war on the rocks

Trump’s Worldview, President Mattis, and the EgyptAir Hijacking

March 31, 2016

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Trump’s world. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump is in a sharing mood. In a long interview with The New York Times Maggie Haberman and David Sanger, which followed his chat with the Washington Post, Trump laid out a foreign policy doctrine where “America comes first” — a doctrine that has a long history in the United States. The entire transcript is worth reading, but some of the highlights provide a good overview:

On whether to allow Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear arsenal:

It’s a position that at some point is something that we have to talk about, and if the United States keeps on its path, its current path of weakness, they’re going to want to have that anyway with or without me discussing it, because I don’t think they feel very secure in what’s going on with our country.

On his standards for using American troops abroad, such as for homeland protection, for humanitarian intervention, or to aid allies:

It sounds nice to say, ‘I have a blanket standard: here’s what it is.’ No. 1 is the protection of our country, ok? That’s always going to be No. 1, by far. That’s by a factor of 100. … After that it depends on the country, the region, how friendly they’ve been toward us. You have countries that haven’t been friendly to us that we’re protecting. So it’s how good they’ve been toward us, etc., etc.

On summing up his worldview as “America First”:

I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ So I like the expression. … We have been disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher. We were the big bully, but we were not smartly led … the big stupid bully, and we were systematically ripped off by everybody. From China to Japan to South Korea to the Middle East … protecting Saudi Arabia and not being properly reimbursed. … I mean they were making a billion dollars a day before the oil went down. … The whole thing is preposterous. … We will not be ripped off anymore, we’re going to be friendly with everybody, but we’re not going to be taken advantage of by anybody.

He also goes on to reiterate why he thinks the NATO alliance is outdated, and touches on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the South China Sea, and much more.

The reviews of the interview are in. And just like for “Batman v. Superman,” they’re not good (bonus: here’s the best film takedown by far). To make the point: The Times, the publication that conducted the interview, called Trump’s comments on foreign affairs “babble.” CBS News is unsure Trump would take foreign policy advice. Mira Rapp-Hooper thinks “Trump’s nuclear views are terrifying.” Vox’s Max Fisher believes Trump outlined the worldview of a rogue state — essentially, rent-seeking. Daniel Benaim isn’t sure Trump understands how alliances work. Peter Apps notes how Trump is outlining a plan for American withdrawal from the world. Folks in Japan and South Korea are denouncing Trump’s comments about them. And, worst of all, the American Freedom Party — a leading white supremacist political party — endorsed Trump and even gave their thoughts as to who should serve in the Cabinet (secretaries of state and defense included, of course).

Once again, all the feedback can be summed up in this one clip.

Should the general election pit Trump versus Hillary Clinton, which looks more and more likely, it’ll be the second presidential race in a row where the Democrat will seem stronger on national defense than the Republican, and where traditional party support for the Iraq War will be switched. Recall that in 2012, President Barack Obama was trusted more on foreign policy and national security than Republican nominee Mitt Romney, mostly due to the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. It likely also had something to do with the public usually trusting a president over a challenger on foreign policy.

How this Trump–Clinton dynamic plays out in foreign policy will be fascinating, especially in a year in which foreign policy seems to matter a lot.

Is Hillary Clinton a neocon? John Hannah is doing his best Rand Paul impression. Pointing to Clinton’s AIPAC speech, he believes Clinton has shown some neoconservative tendencies. He emphasizes this passage in particular:

At the same time, America should always stand with those voices inside Iran calling for more openness. Now look, we know the supreme leader still calls the shots and that the hard liners are intent on keeping their grip on power. But the Iranian people themselves deserve a better future, and they are trying to make their voices heard. They should know that America is not their enemy, they should know we will support their efforts to bring positive change to Iran.

What’s neocon-y about that? Hannah explains:

At least a hint, certainly, that the U.S. strategy against Iran should include an effort to back democratic change. Whether a prospective Clinton administration would actually pursue such a policy with seriousness is impossible to say. But Clinton’s seeming recognition that there ought to be a political component to America’s approach toward the Islamic Republic is an important conceptual insight, and one that other candidates would be well-advised to consider.

Hannah is right — it’s hard to know what a Clinton administration would do. But it is interesting to note that this is not a chord the Republicans and Bernie Sanders are striking. Yet, Clinton’s comment could just as easily be her signal to the Iranian people that she understands their plight and will do what’s possible — within reason — to help the situation. We will only know for sure if a President Hillary Clinton takes office.

