"Sometimes it seemed like there wasn't a country in the Middle East that Hillary Clinton didn't want to invade, intervene in, or topple," Donald Trump declared in Philadelphia today. It was one of the better lines in a speech that, as is often the case when Trump talks about foreign policy, zig-zagged erratically between the refreshing and the ridiculous.
On the upside, the candidate decried the human and financial cost of Clinton's record in Iraq and Libya, said America's allies should share the burden of paying for their defense, and promised to "emphasize diplomacy, not destruction." On the downside, he sounded like a typical GOP hawk on Iran, threw in his usual fearful notes about immigration, and called for a massive military buildup, which he promoted not just on defense grounds but as a source of jobs and technological innovation. A great deal of the speech was devoted to pretending that the U.S. military, by far the most heavily funded fighting force in the world, is actually running on a shoestring. Like Hillary Clinton, he denounced the Pentagon sequester's already weakened limits on spending; a Trump presidency, he declared, would begin with him asking Congress to entirely eliminate those restraints. In a fiscal fantasy, he claimed he could "fully offset" these spending hikes while still protecting "hard-earned benefits for Americans" through such measures as collecting unpaid taxes, not replacing every retiring worker, and trimming bureaucratic waste.
Trump also pledged that as president he would immediately "ask my generals to present to me a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS." This is becoming part of his standard repertoire: He made the same promise at a rally yesterday in Greenville, North Carolina. I've embedded that moment from the Greenville speech here, because it encapsulates both what's welcome and what's frustrating in Trump's foreign-policy vision:
Note how Trump progresses from that pledge to decrying "endless wars," and from there to deriding the competence of Clinton's foreign policy advisors, promising that his "top military experts" will "know how to win," and then circling back to denouncing "this endless war, the war that's been going on forever and draining our country." He echoes the war-weariness of so much of the country, but his alternative is merely a vague promise to win. He suggests—rightly—that Clinton's foreign policy team isn't about to extract us from Washington's endless interventions abroad, but his payoff is just a pledge that his Top Men will be better. He acknowledges a problem that other GOP nominees would never have touched, but he can't enunciate a radically different vision. (At least he didn't praise torture this time.)
As distinctly Trumpian as that moment was, it also sparks memories of several politicians of the past. The let's-get-our-best-experts-together-and-ask-them-what-to-do rhetoric was a mainstay for Ross Perot, a man often cited as a precursor to Trump (though Perot was much more of a deficit hawk and also more of a foreign-policy dove). And Trump's gather-the-generals, get-a-plan, win-and-get-out thoughts on ISIS are almost identical to George Wallace's rhetoric about Vietnam. "So I would go to the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Wallace would say, "and I would ask them, 'Can we win this war with conventional weapons?' And if they said yes, I would make full use of the country's conventional weapons to quickly end this war and bring our boys home."
I blogged about the parallels between Trump and Wallace's foreign policies last week, but Trump's remarks yesterday sounded so Wallace-like that I just have to underline the point today. Watch that video of Trump above, and then watch this Wallace ad from 1968:
Trump's foreign policy may not be entirely coherent, but it belongs to a coherent tradition.