Non-interventionists of every stripe from libertarians to paleo conservatives to standard anti-war types have had their dreams dashed this past week after the president announced a troop surge in Afghanistan. To be fair, the president had already been offering mixed results to non-interventionists. Some actions were commendable, such as ending the CIA program that was arming Syrian opposition groups (BBC News), while others were the same interventionist impulses that we’ve seen from every post-World War II administration, such as bombing Syrian airfields (CNN). But even those who justified their support for President Trump’s election by noting his less militaristic foreign policy never truly believed that he would fulfill their long held dreams of closing overseas military bases, and ending American support for quasi-wars undertaken by our allies (such as the conflicts in Yemen or Syria). Writing in the American Conservative (a publication founded by anti-war conservatives opposed to the Iraq War) Robert Merry noted that based off of polling “it seems that the preponderance of public opinion ran counter to both of those foreign policy philosophies [neoconservative and liberal interventionism]. Donald Trump, in his often crude manner, captured this opposition view.”
With Trump, it was believed, we would finally have a conversation about our relationship with Russia, which some have argued has been overly hostile and counterproductive since the end of the Cold War (The National Interest and the American Conservative). With Trump we could finally ask the question of whether it is worthwhile to pledge open-ended military support, through NATO expansion, to countries such as Montenegro with little benefit to our own security. With Trump we could finally discuss the cost, both financially and morally, of engaging in and supporting barbaric wars against Yemen and Syria (to name a few), which pose no threat to our country. With Trump, some dreamed, we might finally come to debate the words of President Eisenhower who warned of the unchecked powers being acquired by the ‘military-industrial complex’ or, even better, we might rediscover President Washington’s warning about ‘foreign entanglements’. But, why did these non-interventionists hope that these conversations might be possible, but only with Trump?
President Trump is not a principled or moral man. He is a thrice married, petty man who finds it more important to engage in school yard taunts with his opponents rather than arguing over policy. He is no scholar, as he himself has admitted that he rarely reads (The New Republic) and, with regards to foreign policy, he has said that “I’m speaking with myself [about foreign policy], number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things” (POLITICO). He is, on nearly every issue, malleable. But, since the 1980’s, when Trump first flirted with the idea of running for political office, he has been consistent on two topics: foreign affairs and trade. As early as 1987, during the height of the Cold War, Trump stated that the US “should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves” and advocated for nuclear disarmament (NY Times). During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s advocacy for non-interventionism became a topic of debate, as it was alleged that he had voiced support for the Iraq War, based upon an exchange between himself and Howard Stern. Some Republicans who had voted against the Iraq War, such as former representative John Hostettler, defended the real estate magnate and said “Last night, in the midst of the first presidential debate, the moderator prefaced a question about Sen. Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq War with the suggestion that Donald Trump’s comments to a shock jock prior to Sen. Clinton’s vote was equivalent to that vote” (Washington Examiner). There is little evidence to suggest that Trump was ever an interventionist, whereas he has made statements in the past and during the 2016 campaign that delighted non-interventionist advocates throughout the country, such as his skepticism about NATO commitments and opposition to continued military involvement in Syria. Even his recent declaration about a troop surge in Afghanistan was preceded by numerous reports stating that Trump was rebuffing the requests of his generals, and fellow Republicans, who were requesting that surge (The Intercept and POLITICO). It is quite logical to understand why some non-interventionists saw him as a preferable option than the status quo offered by his opponents.
Yet some supposed non-interventionists have gone about berating others who had hoped (and some still hope) that, at the very least, the Trump administration would be nominally better than sixteen years of intense interventionism. These supposed non-interventionists have gone about declaring that they have been vindicated and they have begun pondering whether those who oppose war and voted for Trump are ‘gullible’ (Reason). This is a rather odd assertion to be made, considering that most of these people did not vote for even a nominal non-interventionist in 2016. Of Trump’s 2016 opponents, only Jill Stein was more stringently opposed to adventurism overseas than him. Yet, beyond Stein, the other two major candidates were significantly more predisposed to war than Trump. Specifically, I would highlight the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, who was the preferred choice for many of the supposed non-interventionists that are sneering now.
In 2012, when Johnson first ran for the presidency, he offered a mixed bag with regards to foreign policy in an interview with the Daily Caller. He suggested a 43% reduction in defense spending, but he also said that “he supports America’s efforts to aid African troops in tracking down Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and that he wouldn’t rule out leaving behind American bases in Afghanistan” (Daily Caller). Around the same time, in an interview with the Weekly Standard, Johnson also said that he supported the notion of the US waging war on humanitarian grounds (Weekly Standard). These positions are almost indistinguishable from the long-forgotten breed of warmonger once known as the ‘Rockefeller Republican’. Make war, but on the cheap. As if cost is the only issue to consider when waging unnecessary wars. More recently, in 2016, Johnson tried to avoid foreign policy issues and became less hawkish and more non-interventionist in his attitude to conflicts. He told CNN in 2016, that in order to solve the conflict in Syria he believed that “There is only one solution to Syria, and that’s being hand in hand with Russia diplomatically to solve that” (CNN). A position, ironically enough, that was nearly indistinguishable from that of Trump. But beyond a few flubs, of which the media exaggerated, Johnson spent little time discussing his foreign policy vision in 2016. So if the contention of these supposed non-interventionists sneering at Trump voters now is that Trump’s past statements, and those during the 2016 race, were not sufficient enough to conclude that Trump would be a non-interventionist than why were Johnson’s decidedly pro-interventionist positions supposed to have made him a better alternative? The only ‘gullible’ voters in 2016 were those who refused to accept what they were hearing.
At this time, it would appear that President Trump is behaving as a standard Republican president with regards to foreign policy, with a few exceptions. Nine months into his administration, we cannot determine if Trump will correct his way and become non-interventionist or continue with the interventionist foreign policy that has dominated Washington since the end of World War II. More likely than not, Trump will end up being more restrained, in some regards, than his two immediate predecessors. Which, some might argue, is still preferable than a continuation of the status quo. In hindsight, it appears that the only moral vote a non-interventionist could have made in the 2016 election was to either vote for Jill Stein or abstain. But at the time, in November 2016, there was good reason for non-interventionists to be hopeful about the prospect of a Trump presidency. And no one should fault them for the choice that they made, based upon the information that they had available at the time.