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2 of Trump’s smartest advisers try to defend his foreign policy. Absurdity ensues.

President Trump And First Lady Depart White House En Route To Paris (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn put out an op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday morning, in which they aimed to provide a more detailed defense of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy vision in the wake of his recent meetings in Poland and at the G20 summit in Germany.

Except the whole exercise is laughable, from top to bottom. I mean that literally — there are a number of times, when you read it, that you might actually start laughing out loud at McMaster and Cohn’s chutzpah.

Read this paragraph, for instance, and try to keep a straight face:

President Trump affirmed on this trip that America First is grounded in American values — values that not only strengthen America but also drive progress throughout the world. America champions the dignity of every person, affirms the equality of women, celebrates innovation, protects freedom of speech and of religion, and supports free and fair markets.

Trump’s foreign policy allegedly is about “values.” Values like “freedom of religion,” despite his most notable policy being a ban on refugee resettlement and entry from six Muslim-majority countries. A ban that grew out of the president’s desire to, in his own words, implement a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Values like “the equality of women,” despite the president literally bragging on tape about grabbing women’s vaginas without their permission, putting draconian limits on funding for charities that provide vital health care to millions of women in the developing world, and recently interrupting an Oval Office call with Ireland’s prime minister to tell an Irish reporter that she had a “nice smile.”

Okay, guys. Trump’s foreign policy is based on women’s equality. Sure, why not.

The entire op-ed is like this. It starts from a basic premise — that Trump’s foreign policy vision is basically the same as every other president’s and has been hugely successful so far — that is demonstrably absurd. Trump has unsettled traditional American alliances, cast off commitments to promoting human rights, and cozied up to dictators like Vladimir Putin. The op-ed just pretends none of that has happened and proceeds to defend a fantasy foreign policy that bears no resemblance to Trump’s actual foreign policy.

Reading the piece feels like watching a local weatherman tell you that the skies are clear outside while your house is being hit by a tornado.

The whole thing is nonsense from top to bottom

H.R. McMaster (L) and Gary Cohn (R).
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The op-ed starts off on a bad foot, casting Trump’s recent visit to the G20 summit as a smashing success. The trip, McMaster and Cohn say, “demonstrated the resurgence of American leadership to bolster common interests, affirm shared values, confront mutual threats and achieve renewed prosperity.”

Here’s a brief recap of what happened during that summit:

  • Trump gave a speech in an increasingly authoritarian Poland, the text of which contained thinly veiled hostility to non-European immigration and Western cultural chauvinism that would have been at home in an alt-right tract. He refused to criticize the Polish government’s crackdown on the free press, but did take time to rip CNN ("they have been fake news for a long time”) during a joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda.
  • He described meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin at the summit for the first time as an “honor,” seemed to treat Putin’s denial of interference in the US election as at least somewhat genuine, and announced a plan to create a joint US-Russian “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” designed to stop “election hacking, & many other negative things,” only to walk it back just hours later.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel took time out of her final speech at the summit to chastise Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement, saying she “deplored” the president’s decision.
  • Trump had his daughter Ivanka — who has no diplomatic qualifications to speak of — sit in for him at a table with leaders from around the country, provoking widespread outrage at the thought of an unqualified family member of the president representing the United States.
  • The president was photographed sitting by himself numerous times while dozens of other influential world leaders talked in small groups around him.

So the trip wasn’t exactly a success by any stretch of the imagination. But Cohn and McMaster choose not to mention any of the big problems — neither the word “Russia” nor “Putin,” for example, makes a single appearance in the op-ed. Instead, they cite a series of dubious examples designed to make the trip look like a big win. To wit:

He also met with 12 leaders of the Three Seas nations and pledged America’s commitment to expanding access to affordable and reliable energy in the Baltic States, Central Europe and the Balkans. Helping countries diversify their energy sources strengthens economies, creates jobs and prevents adversaries from using energy to intimidate or coerce. During a dinner President Trump hosted with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan in Hamburg, the leaders agreed on a common strategy to confront the threat of North Korea and ensure the security of Northeast Asia and the United States.

Note the verbs in here: “pledged,” “agreed,” “confront the threat.” The piece mostly brags about vague verbal agreements, with no indications of specific new policy ideas that the president is putting forward or any indication of how any of the problems mentioned will be solved.

When we get to the ostensible point of the op-ed, defining Trump’s foreign policy vision as exemplified by the G20 visit, there’s just no substance at all.

Take this sentence, for example: “central to President Trump’s approach is that the United States will seek areas of agreement and cooperation while still protecting American interests.” So the United States will try to agree with other countries sometimes, but not other times. What a profound insight!

Look, McMaster and Cohn are not stupid people. McMaster is a highly decorated general who wrote a widely acclaimed history of the military’s role in screwing up the Vietnam War; Cohn was the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs from 2006 until his White House appointment in 2017. They are capable of doing a lot better than this.

Or at least they would be, if they were in a more competent administration.

The truth is that McMaster and Cohn are widely seen as moderating influences on the Trump administration. McMaster has notably pushed to get Trump to avoid using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” which many in the Muslim world and beyond interpret as positioning the United States as the enemy of Islam as a faith. And Cohn is reportedly the key voice militating against imposing trade barriers that would do serious damage to the US economy.

The reason this op-ed feels so disconnected from reality is that it describes the administration McMaster and Cohn wish they were serving in — one that embraces conventional American grand strategy, acts in a unified and coherent fashion, doesn’t put unqualified family members in top diplomatic and advisory roles, and avoids bizarre dalliances with hostile and undemocratic regimes.

They cite rhetoric and vague platitudes because that’s the closest they can get to finding Trump actions that make him look halfway competent in carrying out this fantasy foreign policy. The piece is a sort of “Be the change you want to see in the world” exercise, an attempt to define the Trump doctrine by simply asserting that it’s something it isn’t.

But US foreign policy isn’t set in the pages of the New York Times. It’s set in the West Wing, by the president — who doesn’t seem very interested in buying what his aides are selling.

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