While the Democrat made the case for liberal militarism, the Republican attacked the interventionist status quo. “Yeah, I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, ‘This is the way it’s gotta be,’” he said, as if he’d read his Chomsky. “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called ‘nation-building,’” he continued, lashing out at occupations that had killed U.S. troops and civilians alike. “I think what we need to do is convince the people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I’m missing something here.”
That was in 2000 and that Republican, George W. Bush, put America’s perceived interests first after winning the race for the White House—by ignoring effete international prohibitions against aggressive war, bypassing the United Nations, and unilaterally invading Iraq. Now, 13 years later, there is another Republican, Donald Trump, railing against the “arrogance” of U.S foreign policy in a race against a Democrat whose record is marked by support for war, including the one launched by the last conservative critic of liberals with bombs.
Bush’s change of heart should give the opinionated class some pause: running against the foreign policy of those in power is what those seeking it for themselves do. And past critiques of another person’s wars are often forgotten once a critic becomes president and starts looking forward to starting wars of their own. But making the same mistakes over and over again is the definition of punditry and, in this the second decade of Bush’s wars, a bloated demagogue’s version of Bush’s 2000-era rhetoric has led some commentators to ask: Is Donald Trump woke?
“Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk,” a column by The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, was what seems to have kickstarted a rash of takes in the mainstream media depicting Trump as something of a belligerent peacenik. “The prime example of commander-in-chief judgment Trump offers is the fact that, like Obama, he thought the invasion of Iraq was a stupid idea,” Dowd wrote. (Trump actually supported the war back in 2003, but has called it a mistake in 2016, when it would be a mistake not to.) He wants to “end nation-building,” she wrote, positioning him to “the left” of Hillary Clinton.
Others have suggested that the Republican candidate wouldn’t stop at ending America’s nation-building occupations.
“At least President Trump would ground the drones,” declared The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, attempting to view a poisoned chalice of white nationalism as half-full. “Trump’s foreign policy line has been clearer than his domestic one,” Jenkins argued, describing the former as “a revival of Republican isolationism.”
The Intercept likewise described Trump’s foreign policy as “know-nothing isolationism.” While noting that the billionaire is “hardly the candidate of peace,” Rania Khalek argued that, traditionally, “Republicans have represented the more militaristic extreme.” Today, with Trump attacking Hillary over U.S. policy in places such as Iraq and Libya, “it’s not so clear.”
The Nation has more than just hinted that Trump might be the lesser evil, in terms of dead foreigners. “Donald Trump Could Be the Military-Industrial Complex’s Worst Nightmare,” reads the headline of a story by national affairs correspondent William Greider, which argues that Trump, “usually bellicose in style and substance, is singing, ‘Give peace a chance.’” Indeed, the Republican nominee is proposing “a radical standard for testing U.S. policy abroad, both in war and peace: Is it actually in America’s interest?”
One popular online activist has even suggested it’s the anti-imperialist’s duty to back Trump because, proto-fascism aside, at least he won’t start another war. American “privilege,” Cassandra Fairbanks wrote, is what “allows you to vote for a woman who has destroyed countless lives in Honduras, Libya, Iraq, and on.” Left-wing filmmaker John Pilger has called Trump a “maverick,” suggesting he’s the lesser evil in a race against Clinton because “he doesn’t want to go to war with Russia or China” (the U.S.’s bombing partner in Syria and the manufacturer of all its goods, respectively). The less vulgar version of the sentiment is expressed in a popular meme among cynical realists: that the 2016 election pits a guy who will get people killed at home versus a lady who will kill them abroad.
But Donald J. Trump, in fact, poses no dilemma for the guilt-ridden anti-war leftist; he’s not a true isolationist like Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican who is now busy selling gold bars and colloidal silver to Trump’s base. And despite the neoconservative support for Trump’s opponent, Lockheed-Martin lobbyists can rest assured that they’ll be fine whoever wins, just as they were fine when neoconservative favorite John McCain lost to George W. Bush. It turns out that a lot of wars meet Donald Trump’s “radical” standard.
Trump, for instance, has hit Clinton over her support for NATO intervention in Libya, saying he’d rather have kept selling arms to Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s former U.S.-friendly dictator. That’s U.S.-backed regime preservation in the face of a popular uprising, not non-intervention. But today Trump says he would be fine with airstrikes too, provided they’re aimed at terrorists, not unelected leaders. “Why aren’t we bombing the hell out of” that country? he has asked.
Trump has also slammed Clinton over her support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now, though, he is proposing his own invasion, not just of Iraq but of neighboring Syria. “We really have no choice, we have to knock out ISIS,” he said in a Republican debate. “I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000” ground troops.
Both wars are consistent with a reactionary view of U.S. interests. What Trump opposes, in his own words, is the “nation-building” part that comes after bombing another country; he would drop any pretense of seeking to promote democracy, which might be refreshing were that not coupled with an “America First” air campaign.
Then again, Trump has also endorsed the only active U.S. occupation that’s ostensibly intended to build a nation. “I think you have to stay in Afghanistan for a while,” Trump has said of that other war launched by the last Republican president.
Every active war, then, will remain active under a President Trump. “Unlike other candidates for the presidency,” however, “war and aggression will not be my first instinct,” or so Trump has claimed, just like so many candidates who have run for the White House and later taken the country to war.
Trump has also promised to increase military spending. “We will develop, build, and purchase the best equipment known to mankind,” he has said. “Our military dominance will be unquestioned,” with a bigger Navy, a bigger Air Force, and more active-duty soldiers.
The point, Trump says, is to have a military “so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it.” But he says that only after calling for putting that trillion-dollar military to use in about a half-dozen countries. Like Bush in 2000, he pairs his critique of someone else’s wars with a depiction of a world full of threats that justify fighting them. The former president complained of “aimless and endless deployments,” but in the same breath he warned that we were in “an era of car bombers, plutonium merchants, cyber-terrorists, and drug cartels.” Trump complains of regime change— removing dictators instead of preserving them—while promising a stepped-up war on terrorism; like Bush, he promises to go to war for better, less liberal reasons.
If Trump’s no anti-war activist, we can at least take solace in the fact that his reputation for dovishness stems from a greater awareness of who he is running against: someone with a demonstrated willingness to deploy lethal force. And that’s a good thing, that we all seem to know this. In 2008, Barack Obama’s critique of the war in Iraq led millions to believe he was the candidate of peace; the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen soon learned otherwise.
Trump is similar to candidate Obama in other overlooked ways, his outsider critiques echoing the new Washington consensus. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” Trump recently asked, as the U.S. government is preparing to do that and more in Syria. “Our allies are not paying their fair share,” Trump has said, as Obama exhorts NATO allies “to pay your fair share.” Likewise, the Obama administration’s decision to encourage the militarization of Japan is in line with Trump’s way of doing business: push the burden of projecting U.S. power on regional allies that we push to buy our guns. That’s just a good deal.
Only in America could a call for bombing the hell out of at least three nations and indefinitely occupying another be labeled “isolationism.” Particularly today, no one should confuse a good opinion about a 13-year-old invasion with non-interventionism. The next U.S. president will kill a lot of foreigners and the myth that maybe they won’t—that Donald J. Trump, in particular, will not drone-strike a Waziri wedding the first chance he gets—needs to die.