President Trump has been famously secretive about his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State, and so he was in his first post-inauguration interview with ABC News’ David Muir. To the extent that Trump did comment on his plans for ISIS and Iraq more broadly, he evinced at once an encouraging criticism of the last 15 years of bipartisan consensus in favor of intervention and a troubling, contradictory suggestion of escalation—the latter paired with a blithe dismissal of the potential for negative reactions to his policies that could endanger American security.
These dueling impulses—of restraint and recklessness, of attention to U.S. interests and obsession with aimless military bombast—may come to be the hallmark of an inconsistent Trumpian foreign policy.
And contrary the allegations of some of his critics, Trump does have some refreshing ideas where foreign policy is concerned. In this ABC interview, for example, he correctly acknowledged the massive expense (“We have spent as of one month ago $6 trillion in the Middle East”); unintended but foreseeable consequences (“We created a vacuum and ISIS formed”); chronic ineffectiveness (“When we left, we left Iraq, which wasn’t a government. It’s not a government now”); lack of reasonable boundaries (“Look, it’s time. It’s been our longest war”); and destabilizing influence (“You have two nations, Iraq and Iran. And they were essentially the same military strength. And they’d fight for decades and decades”) of the last 15 years of American misadventure in Iraq and the greater Mideast.
It is this sort of rejection of the habitual, mindless, military-dependent meddling of the Washington foreign policy establishment that resonated on the campaign trail, and the ABC interview was hardly the first time Trump has hinted at a major reorientation of U.S. foreign policy in the direction of realism. His December pledge of “a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past” likewise offered hope of a prudent strategic shift. “We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments,” Trump said at the time. “Our goal is stability, not chaos, [and] new era of peace, understanding, and goodwill.”
Unfortunately, for every Dr. Jekyll, Trump’s foreign policy comments seem to have a Mr. Hyde. In his ABC interview, this included his intimation that he may yet escalate U.S. military intervention in Iraq to get “another chance” at confiscating Iraqi oil. Worse yet, Trump refused to countenance any suggestion that his policies could exacerbate risks to U.S security: “The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets,” he said. “What? You think this is gonna cause a little more anger? The world is an angry place. All of this has happened.”
As any observer of the last decade and a half of bipartisan foreign policy failures must realize, things can always get worse. Unintended consequences are always possible, and they are especially possible when a president orders major military interventions without constitutional authorization or, as Trump insists (“I don’t wanna do a lot of talking on the military. I wanna talk after it’s finished, not before it starts”), public debate.
The good news is that, as I write this, we are only a few days in to the Trump presidency. His foreign policy is anything but set in stone. He can—and must—be encouraged to extricate the United States from the foolishness of prior administrations’ interventions, which he clearly realizes did not work. And, equally important, he must make good on his promise to learn from the mistakes of the past, rejecting siren song of escalation without regard for cost or consequence to which Washington has danced for decades.