Donald Trump gave what was billed as a “major foreign policy speech” last week, with the aim of demonstrating that he has the knowledge, judgment, and temperament to be Commander-in-Chief. Trump failed the test.
The first thing one has to do in evaluating any statement of Donald Trump’s is to look at his history. His racist policy proposals – from building a wall on the Mexican border to keep out people he claims are potential “rapists” and “criminals” to barring all Muslims from entering the United States on the theory that they could be terrorists – should be enough to disqualify him from being president of the United States. Add to that the fact that most of his major factual assertions are false, and it should be case closed. This man cannot be allowed to be our next president.
Because he has yet to pay a political price for being wrong, many of us have stopped keeping track of how often Donald Trump misstates the facts, or simply makes things up. An analysis of key Trump statements by the fact-checking organization Politifact found that over three-quarters of the statements they looked at were either false, mostly false, or “pants on fire.” And only three percent of the Trump statements they analyzed were judged to be fully true. So anything Trump says has to be taken with an ocean of salt. This holds as true for his foreign policy pronouncements as for anything else he has to say.
That being said, it’s still worth looking at Trump’s foreign policy speech, simply because of the sobering fact that he may become the nominee for president of one of our two major political parties. In addition, many of his statements are damaging in their own right, regardless of how he follows up on them.
The first thing that jumps out from the Trump speech is that it is a bundle of contradictions. For example, after saying that “America First” would be his watchword, Trump proceeds to praise the efforts of the “greatest generation” in beating back the “Nazis and Japanese imperialists” during World War II. But as Michael Crowley of Politico was one of the first to point out, one of the most potent movements aimed at keeping the United States out of that war was organized under the slogan “America First.” The Anti-Defamation League urged Trump to drop the term, noting the “undercurrents of anti-Semitism and bigotry that characterized the America First movement.” And in an opinion piece for CNN, Susan Dunn of Williams College pointed to the following quote by America First spokesperson Charles Lindbergh to underscore the same point:
“The British and Jewish races, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war
. . . Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence on our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”
Is Donald Trump unaware of the history of the America First movement, does he support its ideology, or does he simply not care?
In another bit of twisted logic, Trump argues that “our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us.” But he also threatens to leave our European allies to their own devices if they don’t spend more on their military forces. And he said in last week’s speech that he would work closely with “our Arab allies,” but he failed to explain how his proposal to bar Muslims from the United States, and his past pledges to engage in torture of terror suspects and kill family members of suspected terrorists would make any Arab nation want to work with him. Trump has since backtracked on his statements about torturing suspects and killing family members of terrorists, but the fact that he said these things at all is telling. And Trump being Trump, there’s no guarantee that he won’t say them again.
On the topic of not working well with others, Trump also threatens to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, which was concluded after a complex set of negotiations that involved the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, three of America’s closest allies. The agreement also involved Russia and China, evidence that engagement with these nations can yield results even at a time of tension on other issues. And contrary to Trump’s claim, the deal is working, as evidenced by the fact that Tehran has already destroyed 12,000 nuclear centrifuges, disabled a reactor that would have been capable of producing fuel that could have been used to build a nuclear bomb, and shipped 98 percent of its highly enriched uranium out of the country. In the face of these realities, Trump’s claim that he can negotiate a “better deal” rings hollow.
The Iran deal isn’t the only issue of nuclear weapons policy that Trump gets wrong. He argued in last week’s speech that “our nuclear weapons arsenal . . . has been allowed to atrophy and is desperately in need of modernization and renewal.” Apparently he is unaware that the Pentagon is already in the midst of developing a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and ballistic missiles, not to mention a dangerous and destabilizing new nuclear cruise missile, all at a cost of $1 trillion over the next three decades. This buildup is unaffordable, provocative, and unnecessary, but the fact that Trump doesn’t even know that it exists – alongside a plan to pour hundreds of billions into building new facilities to build and maintain nuclear warheads – is yet another example of his lack of seriousness on vital national security issues.
Then of course there is Trump’s off-the-cuff suggestion that Japan and South Korea should get nuclear weapons, put forward in the same forum in which he assured us that he’s opposed to nuclear proliferation.
Trump also buys into the claims of military hawks that the changes in the size of the U.S. military since the end of the Cold War are a sign of weakness, even though, as vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva has noted, the United States has “the most powerful military on the planet.” And Trump isn’t saying whether his statements mean he is going to play the numbers game by dramatically increasing troop levels, massively expanding the Navy, or otherwise reversing what he sees as a problem of a military that is too small. If so he will contradict his pledge to do “more with less” in expanding U.S. military power.
And then there is Trump’s secret plan to get rid of ISIS. He won’t tell us what it is; we’ll just have to trust him on this one. But as Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies has noted, “secret plans” can make things worse – much worse – as in Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the Vietnam War. Trump should be pressed to at least provide an outline of how he would proceed against ISIS. How different would his approach be? What would it cost? Is he going to try to bomb ISIS into submission, or send more troops, or offer them some prime real estate if they behave themselves? Voters deserve answers to these questions.
Alongside his aggressive, contradictory positions on a wide range of national security issues, Trump also tried to use the speech to soften his image by giving a nod to diplomacy, claiming he would work with Russia and China, and excoriating the damage done by interventions like the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. But can he be believed when he says these things? For example, despite Donald Trump’s repeated claims that he opposed going into Iraq, veteran journalist and national security expert James Fallows found no evidence of such opposition until well after the war had started. His conclusion was simple and to the point. Trump is “making it up” when he claims that he was an early opponent of the war. Or to put a finer point on it, Fallows says that “Trump. Is. Lying. About. Having. Publicly. Opposed. The. Iraq. War.”
But as bad as Donald Trump’s jumbled foreign policy views are, Ted Cruz’s may be even worse. From his assertion that he would use carpet bombing and see if “sand can glow in the dark” in the fight against ISIS to his pledge to mindlessly lavish 4 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on the Pentagon, Cruz is arguably even more reckless than Donald Trump.
Threatening to carpet bomb Iraq or Syria, with the massive civilian casualties and devastating human and environmental consequences that would entail, is not worthy of a major presidential candidate – or any candidate. And the notion of “making the sand glow” suggests that Cruz may have been referring to the use of nuclear weapons, an issue he has never clarified. The fact that Cruz made the remark in a flippant fashion with a smile on his face makes it all the worse.
And Cruz’s plan to throw 4 percent of the United States’ economic resources at the Pentagon would be both costly and counterproductive. Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute estimates that Cruz’s proposal would add another $1 trillion to the Pentagon’s budget in his first term alone, money that could have a huge impact if spent on health, education, infrastructure and other essential needs. And in a reportcommissioned by the National Taxpayers Union, Matthew Fay of the Niskanen Center dismantles the argument for spending four percent of GDP for defense, noting that linking defense spending to GDP is “neither fiscally responsible nor strategically coherent.” Fay’s analysis is worth reading in its entirety, but the basic point is clear – spending on the Pentagon should be tied to a strategy to address the actual threats facing the country, not to an arbitrary number.
Cruz’s recklessness extends to his choice of foreign policy advisors. His chief advisor is none other than Frank Gaffney, an uncritical booster of Star Wars anti-missile systems and a major league Islamophobe who has suggested that President Obama himself may be a Muslim, and that the president has some sort of secret plan to undermine America from within (there go those secret plans again). The fact that any candidate would take any advice on any subject from Frank Gaffney is troubling in the extreme.
Much more could be said about Cruz’s world view. But what is clear is that in choosing between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on defense it’s a case of choosing your poison.