As my colleagues have already reported, nearly the entire national security establishment in Washington -- which includes many card-carrying Republicans -- seems to balk at the notion that Trump could be a viable, qualified commander-in-chief. Such doubts have not inhibited his campaign nor, it seems, dimmed his zeal.
Trump promised "extreme vetting" of potential Muslim immigrants coming to the United States, whatever that means. He listed a few "moderate" Muslim allies he would enlist, countries, it should be noted, that are already rather firmly in Washington's orbit. Then, he offered this anodyne policy proposal: "Our new approach, which must be shared by both parties in America, by our allies overseas, and by our friends in the Middle East, must be to halt the spread of radical Islam," he said.
Never mind that the Obama administration has spoken ad nauseum about countering Islamist extremism and has set about, perhaps unconvincingly, waging a battle of ideas with radical Islamist groups in cooperation with partners in the Middle East. Never mind, moreover, that much of the violence inflicted by radical Islamist groups like the Islamic State is on largely Muslim communities living far from American borders.
Instead, the enemy Donald Trump seeks to name -- "radical Islam" -- is a broad, all-encompassing entity, an ideological scarecrow that would justify turning our backs on refugees and shutting the door to legal Muslim immigrants. Going by Trump's speech, the whole region somehow fits into this category: "Radical Islam" is the root of honor killings in Pakistan, the perfidy of the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations in Syria and abroad, and the driving agenda of Iran, a country whose own proxy wars against Sunni extremist groups Trump conveniently forgot to mention.
One wonders, when it comes to the complex conflicts of the Middle East, what potential allies and adversaries Trump can actually name. Can he distinguish between the factions fighting in Syria? Does he care about the struggles for civil liberties and better governance in a host of Arab states? Can he identify a single Kurdish group?
Indeed, if nothing else, Trump's speech showed a consistent disregard for the lives and aspirations of people living in the benighted part of the world for which he has a "plan."
Trump started off his prescription of all that ails the Middle East with a glimpse of a supposedly happier time. "Let’s look back at the Middle East at the very beginning of 2009, before the Obama-Clinton administration took over," he said. "Libya was stable. Syria was under control. Egypt was ruled by a secular president and an ally of the United States."
In other words, before the upheavals of the 2011 Arab Spring, everything was fine. The great sin here, according to Trump, is that the White House allowed popular uprisings to dislodge autocratic leaders. Unsurprisingly, Trump and other GOP politicians hailed the autocratic Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013 and has since presided over a shocking crackdown on the country's Islamist opposition and other dissidents and members of civil society.
Now, perhaps this is Trump displaying his noted contempt for political correctness. Maybe he thinks Arabs and others in the Middle East shouldn't have democracy -- better they are "under control" -- but that doesn't square with other statements in his speech, where he accused the Obama administration of not speaking up enough for persecuted minorities in the region.
This was not the most blatant contradiction of the day, though. Trump reiterated his longstanding opposition to "nation-building" and regime change in the Middle East. And, yet, then, he insisted three times that the United States should "keep the oil" that exists in Iraq after committing troops to the country. He explained this scenario with a remarkable bit of nostalgia:
This proposal, by its very nature, would have left soldiers in place to guard our assets. In the old days, when we won a war, to the victor belonged the spoils. Instead, all we got from Iraq -- and our adventures in the Middle East -- was death, destruction and tremendous financial loss.
While he's opposed to the sort of American interventions that unsettled Iraq, Trump has no qualms offering up a 19th-century imperialist fantasy of occupation and resource extraction. His disdain for the sovereignty of the countries in the Middle East is compounded by a disinterest in the futures of the people living there. Trump's vision is as WorldViews framed it earlier in the campaign, "a kind of set for 'American Sniper'— a woebegone place of dusty towns crawling with bad guys and not much else."
There is no easy fix to the overlapping and spiraling crises of the region. There are legitimate criticisms to be made about the indecision of the White House and the follies of the previous Bush administration in launching an unnecessary, destabilizing war in Iraq. There's a conversation to be had about the limits of American power. And the Arab world itself has to face up to the failure of its own politics.
But Trump's particular brew of hubris and indifference is not a healthy starting point for foreign policy.
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