — the Jacksonian tradition has been partly responsible for a lot of what we see today as American atrocities. Mead explains:
In the last five months of World War II, American bombing raids claimed the lives of more than 900,000 Japanese civilians—not counting the casualties from the atomic strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is more than twice the total number of combat deaths that the United States has suffered in all its foreign wars combined...
Since the Second World War, the United States has continued to employ devastating force against both civilian and military targets. Out of a pre-war population of 9.49 million, an estimated 1 million North Korean civilians are believed to have died as a result of U.S. actions during the 1950-53 conflict. During the same war, 33,870 American soldiers died in combat, meaning that U.S. forces killed approximately thirty North Korean civilians for every American soldier who died in action. The United States dropped almost three times as much explosive tonnage in the Vietnam War as was used in the Second World War, and something on the order of 365,000 Vietnamese civilians are believed to have been killed during the period of American involvement.
This is attributable, Mead suggests, to the Jacksonian impulse to wage total war on declared enemies of America. "The first Jacksonian rule of war is that wars must be fought with all available force," Mead writes. "Jacksonian opinion takes a broad view of the permissible targets in war. Again reflecting a very old cultural heritage, Jacksonians believe that the enemy’s will to fight is a legitimate target of war, even if this involves American forces in attacks on civilian lives, establishments and property. "
Trump's foreign policy ideas sound outlandish today because the Jacksonian tradition has fallen out of fashion. In this post–Cold War world of unquestioned American military dominance, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists' loftier ideals have controlled US foreign policy discourse.
But Jacksonianism has had a huge influence on American war fighting. The notion that Trump doesn't really want to annex Iraqi oil fields or murder the families of ISIS fighters and is just saying this to be provocative, which some people seem to believe, is belied by the fact that US leaders and generals in the Jacksonian mold have advocated and implemented similarly aggressive policies throughout American history.
On the campaign trail, Trump routinely cites Gens. George Patton and Douglas MacArthur as foreign policy models — uber-Jacksonians both. Patton wanted to invade the Soviet Union after World War II to head off perceived future threats to America. And President Harry Truman fired MacArthur, despite his strategic genius, for publicly and insubordinately advocating total war against China during the Korean War.
This is the tradition Trump's views seem to fit into. But while Patton and MacArthur at least had real military expertise and intellectual heft animating their hawkishness, Trump is just a collection of angry impulses. There's no worked-out strategic doctrine here, just an impulse to act aggressively when it seems like America's interests and/or reputation are at stake.
The political science that predicted Trump's rise