I’d hardly call President Trump a foreign policy mastermind. But since his 2016 presidential campaign started gaining strength, it’s been clear to me that his instincts in the field are exactly what a country like the United States needs, and this conviction has been strengthened considerably by a little remarked-on point he made in his announcement last week of the killing of Iranian military and terrorist commander Qassem Soleimani.
Here’s the remark:
“The fact that we have this great military and equipment…does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it. American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent.”
Sounds pretty obvious, right? But it’s been anything but obvious to America’s globalist foreign policy establishment, and especially to many in its liberal wing – which could very well regain the White House if a Democratic candidate like former Vice President Joe Biden or Indianapolis Mayor Pete Buttigieg wins November’s election. And that would be terrible news, as these establishment globalist liberals’ failure to agree indicates that they might return the nation to the days when it plunged into all sorts of foreign crises that had no potential to bolster American security, and much potential to become costly, bloody quagmires.
My evidence? An absolutely seminal exchange from the early 1990s between then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright (who went on to become Secretary of State) and Colin L. Powell – then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who would also go on to run Foggy Bottom.
During former President Bill Clinton’s first terms, Albright and Powell disagreed sharply on the merits of the United States intervening militarily in the Bosnia war – one of many civil conflicts in the Balkans triggered by the post-Cold War breakup of Yugoslavia. Albright was a leader of the hawks and Powell had long championed a view that the United States should use its armed forces only when genuinely vital national interests were at stake.
During one of their debates, Albright asked Powell a question that was shockingly moronic even by the dismal standards of globalists generally: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
In his memoirs, Powell wrote that Albright’s question almost gave him “an aneurysm.” And it should be screamingly obvious why. Albright, who has studied international affairs her entire adult life, had apparently never heard of, or forgot, the concept of “deterrence.”
Thank goodness she wasn’t in power during one of the Cold War nuclear crises, like that over Cuba in 1962. Can you imagine any of former President John F. Kennedy’s advisers asking “What’s the point of having these superb nuclear weapons if we can’t use them?” And most worrisomely Albright – who remains influential in top Democratic political circles – has been proudly unrepentant.
Even more important, Albright’s position shows that she’s clueless about a fundamental intellectual key to U.S. foreign policy success – understanding that a superpower is defined first and foremost by what it is (i.e, by the assets it can bring to bear regarding overseas challenges and opportunities) not by what it does (how and how energetically it uses those assets).
That is, for a country as geopolitically secure and economically self-sufficient as the United States, what matters most is focusing on building the strength (in all dimensions, including the power to deter any aggressors) needed to enable it to survive and prosper in a world certain to remain dangerous, rather than working overtime figuring out ways to keep using that strength – especially when there’s no obvious need.
Now Powell’s a globalist, too – but he clearly comes from the wing that’s at least recognized that national interests (though he and his ilk invariably define them way too broadly) should be driving the use of foreign policy tools, not the availability of those tools (let alone list of uses of American arms and resources that may be desirable to some extent, to some Americans, but are hardly essential – like the Bosnia mess and other humanitarian tragedies in which the Clinton-ites initially engaged the nation).
Trump’s Iran remarks unmistakably associate him with that far wiser Powell approach – including in situations unlikely to go nuclear. They also signal that he gets it on the real nature of a superpower.
So don’t doubt for a minute that the President’s quasi-America First-type foreign policies will continue to be much less coherent and efficiently implemented than is desirable. But don’t doubt for a minute that his (sort of) Powell-like instincts boost the odds that the United States won’t get bogged down in debilitating and unnecessary quagmires.
In other words, everyone hoping for an American foreign policy displaying some kind of post-Iraq War learning curve should remember that, for all Mr. Trump’s faults, the United States can always do much worse in its presidential choices, in fact has done much worse – and could well again.