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Opinion Why is Trump so mum on foreign policy?

When President Obama delivered State of the Union addresses without a full and detailed discussion of foreign policy, conservatives justifiably complained. We are a country at war, with rising, big power threats in an increasingly unstable world. All true. And yet when President Trump said virtually nothing of substance Tuesday night on national security, conservatives by and large gave him a pass.

Trump’s highlighting of the widow of slain Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens obscured the lack of substance on the cause for which Trump correctly said Owens gave his life. Repeating that we will eradicate the Islamic State is a tired campaign promise, not a policy. Uttering the words “radical Islamic fundamentalism” does not amount to a policy. Omitting mention of Afghanistan, where things have gradually taken a turn for the worse but where troops are engaged in combat, was, candidly, inexcusable. At this point he’s simply stalling, asking for yet another “review” by the military.

Missing was any sense of urgency — or rationale for his one specific action, a failed Muslim travel ban. Max Boot, noting that Iraq may come off the list, asks “why are the six other nations still on the list?” He observes:

This is an initiative that has nothing to do with U.S. security (Americans have not suffered lethal attacks at home from any of the target countries) and everything to do with appealing to anti-Muslim bigotry.
It is doubtful that Trump’s well-regarded appointees, such as John Kelly at Homeland Security, Rex Tillerson at State, James Mattis at Defense, or now H.R. McMaster at the National Security Council, told him to do this. Nor did they advise him to include a vitriolic condemnation of “radical Islamic terrorism” in his address. Indeed, if news accounts are accurate, McMaster advised Trump to take out those incendiary words that play into the terrorist narrative that the United States is waging a war on Islam. But Trump disregarded McMaster’s wise counsel, choosing instead to heed the advice of zealots such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka who believe that we are in a civilizational struggle with Islam itself.

Trump spoke about Iran only in the past tense — pointing to new sanctions in response to the missile test (extremely limited, to the point of being innocuous) — but said nothing about Iran’s compliance (or lack thereof) with the JCPOA, its role in Syria and Iraq, its increased repression at home and its support for terrorism. He has, in short, no Iran policy.

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China came up only in the context of trade. Nothing was said about its cyberattacks or aggression in the South China Sea.

He did not mention Russia, Ukraine, Cuba, North Korea, Turkey or Syria.

More troubling, he gave no indication that he’s developed any foreign policy vision in 40 days, or even thought seriously about these issues. He wants a bigger military and increased contributions from allies, but to what end?

What’s evident here is that for all his and Stephen K. Bannon’s bluster about a new America First foreign policy, there is no there, there. They have no foreign policy experience, so we should not be surprised that they have nothing more than a bumper sticker.

If we want to see the glass as half full, we can hope that this is a sign Trump has lost interest in foreign policy and will leave it to capable Cabinet appointees. (Without reining in Gorka and Bannon and naming political appointees below the Cabinet level, however, he hamstrings these officials.) There is already talk that the military will have more freedom to act independently of the White House (“President Donald Trump has signaled that he wants his defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, to have a freer hand to launch time-sensitive missions quickly, ending what U.S. officials say could be a long approval process under President Barack Obama that critics claimed stalled some missions by hours or days.”) Well, if the choice is between Trump running national security policy and Tillerson-McMaster-Mattis doing so, we should choose the latter — by acclamation. (If he thinks this is a way to evade responsibility when things go wrong, he’s sadly mistaken. As commander in chief, he’s responsible whether he wants to know the details or not.)

The glass-half-empty view may be that Trump thinks all there is to foreign policy is a big military and trying to “get along” with leaders. Slashing diplomacy and foreign aid and formally nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership may indicate a deliberate plan of diplomatic insularity. Leaving foreign policy on automatic pilot, however, is what Trump said in the campaign that Hillary Clinton would do; he was supposed to be the one to chart a new course, provide greater stability and revive respect for America. Unfortunately there is no sign he understands what that entails or has any idea what an effective foreign policy might look like. In that regard, Clinton may have lost, but we are getting a third Obama term when it comes to foreign policy, just with a bigger military.

The danger here for the country is that our adversaries see him as unprepared, uncertain or uninterested. For Trump, the danger is that if a crisis occurs, voters will want to know what he’s been doing on national security since being elected.