Any serious reckoning of the Trump Doctrine will see the experts recoiling in horror or simply snickering at the very thought of attaching “doctrine” to the foreign policy initiatives of President Trump. What informs Donald Trump’s decision-making, according to most narratives, is nothing more than an incongruous compendium of braggadocio, narcissism, opportunism and impulsiveness. His America First worldview, in the opinion of the naysayers, cannot be configured as a coherent set of principles. The Obama Doctrine was ascribed to Barack Obama and the Bush Doctrine to George W. Bush, but to talk earnestly of a Trump Doctrine is to suggest a degree of lucidity in Donald Trump’s actions where none exists. As a consequence, the targeted killing on January 3 of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Forces, foreign legion division of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, can make no strategic sense in the eyes of the experts, though it could—and still might—trigger general war in the region. Maybe it is the anti-Trump narrative that lacks credibility.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Scepticism about President Trump’s judgment in foreign affairs runs very deep. We now know, thanks to revelations by the former US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, in her book With All Due Respect (2019), that Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State in the period 2017-18, questioned his judgment. In conjunction with John Kelly, Trump’s White House Chief of Staff for a time, Tillerson considered it his duty to impede President Trump’s inexpert ideas to save America and the world from calamity. Secretary Tillerson, astonishingly, attempted to enrol Ambassador Haley in an anti-Trump cabal operating at the very heart of the Trump administration: “Kelly and Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country.” If even those close to him—or, at least, those who were close to him—have no confidence in President Trump, then why should anybody else make the case for a cogent Trump Doctrine? Haley’s disclosure gives credence to this sentiment, expressed in the aftermath of the Qasem Soleimani killing by the reliably anti-Trump journalist Joel McNally: “The most dangerous day of his presidency is always tomorrow.”
The fact remains that the Third World War has not erupted on the provocateur-in-chief’s watch. Recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel did not trigger a new Israel-Arab conflagration any more than will the “Deal of the Century”. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates remain allies in an anti-Iran alliance. North Korea and America, notwithstanding setbacks and deviations, may still be on the path to a peace accord. The promise of era-changing relations with India remains. Japan and South Korea are now more likely to pay the real cost of America’s protection. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and others in the region, including Australia, appreciate more than ever that their future means either an ever-closer relationship with the US or client-state status in China’s version of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Moreover, President Trump, against the trend of President-for-life Xi Jinping’s growing triumphalism, successfully negotiated phase one of a trade agreement with China without precipitating a depression-inducing global trade war.
The list of successes goes on. Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine all received lethal military technology from the US without that generating a Second Cold War. The so-called “pink tide” went out in Brazil, resulting in a presidential victory for the Trump of the Tropics, President Jair Bolsonaro. Member states of NATO are now more likely to pay their way. Trump’s United States-Mexico-Canada agreement has been ratified by Congress. The construction of the US-Mexico wall continues apace while Mexico provides a “mobile wall” by returning Guatemalans and other Central American illegal emigrants to their countries of origin. By the year’s end US will likely have a “massive” new trade deal with post-Brexit Britain, although Boris Johnson’s capitulation on Huawei 5G will not help. And, finally, the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani did not, as Joel McNally predicted, send the world “stumbling toward World War III”. Can all this be put down to Donald Trump’s beginner’s luck? There is surely a pattern here and critics might, at some point, want to connect some of the dots of his America First stratagem.
The best thing you could say about the Obama Doctrine is that faced with the option of continuing in the role of the world’s (hated) policeman or acceding to the new normal of a multipolar world, President Obama made the only sensible choice and ran up the white flag. Even James Burnham, whose Suicide of the West was published as long ago as 1964, might be taken aback by the mollifying nature of the Obama Doctrine. President Obama extended his hand to America’s customary antagonists and all that ensued was snarling and snapping. That is why the July 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal is absolutely critical in any attempt to defend the Obama Doctrine. Here, if nowhere else, was the one occasion when an American adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran, came to the negotiating table and signed up for peace. Many would argue, of course, that no such thing occurred (see “Obama’s Munich Moment”, Quadrant, September 2015) and yet Obama apologists, such as Peter Beinart writing for the Atlantic, could argue that, although not an “ideal outcome”, negotiating with the Islamic Republic was better than any “alternative at hand”—risking war, in other words.
We can, of course, literally follow this line of thinking all the way to Doomsday. Handing over $1.3 billion is better than risking war. Allowing the Iranian regime to cheat on the deal is better than risking war. Allowing Commander Qasem Soleimani to stir up strife in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Yemen is better than risking war. Allowing Iran to encircle and threaten the citizens of Israel is better than risking war. Finally, after the Iran Nuclear Deal has run its course, allowing Tehran to achieve nuclear-weapons capability is better than risking war.
