Free Trade, Trump’s Brain, and Loose-Lipped Ben Carson

March 17, 2016

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Free trade is the biggest foreign policy issue of this election so far. That’s a bit of a surprise. After all, Americans’ support for free trade was growing not that long ago and national security concerns usually dominate the foreign policy debate. And yet, as the Wall Street Journal’s Bob Davis reports:

After decades in which successive Republican and Democratic presidents have pushed to open U.S. and global markets, resentment toward free trade now appears to have the upper hand in both parties, making passage this year of a sweeping Pacific trade deal far less likely and clouding the longer-term outlook for international economic exchange.

Donald Trump has used anti-trade sentiment to his advantage and advocated for a mercantilist economic policy that goes against the last two centuries of economic orthodoxy — and it’s working. Bernie Sanders has done the same, coming out forcefully against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA in the past. Heck, it even made Hillary Clinton change her stance on the TPP, a deal she was involved in structuring.

Why might this be resonating with the everyday American voter?

[E]xpanded trade is a double-edged sword. The defense of globalization rests on viewing Americans primarily as consumers, not workers, based on the assumption that we care more about low prices than about low wages.

It is unquestionable that expanded trade has vastly increased the supply of goods and services and has thus contributed to lower costs for consumers. But basic trade theory connects prices to wages, and in the United States, globalization is widely accepted as a contributor to both wage stagnation and the growth in inequality. For example, the real wage for blue-collar manufacturing in the United States is essentially unchanged over the past 35 years, while productivity in the sector is up more than 200 percent.

In multiple polls, Americans say that the U.S. economy is their top issue because they “believe the middle class is dying.” So while voters certainly look at trade through a domestic lens, there is no question this ultimately comes back to a foreign policy stance that both Trump and Sanders proselytize.

Trump has a good brain for foreign policy. At least that’s what he claims in a recent interview with Morning Joe. Trump was asked who he consults on foreign policy, and the answer was himself, because he’s all he needs: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain, and I’ve said a lot of things.”

Yeah, like suggesting we should take ISIL’s oil and bomb the sh*it out of them. Insinuating that there is a conspiracy behind the Iran Deal. Not knowing what the nuclear triad is. Questioning why we might need NATO. Criticizing our troop presence in South Korea. Somehow unilaterally punishing China for “beating us in everything.” I could go on, but now I’m sad.

Two thoughts come to mind. Is this finally the big reveal of his foreign policy team he’s promised for so long? And, what roles do Senator Jeff Sessions and LTG Mike Flynn (Ret.) play for Trump now?

Neocons don’t like Trump. Jacob Heilbrunn explains that “in a last-ditch effort, leading neocon thinkers have established what they call the National Security Advisory Council to support Senator Marco Rubio.” Oops. “And many are announcing that if push comes to shove, they will support Hillary Clinton over Mr. Trump.”

But here’s his main point: “Mr. Trump represents a return to the party’s roots. … The Trump doctrine, if that term can be employed, is reminiscent of basic foreign policy realist tenets.”

Well, that’s not quite true. It is not just neocons that dislike the GOP’s frontrunner. Republicans of all foreign policy persuasions are not fans. It’s not Trump’s worldview that’s the problem, it’s the man himself.

Also, calling Trump a realist lumps him in with Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Bush Sr., which is a disservice to their relatively successful presidencies in terms of global affairs. Further, neither of those presidents would agree with any of Trump’s foreign policy proposals to today’s problems and all were internationalists. So while they may share some ideological space on questioning how much America should be engaged abroad, all similarities end there. Trump’s realism, then, may not be real at all.

To a different point: What does it say about Hillary Clinton that some neocons favor her, most prominently Robert Kagan? Nothing particularly new other than that it highlights her hawkish record. That seems to matter mostly to Millennials, but not the majority of Democratic primary voters.

The troops want Trump and Sanders. In a survey of 931 active-duty troops, reservists, and members of the National Guard, 27 percent said they would vote for Trump to be president, while 22 percent threw their support behind Sanders.


Nearly half of the service members surveyed also said they were unhappy with the discussion of national security issues in the presidential race so far. Fewer than 5 percent were ‘very satisfied’ with how the topic has been broached.

I completely agree.

