President Donald Trump can be a difficult man to pigeonhole ideologically, but over the past week, we’ve seen something like a cogent foreign policy begin to form. Call it the Trump Doctrine
The Trump Doctrine was on display last week, when the president ordered an airstrike to take out Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, a man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American civilians and soldiers. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani was seen as a gamble by some pundits and politicians wary of the U.S. entering another quagmire in the Middle East.
In fact, following Iran’s tepid response to Solemiani’s death, the president gave a speech telling the regime that he was open to making a deal. Just like when he vetoed a strike against the nation last year at the last minute, Trump has made clear that he does not seek war with Iran. At the same time, the president made clear with the Soleimani strike that he will not shy away from conflict, nor will he hesitate to vigorously defend American interests. (RELATED: Top Democrats Reportedly Left In The Dark Over Soleimani Killing)
This type of foreign policy is neither contradictory nor incoherent, but it has confused those in Washington D.C., who have offered the American people a false dichotomy between aggressive nation-building and isolationism. The Trump presidency has offered a middle ground between those two extremes, which is why his White House has attracted the support of both hawks (Lindsey Graham, Elliot Abrams), and doves (Rand Paul, Matt Gaetz) alike.
In reality, Trump has made clear that he detests the type of military adventurism that has dominated U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades. The president has harshly criticized his predecessors for getting the nation bogged down in wars and entanglements that don’t serve to advance American interests or deal with an imminent threat. (RELATED: How The Liberal Media Spent The Last Week Shilling For Iran)
This was demonstrated last October when Trump defied the foreign policy establishment and many of his advisers by withdrawing from Northern Syria. The president has also repeatedly expressed a desire to get out of Afghanistan, and has presented a plan to reduce U.S. troop levels in the nation. However, some non-interventionists on the right have criticized the president for not doing enough to uphold his campaign promise to get the U.S. out of unnecessary quagmires in the Middle East.
“For the emerging Left-Right antiwar coalition to succeed, the Right has to do its part. This is true not just for the libertarian-leaning Republican lawmakers like Paul and Justin Amash, but the populist successors of Pat Buchanan who support Trump and his contention that great nations do not fight endless wars—perhaps more than the president supports it himself,” American Conservative author Jim Antle wrote last year.
Some on the right have suggested that Trump’s expressed desire to wind down conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, combined with his hawkish stance on Iran makes his foreign policy incoherent. Other conservatives have said that Trump’s foreign policy defies traditional labels such as neoconservative or isolationist, and cuts through the dichotomy that has dominated Washington for decades, and that in fact his aggressive actions make a drawdown easier to achieve. (RELATED: The Four Ways Washington Can Fix America’s Immigration Crisis)
“Yet too often the U.S. foreign-policy establishment—current and former officials, international relations professors, think tankers, and columnists—uses names as a crutch,” former Trump administration national security official Michael Anton wrote in a column last year for foreignpolicy.com. “So the fact that Trump is not a neoconservative or a paleoconservative, neither a traditional realist nor a liberal internationalist, has caused endless confusion.”
Some supporters of the president such as Human Events publisher Will Chamberlain have described Trump’s foreign policy as “Jacksonian,” after former President Andrew Jackson. In fact, while Trump has seized the “America First” mantle, he has never identified with the isolationism that some self-proclaimed America-firsters would like.
For example, Trump has staunchly supported American allies in the Middle East such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, which contradicts the desires of much of the isolationist right. Additionally, the president’s hawkishness towards Iran has always been a staple of his foreign policy. Trump said in 1980 that the U.S. should invade Iran in retaliation for the hostage crisis that occurred a year earlier.
“That this country sits back and allows a country such as Iran to hold our hostages, to my way of thinking, is a horror, and I don’t think they’d do it with other countries,” the then-34-year-old businessman told gossip columnist Rona Barrett.
The comment is nearly 40 years old at this point, but it still offers a window into Trump’s thinking about what American foreign policy should be. The president is instinctively against nation-building and other neoconservative tenets, but is not willing to sacrifice America’s role as a leader on the world stage. Unlike many non-interventionists, Trump is attuned to America’s reputation on the international stage, and detests weakness (or the appearance of weakness) above all else. Trump has harshly criticized former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama for getting the nation bogged down in regime change wars, while at the same time threatening overwhelming force against countries he sees as a threat to the U.S.
This type of hawkish nationalism represents the core of what may well become the Trump doctrine. Instead of relying on either his neoconservative or isolationist supporters, the president has sought a third way which maintains America’s standing as the most powerful military in the world, but re-aligns American priorities in a way that better serves the interests of its people.
The Iran saga demonstrated the potential of the Trump doctrine by taking out a top U.S. enemy without getting the nation involved in yet another regime chance war. The Trump doctrine has the potential to change the terms of the foreign policy debate that dominates American politics, and its success or failure may well be the defining legacy of the Trump presidency.