The Trump Doctrine, which entails no boots-on-the-ground invasion of Iran, unlike the First Iraq War, the Afghanistan War and the Second Iraq War, turns out to be an authentic “alternative at hand”. Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s primary adviser on all matters Iran, promised that the Iran Nuclear Deal would result in Tehran entering into “an era of harmonious relations with the rest of the world”. This turned out to be a catastrophic error of judgment. The Iranian mullahs used their American moolah to subsidise Qasem Soleimani’s foreign militias. President Trump, as a direct consequence, withdrew the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal on May 18, 2018. We might recall that Secretary of State Tillerson resigned his post on the eve of this decision. Tillerson’s notion of “saving the country” and Trump’s America First credo were entirely at odds.
To believe that killing Qasem Soleimani, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the Kata’ib Hezbollah faction of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMU), would lead to the Third World War was to see the Middle East through the prism of the Obama Doctrine. It was to believe that no alternative exists between out-and-out conflagration and tremulous appeasement. The Trump Doctrine, which in essence is a revival of the Pax Americana albeit in a post-Cold War and post-9/11 context, means what Candidate Trump always said it would mean: America First. The United States Armed Forces, in the case of the targeted killings outside Baghdad International Airport, were responding to hostile acts against American personnel enacted by Kata’ib Hezbollah/PMU militiamen. On December 27, 2019, an American contractor working at a US airbase in northern Iraq died as a consequence of incoming fire from Kata’ib Hezbollah. President Trump responded, on December 29, with the targeted destruction of Kata’ib Hezbollah facilities throughout Syria and Iraq, resulting in the deaths of twenty-five militia and the wounding of some sixty-plus others. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained to Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, that America’s retaliatory action was directed not at his government but at the Iranian regime. On December 31, 2019, the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah entered the outer precincts of the US embassy in Baghdad. The rampaging militiamen howled out their fiery entreaties to the high heavens: “Death to America!”, “Death to Israel!” and “Qasem Soleimani is our commander!” Qasem Soleimani was indeed their commander—some called him the governor of Iraq, perhaps the number two man in Iran itself. But they would only be saying that for another two or so days.
Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s loyal second-in-command for eight long years, asserted that killing Qasem Soleimani amounted to tossing “a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox”. Most of the commentariat, from those writing for the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Washington Post to the Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian Australia, agreed with Biden’s assessment. We now know they were wrong. Tehran did fire off some punitive rockets in the general direction of US bases but seemed as relieved as anyone that not a solitary American was injured as a result. The shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by the armed forces of the Islamic Republic, on January 8, only reinforces my point, if in horrific circumstances, that it was the despotic Iranian regime that lived in dread after the Soleimani killing. In its panic it mistook a civilian airliner, departing from its own international airport, for a potential threat. There would be no “stumbling towards a Third World War” if Tehran had any say in the matter. The question is not why the experts got everything about the Baghdad International Airport airstrike wrong, but why they get everything about the Trump Doctrine wrong, if they allow for its existence in the first place.
The Trump Doctrine, clearly, is the opposite of the Obama Doctrine, which in turn was the repudiation of the Bush Doctrine, at least as it operated during George W. Bush’s first term. However, the negation of the negation, the cancellation by Trump of Obama’s peace-for-our-time appeasement, has not brought us back to Bush’s Global War on Terror but to a whole new paradigm. The Trump Doctrine allows for a military response, as with the Bush Doctrine, but is much more discriminating and focused. The Trump Doctrine privileges non-military solutions, as per the Obama Doctrine, and yet the tenor of any negotiation is rarely one of supplication.
Trump’s America First framework borrows from the best of the two preceding foreign policy doctrines and omits many of their delusions. In the case of the Bush Doctrine, for instance, we might recall how George W. Bush, in his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address, introduced the phrase “axis of evil”. The Islamic Republic of Iran was linked with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea as grave threats to humanity: “I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The world will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” President Bush’s criticism of the three rogue regimes was not unwarranted, but treating them as an interconnected entity served no strategic or tactical purpose. It reduced the likelihood of ever leveraging one against the other and signalled to the world an out-of-focus fear and loathing on the part of the Bush administration.
President Bush, at least in his second term, dialled back on the divisive rhetoric. In retrospect, his earlier bombast served little purpose other than to assuage the horror and uncertainty many Americans felt in the wake of al-Qaeda’s dramatic September 11 terrorist mission. At the commencement of America’s post-9/11 military intervention, we might recall, George W. Bush made these incautious remarks in an interview: “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” While the original Crusaders (1095–1291) are often depicted in a falsely negative light, we can see Bush trapping himself in the generalities of his bluster.
