GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump strode from a domestic political campaign to the international stage Wednesday where he declared he would restore what he sees as America’s diminished standing in the world. But he offered no details on how he would do it. He insisted his deal-making prowess would convince adversaries to back down, and allies to look up to a more muscular America. But beyond such platitudes, he offered nothing new on how he would pay for a more aggressive U.S. diplomacy and the stronger U.S. military it would require.
The brash New York tycoon has been counseled by some that he needs to take some of the edge off his rhetoric—to be viewed more favorably by the American electorate as a possible commander-in-chief—and his half-hour talk lacked his usual rhetorical fireworks. Speaking in relatively moderate tones, he basically pulled together in one place many of the challenges he has previously said are facing America’s interests around the globe.
The day after Trump swept GOP primaries across five states (and in all 106 counties that voted), he began trying to soothe concerns of a foreign-policy establishment he has unnerved. More than 120 GOP national-security heavyweights have signed a letter declaring that Trump is “wildly inconsistent,” swinging “from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.” They have blanched at some of Trump’s proposals (“NATO is obsolete,” he has said, putting a dagger straight into the heart of Washington, D.C.’s foreign-policy elite). He also has called for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border—having the Mexicans foot the bill—and a temporary ban on Muslims emigrating to the U.S. He has suggested he might order the torture of terrorists, and the killing of their relatives. He has quietly backed down from some of those illegal proposals, but the statements’ shocks lingers.
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Trump listed his five key criticisms of current U.S. foreign policy: the U.S. is not spending enough money on it (including the military, which currently is spending more than the Cold War average); allies in Europe and elsewhere are not paying their fair share of the bill; Washington’s weakening ties with its allies, who don’t feel they can rely on the U.S. in a pinch; the lack of respect adversaries now show the U.S.; and a lack of a clear set of foreign-policy goals. Looking toward November, he mentioned Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first Secretary of State and now the leading Democratic candidate for President, by name seven times.
If Trump’s aim Wednesday was to flesh out just how he intends to fulfill his campaign’s pledge to “Make America Great Again,” he fell short. Four of Trump’s seven short position papers posted on his website (dealing with the U.S.-Mexican wall, other immigration issues, veterans’ care and U.S.-China trade) are international in nature, although there are none dealing with the Pentagon or terrorism. He spoke at the capital’s Mayflower Hotel, after officials concluded the original site at the National Press Building lacked sufficient space for security, according to Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, a right-leaning think tank that sponsored the event.
But the lack of concrete details left many foreign-policy types scratching their heads. “The ‘America First’ theme is two-edged,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and military historian. “It will appeal to Trump’s base and to others disenchanted with recent U.S. foreign policy. But given its 1930s provenance, the phrase will open him up to the charge of being an isolationist.”
And Bacevich was being gentle. “It’s a crude, self-contradictory, blustering, historically ill-informed speech by a crude, self-contradictory, blustering, historically ill-informed guy,” says Eliot Cohen, a former top official at the Pentagon and State Department during Republican administrations who has made clear he will not vote for Trump if he is the GOP nominee.
Such geopolitical squabbles are nothing new in U.S. campaigns. “You worry about rhetoric on the campaign trail,” says James Clapper, the nation’s top spy as director of national intelligence. “I am struck with how simple things are on the campaign trail,” he told TIME on Monday, “and how those very same issues are very hard in the confines of the Situation Room.” The closer to the Oval Office candidates get, Clapper added, the more their views are tempered by the responsibility of the office.
Some of Trump’s criticisms seemed to hit home. He blasted the 2011 U.S.-led intervention in Libya, which has led to a failed state, and slow-motion wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that seem no closer to ending—and certainly not to U.S. success—than they did when they began more than a decade ago. He fired a broadside at the “red line” Obama warned Syria’s Bashar Assad not to cross by using chemical weapons in his civil war, and then backed down when Assad did just that in 2013. “Our friends and enemies must know that if I draw a line in the sand,” Trump said, “I will enforce that line in the sand.” Trump generated applause—one of 31 times during his speech—when he rapped Obama for how he has described the war on ISIS. “We’re in a war against radical Islam, but President Obama won’t even name the enemy,” he said. “Unless you name the enemy, you will never ever solve the problem.”
Military force, Trump said, isn’t at the top of his to-do list. “But if America fights,” he added, “it must only fight to win”—echoing what many U.S. military officers have been saying, largely in private, for years. But he offered no specifics on how he would do that, or what would follow in such bloodied lands occupied by factions that have fought each other for centuries.
GOP national-security stalwarts have criticized Trump’s foreign-policy brain trust as inexperienced and small-bore, and no foreign-policy heavyweights were spotted among the scores of people attending his speech. That may give the GOP’s mainstream the belief they can dismiss him and his still-evolving ideas. But, in case you hadn’t noticed, that mainstream thinking brought the U.S. 9/11; a pair of inconclusive wars that have killed nearly 6,900 U.S. troops and cost at least $3 trillion; the rise of China and Russia, messes in Libya, Somalia and Yemen; and the scourge of terrorism. “It’s time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy,” Trump said. “It’s time to invite new voices and new visions into the fold.”
Acknowledging the gravity of Wednesday’s speech—and the danger it could derail any chance Trump has to capture the White House—he relied on a teleprompter. “If you’re running for President,” he has said, “you shouldn’t be allowed to use a teleprompter.” But apparently if you’re a serious candidate—as Trump now most assuredly is—you’re free to ignore your own glib advice, when it comes to audio-visual aids as well as untenable foreign-policy pronouncements.
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