It is important to note that this study was not scientifically conducted. Still, it provides a unique look into how noncommissioned officers view those vying to be their commander-in-chief. If a small conclusion can be drawn, troops want a leader who is skeptical of getting the United States engaged abroad. Of all the candidates, Trump and Sanders embody that sentiment the most. I’m starting to notice a theme. …

Americans want to cut defense spending, candidates don’t. In fact, citizens would like to cut at least $12 billion from the defense budget after being presented with reasons to increase and decrease the budget, according to a Voice of the People survey. Yet, all the Republican candidates support spending more; Sanders wants to cut, and Clinton has yet to offer a firm position. And where do these voters want to cut? “Air power, sea power, ground forces, nuclear weapons, and missile defense.” More specifically:

[T]hey wanted defense cuts in almost every area of the military, including cutting ground forces by $4 billion, nuclear weapons by $3 billion, air power by $2 billion, naval forces by $2 billion and missile defense by $1 billion. Respondents wanted to keep the budgets for special operations forces and the Marines at the same level but sought no increase in any specific military area.

How did this split along party lines?

[A] majority of Democrats wanted to cut the budget by $36 billion, and a majority of independents favored a $20 billion cut, while 50 percent of Republicans favored decreasing spending or keeping it the same, and 48 percent favored increasing it.

In a time of such global uncertainty, some will find it maddening that Americans want to spend less on their military. But two things are worth noting. To begin, this survey was just about the defense budget. There was no discussion of attitudes towards other parts of the government that keep Americans safe like the intelligence services and Homeland Security. Also, historical trends may already be driving the defense budget lower, the Obama administration’s latest request notwithstanding.

The “Final Four” haven’t served in the military. Yes, we knew that already. But here is why Bob Greene thinks that fact is important:

Presidential campaigns, by their nature, are self-centered enterprises. If they were boiled down to a single phrase, it would be: ‘Choose me.’ So it feels like an antidote to instead read each night about some Americans for whom ‘Choose me’ was an alien thought: Americans who, in the defining moments of their lives, chose to think only of others.

In other words, being in the military instills a sense of service in those who, well, serve. When veterans run for office that sense of service remains and could potentially create better presidents. But with no candidates remaining who ever put on a uniform, that potential does not exist.

In addition:

It once was rare for a November election to occur without at least one of the major-party candidates having a military background. It was a plus: something voters could identify with and admire. When, in 2012, Barack Obama ran against Mitt Romney, it was the first time in 68 years — since Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election against Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 — that neither candidate had served in the armed forces.

Two thoughts. First, many of those who served will continue to feel a sense of duty to the country and their fellow American, but civilians are just as capable being good presidents. After all, Lincoln and FDR were wartime leaders and greatly succeeded. Military service is commendable, but not a requirement for elected office, even while at war. Second, the absence of veterans on a November ballot will likely be the new normal as we have an all-volunteer force (Greene accepts this point, too).

I certainly see why for many they would view this new development as a travesty. That’s a fair concern. But as long as a president has a general understanding of warfare, or is willing to learn, and listens to his or her advisors, there is no reason why someone with no military experience cannot lead the country admirably — assuming that sense of duty and service is there.

Weirdest Article of the Week. This week isn’t a specific article, but a set of weird statements from one person. Former presidential candidate Ben Carson has said some odd things these days. He all but admitted his endorsement of Trump happened because he was offered a Cabinet position. If true, that’s a felony. And, in an effort to reassure the public it shouldn’t feel bad if we soon call Trump “Mr. President,” he said, “Even if Donald Trump turns out not to be such a great president … we’re only looking at four years.”

The man who constantly complained about the amount of time it took for moderators to include him in a debate apparently thinks four years is a short enough time to suffer through a presidency many believe would be disastrous. Ohhhhhh the irony.

Bonus. Because it was not exclusively about the presidential election, I did not cover Jeffrey Goldberg’s brilliant and much-talked-about “The Obama Doctrine” in this week’s newsletter. I also figured if you subscribe and enjoy a War on the Rocks product, you read the piece by now. But if you haven’t, please set aside (a lot of) time and do so. Also check out the accompanying pieces both in favor and against Obama’s worldview. I highly recommend Stephen Sestanovich’s response both for its thoughtful critique and for this incredibly interesting nugget of information:

I recently heard a reporter ask a senior administration official whether the U.S. has ever told its Middle Eastern partners that it would be ready to commit a limited contingent of military personnel in Syria as long as they would do the same — an increased and coordinated effort. The (commendably honest) answer: ‘No.’

That is something I definitely want to know more about.


Alex Ward is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. defense and military strategy and policy. He tweets at @AlexWardB.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore