TGIF: Trump Never Was a Noninterventionist

People search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sanaa Airport, Yemen, Thursday, March 26, 2015. Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes Thursday targeting military installations in Yemen held by Shiite rebels who were taking over a key port city in the country's south and had driven the embattled president to flee by sea, security officials said. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Can Donald Trump’s foreign policy “doctrine” and presidential actions accurately be described as noninterventionist? Strangely, Glenn Greenwald thinks so. In “Trump’s War on Terror Has Quickly Become as Barbaric and Savage as He Promised,” Greenwald writes, “Trump explicitly ran as a ‘non-interventionist’ — denouncing, for instance, U.S. regime change wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria (even though he at some points expressed support for the first two). Many commentators confused ‘non-interventionism’ with ‘pacifism,’ leading many of them — to this very day — to ignorantly claim that Trump’s escalated war on terror bombing is in conflict with his advocacy of non-interventionism. It is not.”

I’m a big fan of Greenwald’s work, but I believe he is among the confused here. Whoever thinks Trump ran as a noninterventionist is plain wrong. All one needs to do to see this is to compare Trump’s campaign pronouncements with those of noninterventionist Ron Paul during his two runs for Republican presidential nomination. (Trump warned Republicans not to listen to Paul.)

For example, to this day Trump says he has not “figure[d] out what the hell is going on” with respect to “radical Islamic terrorism.” But any good noninterventionist would know, as Paul has repeatedly said, that terrorism against Americans and Europeans is a response to U.S. and NATO intervention in the Middle East. The noninterventionist answer to terrorism is nonintervention, not Trumpism. I see not even a prima facie case that Trump is or has ever claimed to be a noninterventionist. His “America First” appeal was not shorthand for noninterventionism. It was a nationalist slogan.

Greenwald’s own words undermine his claim. As evidence for Trump’s alleged noninterventionism, he cites Trump’s criticism of regime change in the Middle East. But while a commitment to noninterventionism logically requires opposition to regime change, opposition to regime change does not logically require a commitment to noninterventionism. One could have many reasons — pragmatic, financial, whatever — for opposing regime change besides a commitment to noninterventionism, and one could support intervention for reasons other than a desire for regime change. One could intervene, say, on behalf of a regime. How could Greenwald miss this?

Trump criticized NATO in his campaign, but, considering what he actually said, that hardly constituted noninterventionism. First he called NATO “obsolete” because, he said, it was not fighting terrorism. When he learned that a counterterrorism division had been established, he withdrew the criticism while taking credit for the “new” mission. (He seemed not to know that NATO was part of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which had counterterrorism as its stated rationale.)

Then Trump switched grounds and criticized the NATO members that do not spend the required minimum 2 percent on their militaries. (Trump misconstrues this as dues owed to NATO or to the U.S. government.) While he said he might not send the U.S. military to defend a NATO member that fell short of that requirement (he doesn’t say this anymore), this also did not constitute opposition to NATO per se, much less an expression of noninterventionism. In fact, he said he approved of NATO and the U.S. role as world policeman. Similarly, he has never said he would take U.S troops out of Germany, Japan, and South Korea, or close the rest of the 800 military installations scattered around the world.

Since taking office in January Trump has professed his love for NATO. In his address to a joint session of Congress he said, “We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism.” Yes, he also said, “Our partners must meet their financial obligations.” But he quickly added, “And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions [Trump takes credit for everything he regards as good], they are beginning to do just that.”

So I ask, where is Trump’s noninterventionism? He believes in multinational military action. At times he suggests that such action must always be linked to his expansive notion of “national interest,” but in his first major campaign speech on foreign policy he went further: “We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.” None of this comes close to noninterventionism. (Critics sometimes call him an isolationist, but that has more to do with his opposition to immigration, admission of refugees, and free trade. Noninterventionism is not isolationism because a noninterventionist can embrace open borders and free trade.)

Greenwald thinks some Trump critics conflate noninterventionism with pacifism. That’s hard to imagine. In his campaign Trump could never have been mistaken for a pacifist. He bragged about loving war and being the most militarist candidate in the Republican field (“Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.”). He also promised to “bomb the shit” out ISIS, to torture, to kill the families of suspected terrorists, and hike military spending to historic levels. No one mistook Trump for a pacifist. Anyone who equated noninterventionism with pacifism would have swiftly concluded that Trump was no noninterventionist. (Greenwald is right that noninterventionism need not imply pacificism in the sense of opposing even self-defense.)

Greenwald’s deeper point, apart from Trump, is that savage bombing of a country is consistent with noninterventionism as long as the policymaker is motivated by self-defense rather than altruism. Is this so?

While a noninterventionist could in principle support a defensive state war, it is hard to see how he could support the savage bombing of civilians and the things Trump promised to do, all of which would endanger the defending society by unnecessarily inciting hatred and creating enemies bent on vengeance — not to mention offending most noninterventionists’ moral convictions. Noninterventionists first and foremost should want to avoid war, which means, among other things, avoiding giving others reasons to attack. Abhorrence of war is motivated not just by an objection to humanitarianism by force of arms; it’s also an objection to the evils that necessarily attend all war — not only the cruelty and “collateral damage,” but also the state worship, the expansion of government at home (power- and profit-motivated mission creep), and the self-destructive frenzy of hatred for the Other. (For more on this and other considerations, see Gary Chartier’s “Violence, Wars, and States.”)

One need not be an anti-self-defense pacifist to hate war. The most “war” you can get out of principled nonintervention is the minimum force necessary to stop a serious threat. It’s hard to see how you could justify the destruction of an entire society without resorting to unlikely extreme hypotheticals. You certainly can’t get to Trump’s policy from there. (This is not the place to show, as Bryan Caplan writes, that “it’s virtually impossible to fight a war of self-defense. Even if militaries don’t deliberately target innocent bystanders, they almost always wind up recklessly endangering their lives.”)

“Each time Trump drops another bomb,” Greenwald writes, “various pundits and other assorted Trump opponents smugly posit that his doing so is inconsistent with his touted non-interventionism. This is just ignorance of what these terms mean.”

Maybe some pundits smugly posit that, but the principled noninterventionists I know do not. The reason his ferocious militarism does not contradict his foreign policy “doctrine” (such as it is) is that his doctrine has nothing to do with noninterventionism.

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Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book is America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Regardless of how you interpret Trump’s campaign rhetoric (which is often difficult to do because he’s so inconsistent) — he implicitly advocates military invasion every time he worships veterans and their “sacrifices”, which by definition makes him an interventionist.

    Obviously this is the politically-correct thing to do anyway. As we’re learning from the no-holds-barred bipartisan attack on the Drexel professor who was openly critical of the praise being heaped on US military personnel, there are three things you’re not allowed to criticize: veterans, babies, and puppies.

  2. […] Now let’s compare the America First Committee with Trump’s America First program. We know it is not about staying out of war. Last night he ordered a cruise-missile attack on a Syrian airbase (without the congressional authorization he once said was necessary for such an action) — although Syria has not attacked the United States. He’s intensifying the wars in Iraq (against ISIS), Syria (against ISIS), Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and probably some other places we don’t know about yet. Trump has also embraced NATO, which more or less obligates the American people to go to war to defend, among others, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Turkey, and Albania, and soon perhaps Montenegro, Georgia, and Ukraine. He seems ready to go to war against North Korea. (See my “Trump Never Was a Noninterventionist.”) […]