Stephens: Grading Trump's foreign policy

Stephens: Grading Trump's foreign policy

July 25th, 2017 by Bret Stephens in Opinion Free Press Commentary

President Donald Trump

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

If you're a liberal judging Donald Trump's foreign-policy record at the six-month mark, it's not hard to guess the grade you'd give him. An F is too generous for your taste. An F-minus?

What if you're conservative? Here your grade will depend on what kind of conservative you happen to be.

(1) You're a Trumpkin. What's not to like? Wasn't it Machiavelli who said, "It is much safer to be feared than loved"?

Isn't it about time that Bashar Assad fears us? Isn't it about time we have a U.S. president who couldn't care less whether he's loved in Paris or Brussels — capitals our soldiers once liberated only so that they could repay us with freeloading and condescension? And isn't it about time we throw our weight around the world on our own behalf and not for the sake of "international community"?

Grade: The easiest A since you took "rocks for jocks" in college.

(2) You're not a Trumpkin, but you're happy Hillary Clinton isn't president. Well, what did you expect? We all knew he was a policy neophyte, with some bad ideas but reasonably decent instincts. And, on the whole, his instincts are serving us well.

What, you have an objection to Jim Mattis at Defense, John Kelly at Homeland Security, Mike Pompeo at CIA and H.R. McMaster as security adviser? The Clinton team would have consisted of Brookings Institution types trying to extend the Obama administration's legacy of U.S. retreat — of appeasing adversaries, alienating allies and turning us into a country whose enemies didn't fear us and whose friends didn't trust us.

It's been only six months, and Trump still has a lot to learn. But he's jettisoned some of his worst ideas — on NATO being obsolete, for instance — while taking a more muscular approach against the Islamic State, Iran and North Korea. Grade: B.

(3) You're the sort of conservative who doesn't believe we should grade college students on a curve, much less our commander in chief.

Yes, Machiavelli did say it was better to be feared than loved. But the great Florentine also said, "A prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred." The United States has had unpopular presidents. But not one — not Richard Nixon in the Watergate crisis; not George W. Bush at the worst moments of the Iraq War — inspires the sort of hatred Trump does.

Much of this is self-inflicted. Trump didn't need to start his presidency by comparing the U.S. intelligence community to Nazi Germany.

He didn't need to demand that Seoul pay for missile defenses that would protect U.S. troops in the event of war with North Korea or toy with our NATO allies as he mulled whether to reaffirm our mutual-defense obligations.

Trump could have avoided all of this. He didn't.

Conservatives must also wonder what happened to the "conservative" foreign policy they were promised in the campaign. The administration certified this month that Iran was complying with the 2015 nuclear deal; according to the Institute for Science and International Security, it isn't fully. We were supposed to support our allies in Syria fighting both the Islamic State and Assad; we ditched them. We were supposed to get serious about the threat from Russia.

But the deeper flaw of Trump's foreign policy isn't psychological. It's philosophical. The administration is the first to make an open break with the anti-isolationist postwar consensus of Harry Truman, Arthur Vandenberg and Dean Acheson.

"The world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage," McMaster and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. Mark this as the shift from internationalism to transactionalism; from a values-based foreign policy to an approach that might be called neo-Maguirism, after "Jerry Maguire." To wit: "Show me the money!"

It's not that the administration has done everything wrong, at least by conservative lights.

But if serious conservatives believe in anything, it's that we really are, as Lincoln said, "the last best hope of earth," and that our foreign policy should be equal to that hope.

That's "hope," not "joke." Grade: OMG.

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