The Trump Doctrine

At times I feel like the only person in the country not emotionally invested in the likely death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed, apparently, in quite the gruesome manner in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Instanbul, Turkey.  OK I get it, terrible story, but why exactly does this require a diplomatic response from the United States?  The US government doesn’t get involved in every foreign Coca-Cola employee in the third world who gets dragged away by a death squad.  And the death of a dissident to a despotic regime isn’t exactly breaking news.  It’s fair to say that this happens every day somewhere in the world, without the accompanying MSM hysterics.

The answer of course, is that he was employed as a journalist at The Washington Post, and in an age in which the West has abandoned religion, a new priestly caste has emerged, the MSM journalist.  That’s why the MSM has turned a minor story into a US foreign policy crisis.  This has already occupied the breaking news and top story for a week, and the new rule is if Eugene Robinson and the table at the MSNBC set are outraged, then everyone has to be.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for a sympathizer of the Muslim Brotherhood and someone who was a friend of Osama Bin Ladin, who mourned his death.  You really need to make a much stronger case to me on why his death shouldn’t be cheered, rather than causing spasms of outrage.  If there is a reason for outrage in this story, its how such a person got a green card in the first place?  Let’s investigate that.

Trump’s initial instincts on this seem to have been correct, dismissing it as not that big a deal, before the media blew it up into THE STORY of the week.  No doubt the view that this is THE STORY reflected the view of many of Trump’s advisors.  After all, doesn’t everyone seem to accept the judgement of the Post and other news outlets as to what is news, and what is major news?  It is interesting though that Trump’s default position is quite different from what the current White House line is…

Over at the Lion of the Blogosphere a few months ago, Lion did a post describing the “Trump Doctrine.

“If there is a Trump doctrine, it is that we have to accept foreign countries the way they are, and not turn them into copies of Western democracies. Russia has never had a democratic government like the United States, but the Trump doctrine is that we can still be friends instead of trying to sabotage their government for not being exactly like America or Germany.”

As a working definition, it’s not a bad one.  And why shouldn’t he define it?  It’s not as if Presidential “doctrines” are released as a White Paper or press release.  They are discovered by observing the administration in action.  Most famously the “Bush Doctrine” was ham-handedly used by Charlie Gibson in a rather famous gotcha interview with Sarah Palin in which she described the Bush Doctrine, just not the way Charlie Gibson wanted.  However the actual author (or discoverer) of the Bush Doctrine, the late Charles Krauthammer, defended Palin’s take.

But I had been thinking of this for a while.  Back in 2014, I had started, but never finished, a draft of a post called, “Realpolitik,” to describe what I thought should be the style and direction of US foreign policy.  Inspired, of all people, by neo-con former Wall Street Journal columnist and current New York Times official Never-Trumper Bret Stephens, in a column he wrote for the WSJ called, Relearning Republican Foreign Policy.  With the line, “A policeman is not a priest,” Stephens made the case for a muscular foreign policy without the moralizing and messaging of either George Bush’s freedom agenda or Obama’s “reputation of a faithless friend and feckless foe.”  This line, though, is the killer:

“Someday, maybe, a Republican will be in the White House again. If that’s to happen, Americans will need some reassurance that the GOP knows how to steer a straight course between the temptations of Barack Obama’s strategic timidity and George W. Bush’s idealistic excess.“

In probably the greatest Monkey’s Paw wish of all time, Stephen’s got exactly what he asked for in this 2014 op-ed with the election of President Donald Trump.

Stephens must be exhausted from all of his spinning around and changing positions, since in this week’s NYT post, Khashoggi’s Killing Isn’t a Blunder. It’s a Crime, Stephens is back to his neo-con roots, ready to lead a new moralistic crusade against the Saudi’s.

It’s actually fair to say that a more moralistic foreign policy has a time in place.  It was integral to Reagan’s policy initiatives in fighting the Cold War, but Reagan didn’t shy away with allying with some less than savory folk in order to oppose what he saw as the graeter evil: the Soviet Union.  But we are in a different time and place, and our foreign policy challenges are totally different than the bi-polar cold war steady state which occupied US foreign policy for decades.

