Dear Dems, Don’t Walk Into Trump’s Foreign Policy Trap

By Charles Sykes

President Donald Trump has stepped back from the brink of his own war with Iran, but the incoherence of his foreign policy remains on full display. This poses a challenge— and an opportunity— for the Democrats running to replace him.

But it’s not yet clear whether they understand the underlying dynamic.

The first thing they have to recognize is that killing terrorists is always a good talking point for presidents, especially for a Republican incumbent who brags about how strong he is. But blowing up bad guys is not a strategy. And that’s the key here: Trump does not actually have a policy. He has a posture.

Trumpism is both isolationist and militaristic, a blend of appeasement and saber-rattling, dovishness and bravado. He opposes “endless wars,” and seems willing to withdraw from much of the rest of world but is willing to use the occasional drone strike to kill bad guys in the Middle East. His approach is also highly selective. For Trump being strong is apparently not inconsistent with appeasing authoritarians like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

So Trump gets to have it both ways and thinks that he has stumbled on to a winning formula. And he may have, unless Democrats figure out how to articulate a coherent alternative. Assuming that Iran will be a major topic, Tuesday’s debate will give them an early chance to counter the Trumpist worldview.

Here’s how they can keep from blowing it.

First, they need to fight the long-standing perception that they are weak on national security. Trump will inevitably paint any Democrat as a feckless weakling who lacks the will to defend the homeland or fight our enemies. We already got a taste of that when Congressman Doug Collins accused Democrats of being “in love with terrorists,” and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley accused “Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates” of mourning the death of General Qassem Soleimani. Collins apologized, Haley has not.

Second, Democrats need to avoid compounding their credibility deficit by being in thrall to the online progressive Twitterverse. Elizabeth Warren muddled her message by changing her description of Soleimani from a “murderer” who was “responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans,” to, a few days later, “a senior foreign military leader.” Pete Buttigieg suffered a self-inflicted wound when he suggested that the shoot-down of a Ukrainian airliner by the Iranians was the result of an “unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat.” (It wasn’t. That one was on the Iranians, as they have since admitted.) Bernie Sanders carries his own hefty baggage on foreign policy, as The Washington Post reported, including his praise of Castro’s Cuba, his fascination with the Sandinistas and a honeymoon in the Soviet Union. Even Trump skeptics who are appalled by Trump’s weird fealty to Putin may have trouble regarding Sanders as a credible alternative.


But this does not mean Trump will get an easy win on foreign policy. Despite Trump’s advantages, the cognitive dissonance of his posturing creates an opportunity for Democrats, who can flip the script on him by attacking his many contradictions.

Trump exults in posing as the strong man who has made America more powerful, feared and respected. But the reality is that Trump has made America weaker, less safe, less trusted and less respected. This goes right to the heart of his brand and Democrats can turn it around on him.

Under Trump, China and Russia have become stronger and North Korea and Iran have moved closer to becoming nuclear powers. We have been forced to suspend our operations against ISIS and may be forced to withdraw from Iraq altogether, a surefire way to let ISIS reassert itself. In other words, Trump’s foreign policy is a fraud.

Here is what Democrats should say:

Trump has not made us stronger or safer. Americans want a strong defense, but they do not want wars started on Twitter or based on the president’s ego or whims. They know recklessness is not strength. Last week’s USA Today/Ipsos poll found that large majorities believed the strike on Soleimani was “reckless” and made Americans less safe. By margins of more than 6 to 1, respondents said the attack made it more likely Iran would strike American interests in the Middle East and in the U.S.

Trump claims we are now more respected. The reality is that the world is laughing at us—ironically, Trump’s longtime fear— and we are more isolated than ever. We have betrayed our friends, like the Kurds, and lavished praise and concessions on our enemies like North Korea and Russia. We are no longer trusted in the world and alienated from many of our longtime allies, including NATO. After the strike that killed Soleimani, Trump asked NATO to do more in the region, but coalition countries have, for now, moved troops out rather than in.

Trump has broken his promise. The inherent contradiction between his isolationism and militarism is catching up with him. He told us he would get us out of the Middle East and end the “endless wars.” Instead, more U.S. troops are on the way and the region is more unstable and hostile than ever.

Trump cannot be allowed to lie us into war. Many voters appear to have made their peace with Trump’s chronic lying. But on issues of war and peace, the American people deserve the truth. Credibility matters. Instead, we are getting a tangle of disinformation and lies: Trump continues to peddle the bogus claim that he had intelligence of an imminent attack on four embassies, even as we learn that, in fact, Trump had provisionally signed off on the killing seven months ago. Here is the question: “Can you trust this president to tell the truth if he sends your sons and daughters to war?”

Trump is the appeaser-in-chief. For years, Republicans mocked what they called President Barack Obama’s “apology tour.” But those efforts pale next to Trump’s overt appeasement of some of the world’s worst actors, including Putin. His defenses of Putin’s thuggery has been accompanied by Trump’s embrace of a crude moral relativism. “There are a lot of killers,” he said when asked about Putin’s murders of political opponents. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?” Two years earlier, he was asked about Putin’s murder of journalists. Trump replied “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.”

Trump said he would run the government like a business. But his administration, which is riddled with vacancies and rife with rookies, makes one unforced error after another. That has already been reflected in the confusion over the letter about withdrawal from Iraq and the shifting explanations and justifications for the strike. But war is no time for rookies, playground bullies and wannabes.

Trump has rejected America’s role as a moral leader. For years, Republicans rallied around the notion of “American exceptionalism.” But Trump rejects the idea. He thinks of America not as a shining city on a hill but as a mercenary force, and he sees our relations with other nations in strictly transactional terms.

And finally,

It’s not America First. It’s Trump First. This is the gravamen of the Ukraine scandal and the impeachment process. On a central issue of national security, Trump placed his own personal needs ahead of the nation’s. By demanding an investigation of his political rival and withholding military aid, Trump did not betray Ukraine,: he betrayed the United States and his oath.

Democrats have a choice here. They can run a replay of the 1972 Nixon-McGovern race, in which Nixon successfully played the responsible strongman even in the middle of the much-despised Vietnam War. Or they can snatch away Trump’s bogus mantle and run on military strength, national security, international respect, truth, competence, moral leadership and protecting American values.

I don’t think Trump sees that coming.