OK, it’s easy to pick on Donald Trump’s foreign policy. But just because he recently referred to the attack on the World Trade Center as happening on “7/11” — which is a convenience store — instead of 9/11, and just because he claimed that “I know Russia well” because he held a “major event in Russia two or three years ago — (the) Miss Universe contest, which was a big, big, incredible event” — doesn’t make him unqualified.
I’m sure you can learn a lot schmoozing with Miss Argentina. You can also learn a lot eating at the International House of Pancakes. I never fully understood Arab politics until I ate hummus — or was it Hamas?
And, by the way, just because Trump’s big foreign policy speech was salted with falsehoods — like “ISIS is making millions and millions of dollars a week selling Libyan oil” — it doesn’t make him unqualified.
The New York Times Magazine just profiled one of the president’s deputy national security advisers, Ben Rhodes, reporting how he and his aides boasted of using social media, what the writer called a “largely manufactured” narrative, and a pliant press to, in essence, dupe the country into supporting the Iran nuclear deal. The Donald is not the only one given to knuckleheaded bluster and misrepresentation on foreign policy. Life is imitating Twitter everywhere now.
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Indeed, criticizing Trump for inconsistency when it comes to foreign policy is a bit rich when you consider that both Democrats and Republicans have treated Pakistan as an ally, knowing full well that its secret service has trucked with terrorists and coddled the Taliban — the people killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan; they’ve both treated Saudi Arabia as an ally because we needed its oil, knowing full well that its export of Salafist Islam has fueled jihadis; they both supported decapitating Libya and then not staying around to support a new security order, thus opening a gaping hole on the African coast for migrants to flow into Europe; they’ve both supported NATO expansion into Russia’s face and then wondered aloud why the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is so truculent.
No, if I were critiquing Trump’s foreign policy views it would not be on inconsistency, hypocrisy or lying. It would be that he shows no sign of having asked the most important question: What are the real foreign policy challenges the next president will face? I don’t think he has a clue, because if he did, he wouldn’t want the job. This is one of the worst times to be conducting U.S. foreign policy.
Consider some of the questions that will greet the Oval Office’s next occupant. For starters, what does the new president do when the necessary is impossible but the impossible is necessary? Yes, we’ve proved in Iraq and Afghanistan that we don’t know how to do nation-building in other people’s countries. But just leaving Libya, Syria and parts of Iraq and Yemen ungoverned, and spewing out refugees, has led to a flood of migrants hitting Europe and stressing the cohesion of the European Union; that refugee flood could very well lead to Britain’s exit from the EU.
President Barack Obama has been patting himself on the back a lot lately for not intervening in Syria. I truly sympathized with how hard that call was — until I heard the president and his aides boasting about how smart their decision was and how stupid all their critics are. The human and geopolitical spillover from Syria is not over. It’s destabilizing the EU, Lebanon, Iraq, Kurdistan and Jordan. The choices are hellish. I would not want the responsibility for making them. But nobody has a monopoly on genius here, and neither Obama’s victory lap around this smoldering ruin nor Trump’s bombastic and simplistic solutions are pretty to watch.
And there are more of these stressors coming: Falling oil prices, climate change and population bombs are going to blow up more weak states, hemorrhaging refugees in all directions.
There’s also the question of what you should do about the networked nihilists? Ever since the rise of Osama bin Laden, super-empowered angry men have challenged us. But at least bin Laden had an identifiable cause and set of demands: cleansing the Arabian Peninsula of Western influence. But now we are seeing a mutation. Can anyone tell me what the terrorists who killed all those people in Brussels, Paris or San Bernardino wanted? They didn’t even leave a note; their act was their note. These suicidal jihadi-nihilists are not trying to win; they just want to make us lose. That’s a tough foe. They can’t destroy us — now — but they will ratchet up the pain if they get the ammo. Curbing them while maintaining an open society, with personal privacy on your cellphone and the Internet, will be a challenge.
And then there are Russia and China. They’re back in the game of traditional sphere-of-influence geopolitics. But both Russia and China face huge economic strains that will tempt their leaders to distract attention at home with nationalist adventures abroad.
The days of clear-cut, satisfying victories overseas, like opening up China or tearing down the Berlin Wall, are over. U.S. foreign policy now is all about containing disorder and messes. It is the exact opposite of running a beauty pageant. There’s no winner, and each contestant is uglier than the last.
Thomas Friedman writes for The New York Times.