In the current era it seems clear to me that not every struggle around the world is our struggle, and not every fight all over the world is our fight.  We have limited resources, not just of military might or money, but time and attention.  Time wasted on this Khashoggi matter is time not spent on other foreign policy issues like trade, or domestic ones, like immigration.  And no outcome in running down every Saudi royal guard is likely to benefit US foreign policy in the slightest.

Trump’s instincts, the “Trump Doctrine,” are Realpolitik; a foreign policy based on US national interests and practical benefits rather than ideology or faux outrage.  If the GOP picks this up as a foreign policy template, that’s yet another Trump “win.”

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Do We Need to Police Syria?

Although not a neo-con, as the term is commonly used now, I do recognize that the US has a distinct role to play in the world, at least for this period of our history, in helping maintain a stable world order.  In a limited sense, it’s not a fool’s errand.  The best example was the Gulf War.  Saddam Hussein annexed neighboring Kuwait, and began massing his armies on the border of Saudi Arabia.  Although I am no friend of the House of Saud, I sure didn’t want it replaced with Hussein’s dictatorship, and leaving Hussein on charge of the majority of Persian Gulf oil.  There was a principle to be adhered to; you can’t just conquer other countries, strip them for parts, and steal their national resources so you can hold it hostage on the world market.  The United States, acting through its sock puppet the UN (at least for that issue), assembled a coalition which included Syria, and kicked Saddam out of Kuwait.  Establishing a cost for a country that tried to conquer it’s neighbors willy nilly helps keep that sort of that action extremely risky, not matter how militarily weak one’s neighbor is and as a result, it’s a relative rarity in the post World War II era.

English: Brasilia - The president of the Syria...

English: Brasilia – The president of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar Al-Assad during a visit to Congress Português do Brasil: Brasília – O presidente da República Árabe Síria, Bashar Al-Assad, em visita ao Congresso Nacional (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is another principle at stake now and the Obama administration is preparing to attack Syria based on it; you can’t use chemical weapons; particularly on civilians.  There are not many taboos in warfare, but using chemical weapons would certainly be on that short list.

But in this case, there are competing interests and principles involved.  Prohibiting the use of chemical weapons is a taboo for those countries that were involved in World War I.  Those nations were horrified by what they had done on the battlefield and although almost all of them kept some manner of CW weapons in stock during the 20th century, they weren’t used and relatively few of the former World War I combatants have active stockpiles now.  Even Hitler didn’t use them, although he had them.

But the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily share those taboos. Certainly Saddam Hussein didn’t share them during the Iran-Iraq War, or when he gassed his own people at Halabja in 1988.  And Bashar Assad doesn’t share them now.

So, if we are going to enforce as a norm, the idea that using chemical weapons against civilian populations is verboten, then we have to react.  Although I can’t believe that was actually Obama’s plan.  The reason we are attacking Syria is so Obama can feel butch. He made up that “red line” statement about chemical weapons thinking he would never have to pay up since at the time, all of the experts were saying that Assad had only weeks left.

So here we are 30 months into a Syrian civil war and the experts were wrong, as seems to be the case quite frequently, and now Obama is trying to make it look like his word means something.

But as I said, there are competing interests.  Just like the Iran-Iraq War, in which Henry Kissinger said, “It’s a shame they can’t both lose,” there are no good guys in the Syrian conflict.  There is a choice between an anti-American dictatorship that is a state supported sponsor of terrorism, or a fundamentalist Islamic regime that almost certainly will be a state sponsor of terrorism.  So  foreign policy of the old “realist” bent would be interested in keeping the war between our enemies going on as long as possible.  The longer they are concerned with each other, the less they will be concerned with us.  That was basically our strategy with Iran and Iraq during the 1980’s.

So which is more important?  Leaving secular Baathists and Islamic fundamentalist to fight it out, or interfering and possibility helping the Islamic fundamentalists by inflicting damage to the Syrian Military?

Left out of most of this discussion is what is in the national security interests of the United States?  To me, that has to be a key component of any US military intervention and I just don’t see it in this case.

Although I’m as opposed to the use of chemical weapons against civilians as the next Westerner, we let the Iraqi’s go at it against the Iranians for years and didn’t lose any sleep over it, and in this case, my inclination is to just get a good night’s sleep.  Eventually, the conflict in Syria will be over, and an enemy of the United States will be in charge.  I don’t see much advantage in hastening that day.

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