President Mattis? Around the world, Marines must be excited about John Noonan’s proposal. The former Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney foreign policy advisor is pining for the always-quotable Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis to step up and lead the country. Here’s why Mattis fits the bill in Noonan’s world:

This third-party option would need to thread a needle. The candidate would have to be conservative, enough so that non-Trump conservatives — keep in mind this is a strong majority of traditional Republican voters — have reason to show up and pull a lever for him and the party’s Senate candidates. The candidate would also need to be sensible, experienced, and respected — not a demagogue like those who have so excited Republican voters this cycle. The name would need to be recognizable, but not in the garish celebrity sense like Mr. Trump. The candidate would need to convey strength in a year teeming with voter concerns about ISIS, cybersecurity, a rising Russia, and Chinese shield-thumping in the Far East. …

He neuters both party frontrunners’ perceived strengths. Trump’s faux-tough guy act would crumble when met with an actual warrior, and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy chops would seem like a 100-level International Relations course next to Mattis’ experience and expertise.

First of all, “neuters”? Second, it sounds like candidate-from-the-start Mattis might’ve had a good shot. Yet it’s hard to see how third-party-candidate Mattis pulls this off. This history of third-party presidential bids is “bleak,” and it’s doubtful even the “Warrior Monk” could make it work.

It’s the same point Alexander McCoy makes in Task & Purpose: Mattis would have to get on the ballot in 50 states (not an easy task); introduce himself to much of the country; raise a lot of money; and build an entire platform and marketing campaign. Time is short to do all that in the long campaign we already run, let alone in the time he has left.

It’s a nice sentiment, but we’re more likely to see Mattis hanging around in California in the near future than in Washington.

Everybody hates Cruz. Well, at least his proposals about what to do in the Muslim community. Recall he declared that Muslim areas in the United States require more policing and surveillance, essentially demonizing one religion and a set of people. Since then, responses coming in this week have not been kind to Cruz.

House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul: “To send inflammatory messages could actually have an unintended consequence.”

John Miller, the Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism for the New York Police Department: “When you have people campaigning through fear and using that as leverage, and then giving advice to police to be the cudgel of that fear, that’s not the direction American policing should be taking in a democracy.”

Yikes. Those are two powerful men outwardly criticizing the senator’s plan. And as I covered last week, “Cruz has been widely panned for [his] comments.” Still, his proposal has caused quite the uproar, and it will likely haunt him should he somehow get past the primaries. If there’s a silver lining for Cruz, though, Al Qaeda believes it is Trump, not Cruz, who is spewing the most hateful things about Islam. It’s a coin flip at this point, though.

What we know about terrorism. Here’s something every candidate and voter should read over at the Scientific American. With all the news about terrorism these days, it’d be good to know the social psychology behind how terrorists become terrorists and why they do what they do, recognizing that the motivations for terrorism range far and wide. The article covers a lot of the breakthroughs in the study of terrorism, including understanding “tribal ties,” “extreme identities,” and the “swarm and norm” (which may be the greatest social science term of all time).

Obviously, presidential candidates should have at least some familiarity with this. Too bad, though, that these

cool-headed observations seem to have been drowned out by the all-too-familiar chorus of senators, celebrities and others waging their own rhetorical jihad against Islam. As we continue to grapple with the challenge of violent extremism, perhaps we should all take a brain check. Instead of lip-synching to the shrill braying of polemical pundits and belligerent blowhards, maybe we should tune in to the quieter, more discerning notes emanating from some of our laboratories.

Or rather maybe our policy makers should.

Can’t help but agree.

Weirdest article of the week. This is less a weird article and more a weird story. By now, you’ve surely heard of the EgyptAir hijacking. If you’re like me, you woke up early in the morning horrified by the news and thought, “not again.” Well, then we learned this:

Seif El Din Mustafa … had personal motives to hijack the jet and [the hijacking] was not terrorism linked. Officials said Mustafa’s action was linked to his ex-wife, who is a Greek-Cypriot and lives in Larnaca.

Witnesses told Cyprus Mail newspaper that he threw a letter out of the airport in Larnaca, written in Arabic, asking that it be delivered to his former wife.

Asked if the hijacker was motivated by love, [Cyprus President Nicos] Anastasiades laughed and said: “Always there is a woman involved.”

Most importantly, everyone was freed and Mustafa gave himself up. Still, what’s morbidly great about this story is that after all the horrible news about terrorism, having a weird hijacking like this end decently well — heck, with a head of state laughing it off — is minutely heart-lifting. Perhaps the world is in such a state that an event like this is considered “good news.”

Either way, I’m glad the episode ended with chuckles and not with tears.

 

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.