What would Donald Trump do to fix the Middle East? Listening to his prescriptions, it’s not an easy question to answer.
Trump sought to clarify his worldview with a prepared speech in Youngstown, Ohio, on Monday after a week of battles over his claim that President Obama “founded ISIS” and was the “MVP” of the Islamist terror group.
But setting aside the debate over that rhetoric, which he did not repeat in his speech, the national security framework he described was so contradictory and filled with so many obvious falsehoods that it’s virtually impossible to tell what he would do as president.
Trump’s “Obama founded ISIS” catchphrase is inflammatory, but it’s not a literal argument (even though Trump initially insisted it was). Instead he's used the term to stitch together a patchwork of more mainstream criticisms that blame Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former President George W. Bush for creating the current Middle East crisis. “Our current strategy of nation building and regime change is a proven, absolute failure,” Trump said on Monday.
Under Trump’s telling, Bush committed the initial sin by destabilizing the Middle East with his 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is a version of events more common on the left, but one that exists on the right as well.
Obama then made things worse with a "reckless" withdrawal of troops that created a "vacuum" for groups like ISIS to assert control. This is a frequent complaint from more neoconservative Republicans.
In addition, Trump said, Clinton exacerbated the problem by supporting airstrikes against Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi's "stable" regime, which provided Islamic radicals another weak state to serve as a base. He also argued Clinton and Obama should have supported Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, rather than encouraged him to step down in the face of street protests. These too are relatively ordinary criticisms.
But these arguments, while unremarkable enough on their own, say nothing about Trump's instincts or how he would govern.
That’s because Trump previously supported every single foreign policy decision he now decries.
Despite claiming daily that he opposed the Iraq War from the start, Trump endorsed deposing Saddam Hussein in a 2002 interview and there’s no record of him opposing the war until after it had began. As for exiting the Iraq War, he said repeatedly in 2007 and 2008 that America should withdraw immediately and later recommended the same course for Afghanistan.
Turning to Libya, Trump recorded a video in 2011 demanding the Obama administration remove Gadhafi from power on humanitarian grounds. He went on to lie about his support for the Libya intervention in a Republican debate only to admit to it when confronted with footage of his old statements in a CBS interview. Finally, Trump called Mubarak’s departure “a good thing” at the time before turning against the idea years later.
The result is that the only thing we know about Trump is that he’s good at criticizing decisions by other presidents in hindsight. Unfortunately, this is not a very useful skill for the person tasked with making the decisions in the first place.
“He’s best when he’s making forceful retrospective critiques,” Colin Dueck, a professor at George Mason University who’s researched the history of Republican foreign policy, said when asked to describe Trump’s worldview. “But when you ask him what specifically are you proposing going forward, he doesn’t have a coherent proposal.”
As Colin Powell famously cautioned George W. Bush ahead of the Iraq War, “you break it, you own it.” The consequences of military action — or inaction, in some of these cases — are irreversible.
A 'Blathering Jumble of Nonsense'
Trump’s chameleon-like prescription for Middle East is not consistent with any one school of thought – or with itself. Sometimes he resembles a non-interventionist in the vein of Ron Paul, like when he decried nation building and regime change in his speech on Monday. At other times, he sounds like Genghis Khan, like when he demanded in the very same speech that American troops conquer oil fields in Iraq by force and claim the profits for America. He previously suggested in 2011 that the US claim Libya's oil as well.
“In the old days when we won a war, to the victor go the spoils,” Trump said on Monday, describing a doctrine that runs directly counter to the international regime America led the world in establishing and currently enforces.
The result of this confusing mix is that Trump has alienated Republican national security minds across a range of policy schools.
John Noonan, who advised Jeb Bush’s campaign on national security, said Obama’s “premature withdrawal from Iraq" was an avoidable mistake that contributed to the rise of ISIS and that Trump was accurate to point it out. But that doesn’t mean Noonan is on board with the GOP nominee — far from it.
“The rest of his foreign policy is an absolutely blathering jumble of nonsense,” he told NBC News. “I can’t in good conscience sign my name to it."
In March, Noonan signed onto a letter with dozens of Republican foreign policy hands disavowing Trump in part because his policies are “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle."
Daniel Larison, a writer at the American Conservative, has spent years criticizing the Republican Party’s foreign policy for leaning too hard on military operations to advance American interests. But despite Trump’s stated opposition to “nation building” and toppling dictators by force, Larison opposes the nominee as well.
“Trump has relatively few antiwar conservative friends because he is not really reliably antiwar in any meaningful sense,” Larison said. “He favors a much larger military budget, he usually has no strong objections to foreign wars when they begin, and he has little or no interest in diplomatic engagement that might avert conflict.”
Trump’s views on intervention weren’t the only place where things ran off the rails. Adopting a standard GOP talking point, he decried Obama for a mythic “apology tour” on Monday and chided him for not championing feminism and gay rights abroad.
But this is at odds with his stated views as well, which have long been characterized by a deep contempt for any notion of human rights that might impede raw material gains. In addition to celebrating torture and regaling audiences with apocryphal tales of Americans committing war crimes, Trump has regularly argued America’s own leaders should refrain from criticizing dictatorial regimes because America lacks the moral authority to do so.
“When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger,” Trump said last month when asked about concerns over a crackdown on opposition by Turkish leader Reccep Erdogan.
Pressed on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last year over his praise for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin despite allegations he’s murdered journalists and rivals, Trump responded: “I think our country does plenty of killing also.”
In 2013, Trump also lavished praise on Putin in multiple interviews for writing an op-ed that criticized the very concept of American exceptionalism.
“You use a term like ‘American exceptionalism,’ and frankly, the way our country is being treated right now by Russia and Syria and lots of other places and with all the mistakes we've made over the years, like Iraq and so many others, it's sort of a hard term to use,” Trump said on Fox News, adding that Putin was “extremely diplomatic” for pointing this out.
'America First' a Departure From GOP Philosophy
Outside of the Middle East, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy views are at least somewhat more consistent. He’s long described international relations as a zero-sum gain between strong winners and weak losers in ways that apply to both national security and trade. Trump has consistently called for new tariffs to protect workers from foreign competition and he’s cast a skeptical eye towards alliances like NATO, which he’s threatened to abandon in recent months if member states don’t pay enough for protection.
Dueck compared Trump’s perspective to the original “America First” movement, which resisted foreign entanglements and sought American neutrality in World War II.
“Trump’s actually been saying for decades that he thinks U.S. alliances are more of a burden than an asset, he’s been saying for decades he against free trade deals like NAFTA,” Dueck said. “He’s very volatile and contradictory day to day but he has been actually saying this for years.”
All of this would be a major break from the last seven-plus decades of Republican and Democratic presidents. But at least American voters could fairly say they were warned if he implemented this approach. No one, probably not even Trump himself, knows how what he’d do about the Middle East.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Donald Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. claim Libya’s oil fields was made in 2011, not during his speech Monday as first reported.