Debating Trump’s Foreign Policy

by Henry Precht

Some of you may have heard the other day a Maine Public Radio discussion of Trumpian foreign affairs by a panel that included an ex-diplomat, an academic, and a fusion of the two. I listened and was poised with telephone in hand to put a question when time ran out. Happily, Ambassador (ret.) Larry Pope was willing to continue the conversation from the relaxed shade of his front porch.

Henry Precht: The livelihood of you three panelists has depended on artful rhetoric and your skills in conjuring up adroit, fact-filled arguments. Those are not skills necessary to sell real estate, or in the case under study, get one elected to the nation’s top job. Nor, from what I heard on the radio, are they talents that President Trump employs in the conduct of his diplomacy. So what? What in the real world—not the world of words—has been the damage? People scorned President Eisenhower because of his abuse of syntax and fuzzy thinking. Yet he is considered a pretty good leader (by the standards of our era.)

Think about what the president found six months ago:  an over-nourished bureaucracy, an over-stretched military and economic power, mooching allies and friends who ignore our desires, out-of-date institutions and attitudes (think NATO and Russia). In short: a nation bogged in a swamp of conflicting purposes. Rather than attack Mr. Trump for his obvious vulnerabilities, shouldn’t we offer a kind word or two when he heads down the right track?

Larry Pope: I can’t speak for my fellow panelists, but “artful rhetoric” and all that is at best a partial account of how I got my livelihood. For most of my working life I was a Foreign Service Officer — an operative of the Deep State you might say. After I retired, I had a gig as a consultant to the Defense Department in which capacity I recited the ancient lesson that all warfare is political.

I do take strong issue with your premises. Your comparison of Donald Trump, the former reality television star, with Dwight Eisenhower who led the forces that liberated Europe, and who was prepared to take personal responsibility for the failure of the D Day landing, is, well, unpersuasive. As for what Trump found on taking office six months ago, our country was prosperous and secure, the globe’s unchallenged military power, though you would not know it from his ridiculous tweets. Nor do I think that NATO is out of date, as you argue. In the post-Cold War world, NATO was certainly at risk of obsolescence, but Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has breathed new life into the Atlantic Alliance.

And as for being on the right track, Trump seems bent on denouncing the nuclear agreement with Iran, reviving the country’s nuclear threat, and bringing us to the brink of a catastrophic conflict that would make our forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan look like skirmishes. Further, the Foreign Service is hardly an “over-nourished bureaucracy.” I would argue that a strong Foreign Service contributes as much to our national security as a couple of carrier battle groups. What do you say to that, former naval officer?

Henry Precht: Ouch! That made my teacup jiggle for I fully agree with you on Trump vs. Iran. What do you say to his seeking to recast Russia as a cooperating partner in Syria and in its (Russia’s not our) neighborhood – rather than digging out the moldy Cold War slogans? Finally, what about his phasing out our foolish backing for the moderate (read futile and destructive) opposition to Assad when no alternative is in sight? Worthy of commendation?

Larry Pope: Hardly. I take it you favor making common cause in Syria with the Russians, who are allied with the barrel-bombing, Sarin-spreading monsters of the Assad regime. Of all the unpalatable choices we face in Syria, that takes the cake, to mix a metaphor. The Syrian opposition is a mixed bag, but why drop such support as we have been able to give to it without getting something in return from the Kremlin? Is that what is meant by the art of the deal?

As for Russia’s neighborhood, let’s stipulate that Crimea is part of what Muscovy calls the near abroad. Is Ukraine also to be sacrificed to your logic of great power expediency? What about the Baltics? We have seen this movie before, Henry, and it doesn’t end well. Russia broke the rules when it invaded Ukraine, and when it intervened in our elections. Sanctions are warranted.

Henry Precht: And so, dear Readers, rest secure in the promise that the old rhetoric, plus or minus two carrier battle groups, will defend us.

Photo: Donald Trump (by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.