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Opinion Donald Trump’s foreign policy: From incoherence to more incoherence

Donald Trump outlines some of his plans to defeat the Islamic State and protect the United States. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
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Even when he is highly scripted, Donald Trump can’t seem to make a coherent point on foreign policy.

For months, the Republican nominee’s statements on international affairs have been deeply disjointed. On one hand, he has promised to be a great friend to American allies. On the other, he has threatened to pull out of NATO and other decades-old strategic relationships based on the claim that the United States is being sucked dry by ungrateful “friends.”

Trump reconciled these positions in a Monday speech — by narrowly defining what it means to be an “ally” of the United States. Drawing a parallel with the nation’s fight against communism in the 20th century, Trump declared that the criterion for inclusion in the list of American friends should be a desire to destroy “radical Islam.”

“All actions should be oriented around this goal, and any country which shares this goal will be our ally,” Trump said. He argued for closer ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which sometimes uses the excuse of battling “extremism” to assail those the regime simply does not like. He also condemned the ousting of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was briefly replaced by a democratically elected government, and proposed closer cooperation with the country’s new despot, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

“We cannot always choose our friends,” Trump said. “But we can never fail to recognize our enemies.”

This attitude suggests Trump is some kind of international relations “realist,” subscribing in his crude way to the approach of Lord Palmerston, a 19th-century British prime minister, who said, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” In his Monday speech, Trump appeared to prioritize pure power politics over ideas and values. The fight against terrorism, he seemed to argue, outweighs disagreements over democracy, individual liberties or aggressive behavior outside the United States’ sphere. Conversely, his argument implied, long-standing relationships or cultural affinities with the United States do not necessarily make a nation an ally.

But then Trump declared that the United States must also wage an ideological war across the Muslim world. He promised that he would “speak out against the oppression of women, gays and people of different beliefs” and “amplify” the voices of “all moderate Muslim reformers in the Middle East.” Does that include the moderate reformers opposing the Egypt’s oppressive regime? How about those fighting Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s brutal dictator, whom the Russians have been protecting? And what about Putin’s regime, which has quashed Russian democracy and assailed the country’s marginalized LGBT community? Some of the West’s worst enemies in Trump’s ideological war would be some of the United States’ most valuable allies in the realist scheme Trump had just finished proposing.

And that section of Trump’s speech was supposed to be the assuring bit. After declaring that he would run a realist, then an idealist, foreign policy, Trump tried once again to propose a highly restrictive immigration plan that would likely have a similar effect as his original idea to ban Muslims from entering the United States. He also proposed a commission to root out the extremists who are already in the country, an idea that, in Trump’s hands, may well turn into a 21st-century form of McCarthyism.

Trump attempted Monday to show that he can think about the issues and prepare a serious policy address. Instead, he failed even at pretending to have done either of those things.