Trump Altered Foreign Policy Debate. It's Time to Catch Up.

Trump Altered Foreign Policy Debate. It's Time to Catch Up.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Trump Altered Foreign Policy Debate. It's Time to Catch Up.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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When President Trump announced his plans to withdraw the 2,000 American troops in Syria, tasked with combating the terrorist Islamic State organization, partisan and ideological lines were scrambled. Conservative hawks were apoplectic; Sen. Lindsey Graham called it “a huge, Obama-like mistake” and a “boost to ISIS.” Meanwhile, progressive doves cheered. Rep. Ted Lieu, a virulent Trump critic, nonetheless wrote on Twitter, “I applaud the decision by @realDonaldTrump to withdraw US troops from Syria. Neither the Obama Administration nor the Trump Administration had a strategy.”

It can’t both be true that Trump is now emulating Obama by ceding the Syrian battlefield to terrorists, and that Trump is no longer emulating Obama by foolishly keeping troops in Syria. But the incongruous statements speak to our confusion as a nation: The parameters of our foreign policy debate have changed, but many of us haven’t caught up.

The choice we face isn’t a tactical matter between war and diplomacy, debating which tool of statecraft best serves a common goal. It’s a choice between two deeply divergent worldviews: an interconnected, international order that elevates human rights standards, versus a nationalist derby where autocrats roam unchecked. To judge Trump’s actions through an outdated prism, or to superficially conflate the Obama and Trump records, is to miss the significance of the abrupt shifts happening before our eyes.

Trump’s withdrawal from Syria should not be assessed in a vacuum, or treated as an opportunity to score whether American intervention is needed to combat terrorism, or encourages more of it. It should be judged alongside a larger set of actions: warmth toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, looking away from the Saudi Arabian murder of Jamal Khashoggi, praising North Korea President Kim Jong Un without any evidence of denuclearization, expressing ambivalence (at best) for NATO, withdrawing from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, deeming the International Criminal Court “illegitimate,” and abandoning international agreements including the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

From a liberal perspective, some of these actions are laudable in and of themselves. Diplomacy with Russia is necessary to tackle various international problems. Peace with North Korea beats nuclear war. And leaving Syria is to step away from permanent occupation of the Middle East. But when all of Trump's foreign policy actions are taken together, it is clear that they are designed to weaken international restraints on violating human rights, which is not very liberal at all.

Conservatives may have cheered Trump on when he threw a wrench in the international Iran deal by re-imposing sanctions. But that act cannot be separated from Trump’s tighter embrace of Iran’s regional opponents Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Many conservatives fear that the Syria pullout will allow Turkey to crack down on the region’s Kurds, who have aided the United States’ counter-terrorism operations. And the Khashoggi murder horrified Americans of all ideological stripes, a chilling example of what an unchecked Saudi Arabia is capable of doing. (The horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen being another.)

Of course, isolationists on the left and right can still defend Trump’s actions as preferable to further military interventions or harsh sanctions. If bad leaders abroad do bad things, that doesn’t mean it is America’s job to hold them accountable. But let’s have that debate -- the debate over the breadth and depth of American international engagement, with eyes wide open, understanding fully the potential ramifications of our choices.

Complicating the debate is the immediate contrast: Obama. Trump’s predecessor left a mixed foreign policy record that, as the quotes above show, can be cherry-picked to serve various partisan and ideological purposes. But Obama was neither a pure dove nor part of a warmongering imperialist continuum.

He wielded military power against the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist network, as well as against the Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, in order to prevent a threatened genocide. But when faced with weak domestic and international backing, and fearful of empowering terrorist elements, Obama flinched from doing the same to prevent genocide in Syria. He pulled troops out of Iraq, only to send some back in a few years later as the threat of ISIS grew. Obama worked with Russia, to varying degrees, on both the Iran deal and Gaddafi’s ouster. But he failed to find a diplomatic solution with Russia to dislodge its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And Obama did not respond militarily to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, though he did impose sanctions and stood against further encroachment of Ukraine.

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a foreign policy hawk and Trump critic, recently argued (in the course of urging a Republican primary challenge) that Trump and Obama shared a goal of “shrink[ing] the United States’ footprint around the world.” This is a lazy way to equate Trump’s Syria pullout with Obama’s (temporary) Iraq pullout and rejection of a large ground invasion of Syria.

It is true Obama wanted to recalibrate America’s role to avoid taking primary responsibility for every global problem, and occasionally some of his rhetoric echoed Trump’s complaints today of being taken by allies for “suckers.” “Free riders aggravate me,” Obama told The Atlantic in his final year.

But Obama wanted other nations to pay and do their “fair share” to strengthen the liberal international order, not create excuses to degrade it. “We don’t have to always be the ones who are up front,” he told The Atlantic, “Sometimes we’re going to get what we want precisely because we are sharing in the agenda.” Obama’s foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes recently wrote that Obama’s favorite foreign leader was Germany’s Angela Merkel: “Like him, she was a pragmatist, driven by facts, dedicated to international order.” Trump, is no fan of Merkel, facts, or international order.

If there is one sentence that best sums up Trump’s worldview, it is this from his May 2017 speech in Saudi Arabia: “We are not here to lecture … we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values.” He meant it. He did not lecture the Saudis on murder, as there was the “shared interest” of arms sales at stake (though Trump’s assertion of the size of the deal, and the American jobs it would create, earned a “Pants on Fire” rating from the fact-checkers at PolitiFact).

One need not agree with every tactical decision of Obama’s, or accept every trade-off he made, to take the side of internationalism and human rights. And one need not support every action of Trump’s to embrace his turn toward nationalism and isolationism. But we should recognize that those are the two main foreign policy paths we must choose between, and all of Trump’s actions on the international stage should be assessed with that choice in mind.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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