To rational observers, Trump’s approach to Iraq is emblematic of a foreign policy that makes no sense. But while Trump’s instincts are incoherent and illogical, they are not entirely random. Highly trained Trumpologists are able to spot patterns just as zoologists do when they study primate behavior.
The Rosetta Stone of Trump foreign policy studies is a Politico article published four years ago by Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. He found that Trump has “three key arguments that he returns to time and again”: “He is deeply unhappy with America’s military alliances and feels the United States is overcommitted around the world. He feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. And he is sympathetic to authoritarian strongmen.” That assessment, written before candidate Trump had won a single primary, holds up remarkably well as he seeks a second term.
2. Aggrieved about the global economy? Check. Trump kneecapped the World Trade Organization, left the Trans-Pacific Partnership and imposed tariffs on countries from Canada to China.
3. Sympathetic to strongmen? Check. Trump has praised dictators such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for being “strong,” said he is “in love” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and covered up for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. A corollary: Trump doesn’t care about human rights save in a few isolated instances (viz., Venezuela and Iran) when he sees them as a useful cudgel against an enemy regime.
To Wright’s list I would add a few other tendencies — I wouldn’t dignify them by calling them ideas — that have become evident over the past three years:
4. Branding rocks, substance walks. Trump scuttled the North American Free Trade Agreement only to reconstitute it, virtually unchanged, as the USMCA (U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement) — which, as he helpfully noted, rhymes with “YMCA.” Bragging “I’m good at names,” Trump last week unveiled his latest brainstorm: NATOME, i.e., “NATO” plus “Middle East.” Trump did not offer any explanation of who would join this organization or how it would work. But he did say it has “a beautiful name.” What more do you need? Even in deciding which terrorists to target, a former CIA officer writes at Just Security, Trump focused on “big names” rather than the most important operatives.
5. Trump First. His foreign policy is entirely motivated by what will help him personally. He was impeached for trying to blackmail Ukraine into smearing Joe Biden. The same impulse is evident, in less larcenous form, in his pro-Israel policy, which is designed to win the support of Jewish donors and evangelical Christian voters, and his confrontational policy in Venezuela, designed to win the support of Florida voters. Given Trump’s track record, there are widespread suspicions that he’s “wagging the dog” with Iran. Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal, Trump “told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. [Qasem] Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial.”
6. Always look strong. In June 2019, Trump said he was “cocked and loaded” to strike Iran in retaliation for shooting down a U.S. drone, but he called back the airstrike at the last minute because he didn’t want to get embroiled in a war. Criticism for looking weak helped spur him to assassinate Soleimani. Trump’s obsession with looking strong also explains his pardons for war criminals, threats to bomb cultural sites, and refusal to apologize for false and defamatory statements.
7. Beat Obama. Many have suggested that Trump was motivated to run for president after President Barack Obama humiliated him at the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner. Trump remains obsessed with his predecessor, who is accorded the respect Trump is denied. Trump was eager to exit the Iran nuclear deal because Obama had negotiated it and was ready to kill Soleimani to avoid “another Benghazi.” When criticized for his confrontation with Iran, he blamed — who else? — Obama.
These seven impulses define Trump’s foreign policy, such as it is. If I had to give a name to his worldview, it would be “violent isolationism” — and, yes, that’s as oxymoronic as it sounds. He does whatever appears convenient to him at the moment. If there is one principle that Trump always eschews, it’s consistency. Thus he may be near war with Iran now, but no one should be surprised if he falls in love with the ayatollahs before long — i.e., if he does precisely what he now accuses Democrats of doing. Projection, after all, is another one of his dubious character traits.