Kicking off his victory tour in Ohio on Thursday, President-elect Donald Trump offered a few peeks into his plans for war and peace. The United States will “pursue a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past,” he said. “We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments, folks. Our goal is stability, not chaos, because we want to rebuild our country. It’s time.”
If anything, it’s past time. After the last decade and a half, this apparent push toward a more restrained foreign policy that avoids reckless interventions and fruitless nation-building commitments is a welcome word from the incoming president. If Trump makes good on these moves toward prudence, he stands a real shot at inaugurating the “new era of peace, understanding, and goodwill” he promised in Cincinnati to create.
But to pursue this new direction in foreign policy, Trump must do more than “stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments.” That is a vital piece of the puzzle, to be sure, but by itself it is not and cannot be enough. To follow the defense strategy he sketched in Ohio, the president-elect must also answer tough questions about what the United States is doing in our current foreign policy engagements, which are founded on exactly the sort of regime-toppling Trump here rejects.
In that project Trump finds himself in the uphill battle of the century, as the Washington foreign policy establishment will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo of ill-advised intervention, escalation, and stagnation. Just one day before Trump held his Ohio rally, for example, Gen. Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command told a mostly neoconservative audience that the United States must keep a significant number of troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future to send a “strong message.”
That sort of open-ended commitment made without real consideration of whether it protects any vital U.S. interests is dangerous. It pledges American lives and dollars not to our national defense but to the unrealistic effort reshape an entire region which Trump’s Cincinnati comments denounce.
Unfortunately, this type of commitment is also all too common in Washington, where mushrooming U.S. entanglements borne to various degrees out of the $12 trillion invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are complacently considered a “generational problem.” It is this pile of present misadventures, not just potential new wars, with which Trump must grapple if he is serious about a stable, U.S.-centric foreign policy—and he will be met with resistance in Washington every step of the way.
That should only strengthen his resolve. “To a very considerable extent,” argues military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich at The American Conservative, “Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, preferred candidate of the establishment, because he advertised himself as just the guy disgruntled Americans could count on” to upend Washington and “drain the swamp.”
But, Bacevich adds, what Trump must realize to fulfill that advertisement is that unnecessary (and typically unconstitutional) wars are a prime contributor to that very swamp—and not just new wars, old ones too. War “provides a rationale for federal authorities to accumulate and exercise new powers,” Bacevich says. “It makes government bigger and more intrusive. It lubricates the machinery of waste, fraud, and abuse that causes tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to vanish every year.”
If Trump is serious about what he said in Ohio—if he is sincere about draining the swamp—“if he genuinely seeks to ‘Make America Great Again,’” Bacevich concludes, “then he would extricate the United States from war.”
To stop seeking out new imbroglios is a great place for Trump to begin the foreign policy revolution his Ohio speech suggests, and for that he should be applauded. To start extricating America from the entanglements of presidents past is the logical and necessary next step.