Save for butchering the name of Tanzania, Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech on Wednesday wasn’t that bad.
Sure, it was campaign-style pablum long on catch phrases and short on specifics. But most candidates won’t get into X’s and O’s on the trail — and they really shouldn’t anyway because telegraphing national security actions defeats their purpose and because it’s the role of the better-informed president, not a candidate for office, to do the serious work of making policy.
At its core, Trump’s address was an effective distillation of the conflicting impulses of the Republican Party: the desire to build up the military without spending money, to make other nations cower without deploying force, to destroy ISIS without relying on allies and to grow the American economy without engaging in trade. Trump even said he wouldn’t tell ISIS where he would strike, even though we know where they are.
He blamed President Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, for a foreign policy that he says has made America weaker in the world. How that is different from the message of the many establishment Republicans who attacked him after the speech on Wednesday is beyond me. That has been the GOP’s unifying foreign policy message for eight years: not what the country should do but what the Democratic administration is doing wrong.
Trump wasn’t able to resolve the inherent contradictions within the GOP. And, by the way, the Republican Party is not alone. Mad as many GOP voters are about American adventurism, Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq war 13-plus years ago is the reason that many Democrats wouldn’t vote for her in a primary in 2008 or 2016.
It is Exhibit A in the liberals case that Clinton is too hawkish, too prone to turn to the military to solve problems.
The Republican reaction to Trump’s speech was predictably divided along the lines of those who like him or at least have come to accept he is likely to be the party’s nominee, and those who will never accept it.
“Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave,” Sen. Lindsey Graham wrote at the end of a Tweetstorm. His most specific criticism centered around Trump’s perceived isolationism. And it’s true that the international businessman said he wanted to reverse globalism and put “America First.”
That’s a canard. Every American leader does what he or she thinks is in the best interests of the United States. Moreover, no modern president has gotten into office and really reduced our global engagement — even though some have promised to do that.
Reagan might not have loved everything about Trump’s speech, but building up American military capability in an effort to reduce the need to deploy force was a staple of his national security philosophy and at the core of what Trump was saying.
I don’t agree with his worldview, but to dismiss it as outside the mainstream of Republican foreign policy thinking is to ignore two truths: The concept of peace through strength is Republican orthodoxy and withdrawal from international organizations, wariness of war and scrapping trade pacts all appeal to the Trump Republican voters who feel that the Washington GOP establishment is too internationalist.
These impulses may be irreconcilable in theory — and in practice — but nothing he said is outside the spectrum of what significant blocs of Republican voters think.
It is telling that Trump’s rivals don’t believe that he can rattle his saber effectively after he cowed them for months with insults and bluster. Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, two of those who were dispatched early, deserve credit for standing up to him earlier than others. But it is ironic that, as a field, the Churchill-loving Republican field appeased Trump for far too long before trying to stop him.
Democrats, too, want to put “America First,” though many of them would divert defense spending to domestic priorities. And they, too, haven’t reconciled their differences on America’s role in the world.
But if Trump was incoherent, as many of his detractors suggested on Wednesday, it is because the party isn’t unified on the subject. Trump is hardly a foreign policy expert — and anyone can read a speech written by someone else — but, to his credit, he’s at least listening to both wings of the party and trying to bring them together. If anyone with better foreign policy credentials and insights had tried to do that, he or she might be poised to win the nomination.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.
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