National security adviser H.R. McMaster laid out the argument that Trump is a modern-day Reagan over the weekend at the Reagan National Defense Forum, an annual convening of hundreds of top military officials, diplomats, lawmakers and mostly Republican foreign policy thinkers. He began by declaring that Trump would lead a renaissance in America’s international standing and a resurgence of American national confidence, as Reagan did a generation ago.
“We are at a similar crossroads” to when Reagan produced America’s firstnational security strategy in 1987, McMaster said. When the Trump administration issues its document, it will represent “a dramatic rethinking of American foreign policy from previous decades” based on “principled realism.”
The Trump administration realizes that “revisionist powers” Russian and China are “subverting the post-WWII political and security orders” at our expense, McMaster said. The new strategy focuses on protecting the homeland, advancing prosperity and influence, and preserving “peace through strength.”
At first blush, that sounds perfectly Reaganesque. But as McMaster ticked through his list of ways in which Trump is similar to Reagan, he unintentionally laid bare how fundamentally different the two presidents really are.
The first area where McMaster said Trump is just like Reagan is in promoting American values abroad.
“President Reagan described America as a shining city upon a hill and boldly spoke truth about the sufferings of people living under fear and oppression,” he said. “Today, we are reclaiming this confidence in American values.”
That claim not only contradicts what Trump regularly boasts as his commitment to noninterference in other nations’ affairs based on the principle of sovereignty. It also is belied by the Trump administration’sintentionally downgrading human rights advocacy in dealing with countries ranging from China to Syria.
McMaster pointed to Trump’s speech against Islamist extremism in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and his criticism of North Korean human rights as evidence of the president’s commitment to American values. But that kind of situational application of values reveals the very lack of the sustained commitment Reagan showed on the issue. “America first” is simply not a values-based approach.
Second, McMaster claimed that Trump was standing up for Reagan’s vision of promoting diplomacy alongside defense as a pillar of national security.
“President Reagan understood that diplomacy and military force were both important and equally vital tools of national power,” he said. “President Trump is focused on aligning our diplomatic, economic, military, informational, intelligence and law enforcement efforts since the first days of his administration.”
The Trump administration’s record shows the opposite. Trump has proposed slashing the budgets for diplomacy and development, presided over a hollowing out of the diplomatic corps and pushed for more hard-power funding in its place. Meanwhile, Trump alienates allies on a regular basis while shunning multilateral agreements and organizations. The Trump foreign policy is anything but balanced.
The third area where McMaster said Trump would follow Reagan was in understanding and stating the threats and security challenges the United States faces.
“President Reagan had a clear-eyed view of the national security threats facing America during his tenure,” he said. “President Trump and his national security team have also clearly described the threats that emanated from revisionist powers, rogue regimes and terrorist organizations.”
While it’s true that McMaster and many other top officials are clear-eyed in their description of the threats from Russia and China, the president has not joined them. Trump has consistently played down Russia’s anti-American strategy and painted a rosy picture of Chinese intentions vis-à-vis the United States. Trump’s national security team seems to hold the pen in writing the new strategy, but it will be of little use if the commander in chief is not on board.
McMaster’s fourth Trump-Reagan comparison was based on what he called Trump’s understanding of the dynamic and competitive nature of the world environment. He said Trump’s trade policies were meant to protect core interests. But Reagan believed in free trade and rejected the kind of protectionist measures Trump supports.
The forum was held at Reagan’s presidential library, where his remains are interred. Above his grave a quote is inscribed: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will eventually triumph and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
Reagan believed America should stand as a moral example, a beacon for humanity, and that his actions and words must meet that standard. President Trump, you are no Ronald Reagan.
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