Had Bush’s tenure in office coincided with more propitious circumstances, as enjoyed by his father, President George H.W. Bush, he might have lived up to his original self-description as a non-interventionist and “compassionate conservative”: that is, a wealthy patrician informed by economic and social liberalism and committed to the international status quo however that might be configured at the time. The worldview of the House of Bush is exemplified by the tepid and even embarrassed response of President George H.W. Bush to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He seemed rattled by the rise and rise of Boris Yeltsin in 1990, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the political demise of his good friend Mikhail Gorbachev. The two had talked endlessly of a “new world order” and the promise of a future “historic period of co-operation” between the US and the USSR. James K. Oliver generously described George H.W. Bush’s cautious reticence, in The Foreign Policy Architecture of the Clinton and Bush Administrations (2007), as “conservative internationalism”. That, of course, is one way to put it.
George W. Bush’s pre-emptive military adventurism and us-or-them speechifying, much of it prompted by his hawkish advisers, was a first-phase response to 9/11. The second-phase response, as outlined by David Kilcullen in Blood Year and the Failures of the War on Terror, focused on the “disaggregation” concept promoted by a new generation of anti-terrorist experts. The Obama Doctrine might be described as less disaggregation than anti-aggregation or, if you like, America Last. After his inauguration, in January 2009, President Obama grabbed the first opportunity to go on national television and run up the white flag, pleading with an unspecified “Islamic world” to forgive and forget, telling them, “America is not your enemy.” In the same interview, Obama made a pitch to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” It is possible, given the timeline for selecting Nobel Prize candidates, that President Obama secured his nomination for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize at that very moment. Obama, or so it seemed to millennialist progressives everywhere, not least in Norway, was the one for whom we had been waiting.
The Obama Doctrine, meant to undo the problems created by George W. Bush, only made matters worse. A short list paints the picture of a world lurching towards utter chaos: the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the emergence of the Islamic State; the Syrian Civil War; Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea; the new bellicosity of China; the old bellicosity of North Korea; the Iranian takeover of Iraq; and so on ad infinitum.
One of the secrets of the Trump Doctrine is that it eschews the pie-in-the-sky “new world order” fantasies of both the Bush Dynasty and the Obama Doctrine. The world is what it is. The enemies of America’s enemies, as I wrote here many years ago (“The Future of the Pax Americana”, Quadrant, October 2009), are just as likely to be America’s enemies as well. The major upside to this less-than-sanguine worldview is that the United States remains advantageously situated in a geopolitical sense, with an ocean to the west and an ocean to the east, and (still) possessing a military reach far beyond its rivals. It maintains the capacity, if not the will, to insist that the rest of the world accommodate themselves to America rather than, as Obama came to prefer, America accommodating itself to an ungrateful world. Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump was never indoctrinated by New Left purveyors of anti-American ideology. Barack Obama is more likely to know the details of the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup d’état in Iran, which saw the overthrow of a democratically elected government and, according to some experts, eventuated (ultimately) in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. All this, Trump might remind us, is mostly beside the point. He would point out that he was only six years old at the time of the coup d’état and, in any case, how does handing over $1.3 billion to a clique of theocratic kleptocrats and their deadly henchman help to right past wrongs? America First means never having to say you are sorry.
Trump, in fact, has been far more sympathetic to restive young Iranians who despise their tyrannical overlords than Obama was during the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests. Obama’s silence was no doubt intended as an extended hand to the Iranian regime in his quixotic quest to unclench the fists of Tehran’s anti-American zealots. Their good will was essential to his plans. For Trump, contrariwise, the goodwill of Khamenei and company is not germane. What he requires, as a bottom line, is that the Iranians do not kill Americans in their neighbourhood nor acquire the weaponry to do so from the other side of the ocean. It is not out of the question that in the future a cash-strapped Iranian regime will seek to cut a deal with Trump or a like-minded successor. Any such pact, it goes without saying, will accord with the principles of America First.
We return, finally, to the deadliest criticism of Trump’s foreign policy initiatives: “The most dangerous day of his presidency is always tomorrow.” Michael Moore, as a case in point, issued a public apology to the people of Iran for the drone strike on their most important military commander. This echoed the official view of the Iranian regime that the targeted killing of Soleimani was an act of American “state terrorism”. It reminded me of the attempt by Tariq Ali to equate George W. Bush with Osama bin Laden. Donald Trump, no doubt anticipating the charge, was quick to issue this statement: “Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.” Trump’s most fervent critics will dispute this on account of his being a congenital liar or some such, and yet the truth is disturbing. Moore cannot accept that Soleimani perfectly fits the description of a “state terrorist” because it proves that President Obama’s 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal was madness. Barack Obama’s Munich moment would, I suggest, make an excellent chapter in a new version of The Suicide of the West.
Daryl McCann, a regular contributor to Quadrant, has a blogand tweets at @dosakamccann.