If you are concerned that President Trump thinks the Islamic State is inactive, Kim Jong Un is going to denuclearize and we can make money by extorting our allies, you are in good company. His top advisers and prominent congressional Republicans do, too. And that creates a weird dilemma: What is our foreign policy on key issues?
Let’s start with Trump’s idea to hold up allies for cold hard cash in exchange for keeping our troops at overseas bases. Such forward placement is obviously in our interest, and the costs of reinventing our national security strategy without it is unthinkable. If you don’t believe me, ask Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). Chuck Todd did on “Meet the Press”:
TODD: The president’s going to advocate perhaps wherever we have troops overseas, think Japan, South Korea, Germany, he’s going to ask for cost plus fifty. Essentially tax countries over and above where we have bases. What does that do to the diplomacy, of this — for this country?
REP. LIZ CHENEY: I think it would be absolutely devastating. We benefit tremendously. If you look at the last 70 years, we have been able to benefit both from the perspective of freedom, prosperity, security, safety because of our bases and our cooperation with our allies. The notion that we are somehow now going to charge them cost plus fifty, is really — it’s wrongheaded and it would be devastating to the security of the nation. … Well, I think it’s going to be very important for us to make sure that people understand the danger that that will do to our relationships and to our fundamental security. Our security, we’ve been able to protect it because of our alliances and because we’ve been able to work with countries. And we should not look at this as though somehow we need to charge them rent or for the privilege of having our forces there because that does us a huge benefit as well.
She might agree that this is about the stupidest national security gambit that has come along since, well, since praising the North Korea dictator.
She also sounded very skeptical about Trump’s love fest with Kim in Vietnam:
CHUCK TODD: This is what we’ve learned just this week. [Kim is] accelerating the rocket program again. He’s enriched more uranium between the two summits. And more importantly, they were reconstituting the programs while the summit, second summit was taking place —
REP. LIZ CHENEY: Yeah. … We have, we have watched Kim Jong Un, and his father, and his grandfather operate the same way now for decades. And I would say that Republican and Democratic administrations got taken by him. I hope this president won’t. I think that, you know, their efforts are absolutely clear.
CHUCK TODD: [Hasn’t Kim] already gotten more … out of this president by simply getting respect on the world stage?
REP. LIZ CHENEY: No, you know what, I think the fact that the president walked away from the summit in Vietnam is a very positive thing. I think that that was the right thing to do. We don’t want a bad deal that makes us less safe.
Since Trump is such a menace on foreign policy, I wonder why she doesn’t back someone else for president. Nikki Haley, perhaps.
Hmm. Well, Cheney’s objections weren’t as eye-popping as national security adviser John Bolton’s own departure from Trump's foreign policy notions. On North Korea, Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week” pressed Bolton:
RADDATZ: Okay, let’s backtrack a bit. At the Singapore summit, North Korea committed only to, quote, “work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” How do you define that? How do they define that?
BOLTON: Well, again, they have committed to denuclearization in a variety of forms several times in writing, solemn international agreements that they have happily violated. We define denuclearization as meaning the elimination of their nuclear weapons program, their uranium enrichment capability, their plutonium reprocessing capability.
From the beginning, we’ve also included chemical and biological weapons in the elimination of their weapons of mass destruction. This is important to us because of our deployed forces in South Korea.
It’s important to South Korea and Japan. And of course we want their ballistic missile program ended as well. That is —
RADDATZ: But they didn’t sign on to that.
BOLTON: They — well they have signed on to elements of that in the 1992 joint North-South denuclearization agreement, and we’ve made it clear the president handed Kim Jong Un a piece of paper — actually two pieces of paper, one in English, one in Korean, that laid it out.
RADDATZ: But you also talk about strategic patience. The president said that era was over, and yet just the other day, he said a year. Ask me in a year. You really give him a year? You yourself have said that time is on the side of the proliferator.
BOLTON: Time — the historical lesson is time is inevitably on the side of the proliferator in the long run. Right now I think it’s the president’s judgment, and I think it’s correct, that the economic leverage that we have because of the sanctions puts the pressure on North Korea. And it’s one reason why all of the pundits and all of the experts predicting a deal in Hanoi were wrong, because the leverage is on our side right now, not on North Korea’s.
It would be nice if Trump understood all that. But apparently all of Trump’s happy talk and faith in Kim’s word aren’t shared by Bolton, nor does he think they’ve really pledged much of anything.
On Syria, Bolton first insisted that Trump “never said that the elimination of the territorial caliphate means the end of [the Islamic State] in total.” No, but he did say it has been defeated so we can go home. Bolton just flat-out contradicted Trump: “We know right now that there are ISIS fighters scattered still around Syria and Iraq, and that ISIS itself is growing in other parts of the world. The ISIS threat will remain. … The ISIS threat, the al-Qaeda threat, the terrorist threat is an ideological threat worldwide and it’s something that I think we have to be vigilant against for the foreseeable future. That’s the reality.” It’s just not Trump’s reality.
It’s not clear which foreign policy Trump will pursue — his own fact-free one or one more compatible with his aides’ and other Republicans’ views. I’m sure our foes and friends are confused as well.
I’m left with a question, however. If so much of what Trump says is dead wrong and downright dangerous, why is Bolton still there and why, presumably, will he and Cheney support him for president? Trump is far more irresponsible than President Barack Obama, whom Bolton and Cheney decried as weak and misguided. I mean, wouldn’t a patriotic American who is both informed and concerned about foreign policy want someone other than Trump for the next six years? Just asking.