Trump’s new US national security document is a robust statement of American strategic realism; a necessary corrective to Obama-era enfeeblement and self-flagellation. There are enemies out there and the US has to lead in confronting them.
Former US President Barack Obama’s last speech at the United Nations (in September 2016) expressed deep disappointment with conflict around the world. He seemed baffled by the stubborn refusal of the world to reform itself in his exalted image. All he could do was exhort lamely for “global brotherhood.”
How can there still be “deep fault lines in the international order,” Obama wondered aloud, with “societies filled with uncertainty, and unease, and strife? Hasn’t his very identity as a man “made up of the flesh and blood and traditions and cultures and faiths from a lot of different parts of the world” served as shining and irresistible example of blended global peace?
How can it be that after eight years of his “visionary” leadership, Obama asled, peoples everywhere weren’t marching to the tune of his self-declared superior “moral imagination”? It is indeed a “paradox,” Obama declared.
After all, hadn’t Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize early in his tenure? Shouldn’t that have been enough for everybody else to follow suit and sing kumbaya, including the lions and the lambs?
Alas, missing from Obama’s UN address – indeed from his entire presidency – was willingness to project power. In Obama’s view, there were no hard enemies. And if there were bad guys out there, Obama made it clear that under his watch America wasn’t really willing to confront the adversaries.
In fact, the words “enemy, “threat” and “adversary” did not appear even once in Obama’s 5,600 word address. They were not part of his lexicon, nor were concepts like “victory” for the West or “beating” the bad guys. He wouldn’t even names foes, like “radical Islam” or “Islamist terror.”
And of course, Obama was ashamed of America’s “over-bearing” record of decisive global leadership. Even in that final UN speech, he was apologizing for American mega-wealth, “soulless capitalism,” “unaccountable mercantilist policies,” insufficient foreign assistance, and “strongman” pushing of its liberal democratic preferences.
So it has fallen to the next US president to redirect US policy, based on less wayward beliefs and on more hard-nosed reassertion of Western interests.
President Trump has begun to do just that, this week unveiling a new National Security Strategy that triggers the process of rehabilitating US foreign and defense policy in the post-Obama era. It starts by naming America’s adversaries.
Trump’s blueprint warns of a treacherous world in which the US faces rising threats from an emboldened Russia and China, as well as from explicitly-labeled “rogue governments” like North Korea and Iran, and from other “jihadi extremist” elements.
This is Step One in bringing America back to global leadership: Identifying the enemy.
Trump’s 68-page document and accompanying speech also dare to hint at the tools of power that America is prepared to employ in order to secure a safe world for Americans. This explicitly includes “preventive war” (i.e., perhaps a pre-emptive strike on North Korea or Iran) and the re-building of America’s armed forces and its nuclear arsenal.
Obama eviscerated the US military, and de-emphasized nuclear weapons as a key to American defense. Trump is rebuilding US armed forces, and called nuclear weapons “the foundation of our strategy to preserve peace and stability by deterring aggression against the US.”
Even if you discount for Trump braggadocio, the security document is still a robust statement of American strategic realism; a necessary corrective to Obama-era enfeeblement and self-flagellation. There are enemies out there and the US has to lead in confronting them.
In one fell swoop, Trump dismissed Obama’s blind faith in multilateralism and international organizations. He formally rejected isolationism as the correct path for America too. (He also seems to have rejected hard-to-implement neo-con democracy promotion as a guiding principle for American policy).
There are, of course, contradictions between Trump’s newly-articulated defense worldview and his first-year record, so it remains to be seen whether the doctrine amounts to much.
Trump wants to promote American power and influence, but his pay-as-you-go version of alliances complicates Washington’s relations with its partners. He wants to be tough on Iran, but his talk of rolling-back Iranian hegemonic advances hasn’t yet amounted to much.
Trump also has been as reticent as Obama to confront Vladimir Putin. The strategy paper’s description of the challenge posed by Russia seems at odds with Trump’s own refusal to criticize Putin for the latter’s seizure of Crimea, takeover of Syria, efforts to destabilize Ukraine, support for Iran, violations of a key nuclear treaty with the US, and meddling in US domestic politics.
Here in Israel, Trump’s strategy paper generated headlines for one sentence which unambiguously debunks what is known as “linkage theory” – the argument that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of the broader region’s instability.
“For generations the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region,” the blueprint reads. “Today, the threats from jihadist terrorist organizations and the threat from Iran are creating the realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems.”
Well, Hallelujah. Finally a bit of realism from Washington, after a decade or more of unfriendly diplomatic orthodoxy that laid the primary responsibility on Israel for Mideast turmoil!
It is the same realism tinged with a modicum of moral conviction that was on display last week when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He slapped down Palestinian denialism and effectively punished the Palestinian Authority for its rejectionism. He brushed aside Palestinian and radical Islamic threats of cataclysmic violence.
By refusing to hold US policy hostage to threats and to the inability of the Palestinians to compromise, Trump is setting the stage for a more realistic Mideast diplomatic process.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.