America goes to the polls today to pass its judgement on Donald Trump’s four years as president. Domestic issues will no doubt determine the choice of most voters, but for a few of them foreign policy will matter too. Among some of the latter there will be a sense of disappointment that Trump failed to deliver what he had promised four years ago.
Back then, more than a few people were more than a little worried about the aggressive foreign policy tendencies of Trump’s rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton. The chilling video of Clinton laughing about Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal death, and chuckling ‘We came, we saw, he died’, led to fears that her victory would lead to even more wars, with the neoconservative/liberal interventionist lobby riding on Clinton’s coat-tails to push American deeper into futile military adventures overseas.
In contrast to Clinton, candidate Trump, back in 2016, promised peace. He’d restore relations with Russia, talk to North Korea, and bring the troops back from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Trump seemed to understand that endless war brought America nothing but harm, and that foreign and defence policy needed a complete rethink. He was thoroughly castigated for it, but he was right. If he’d done what he said he’d do, the United States, and many other places, would be much better off today.
Alas, it was not to be. Trump tore up the nuclear agreement with Iran and assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The wars he promised to end are all still going strong. Initially, rather than bringing the troops home from Afghanistan, Trump authorized a surge of additional forces. Later he announced that all American troops would leave Syria, only to reverse himself a few days afterwards, and then ended up declaring that American had to stay in Syria to control the oil fields! As for relations with Russia, they’ve gone from bad to worse. It’s not a pretty record.
What happened? One part of the answer is that Trump made some poor personnel choices, surrounding himself first with a bunch of generals and then with hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. It’s almost like he was deliberately sabotaging himself. Another part of the answer appears to be that, at least in some respects, Trump has been a very weak president, unwilling or unable to press his point of view when faced by resistance from the civil and military bureaucracy. Reports say that whenever Trump came up with a plan to reduce America’s military footprint abroad, the bureaucracy would devise some scheme to ‘scare’ him into believing that the consequences of such a move would be disastrous. Again and again, Trump caved in.
There are just two things that can be said in Trump’s favour. First, he at least tried to talk with Russia and North Korea, and in Afghanistan with the Taleban (in the latter case, with some success). And second, he is the first US president in 40 years (since Jimmy Carter) not to start a war.
Think of that last one for a second – the first president in 40 years not to start a war. In a way, it’s a real achievement. Perhaps Trump does, after all, deserve the title ‘peace president’. But then, think a bit more. Not starting a war shouldn’t really count as something special. It ought to be the default position. The fact that it is so remarkable tells us less about Trump than it does about the dysfunctional nature of US foreign policy.
In the end, then, the feeling of disappointment is not unjustified. By 2016, the American people were getting fed up with failed military adventures. Trump won a mandate to bring those adventures to an end. But he blew it. He could have been the peace president. Instead, he was at best the ‘almost’ peace president, or at any rate the ‘not war president’. That’s at least better than the alternative, but it’s not what people were hoping for. We’ll have to see what happens next, but I can’t say that I’m brimming with optimism.