Presidential Debate

Trump's Foreign Policy in the Debate: Skeptical of Past Wars, Eager for New Ones

Last night Trump's foreign policy mouth seemed in some cases to be outrunning his mind, making a strict interpretation of his meaning difficult.


Donald Trump's willingness to insist he was against the Iraq War, to say he eschews nation building, and to insult past GOP foreign policy mavens have led some non-interventionists to insist he's a positive game changer for the future of American foreign policy.

That didn't seem very likely in the way Trump handled foreign policy questions at last night's first presidential debate.

Todd Krainin

Yes, Trump still wants to make it clear no matter what contrary evidence might exist that he was always against the Iraq War and the idea of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq. He is also, though, against U.S. troops having left Iraq, because of the mess it left behind, and also still says he's against nation-building.

The best case interpretation to tie all that together for those eager to believe in a non-interventionist Trump is that surely he can be trusted to never send troops in anywhere in his attempt to crush the foes he swears we can and must crush, including ISIS and by strong implication Iran, since once he does he'd feel obligated to keep them there forever and make sure things don't go wrong in the country we invaded, that is, he'd feel obligated to nation-build.

And hasn't he told us he doesn't want to do that? Thus, we can trust him to not do any more full-on invasions.

This seems a thin reed of hope. I'm guessing his will to crush will exceed his will to not nation-build, in the end. He is an avowed fan of surgical Middle Eastern interventions (though he continues to refuse to say out loud whether his ISIS-crushing plans will be surgical, boots on ground, or even nuclear) but isn't clear on why he thinks such surgical attacks, for whatever purpose, not followed up by continual ground troops, won't leave the same kind of Middle Eastern chaos in its wake he rightly critiques. Perhaps he thinks his oft-repeated call to just steal oil from our foes over there will make it all work out fine?

Trump won great huzzahs from some looking for a less bellicose shakeup in the American foreign policy establishment by once saying some negative things about NATO. Last night, though, he reiterated he merely wants to allocate the costs more fairly among the whole alliance and in fact is thrilled to see NATO expand its mission to the international war on terror. That lack of an expanded mission, he said last night, was really the only thing that bothered him about NATO, ultimately.

He did not contradict Clinton when she accused him of wanting to blow up another country's ship if people on it were "taunting" Americans, but don't worry peaceniks—he insists "that would not start a war." That seems a bit of a chance to take over a taunt, especially if curtailing overseas interventions is your political goal.

Last night Trump's foreign policy mouth seemed in some cases to be outrunning his mind, making a strict interpretation of his meaning difficult. "I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it" he says of nuclear weapons, which he stresses are the greatest danger we face. "But I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it's over. At the same time, we have to be prepared."

So, certainly not do first strike? Well, maybe. "I can't take anything off the table. Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we're doing nothing there."

He goes on to suggest (as has Libertarian presidential hopeful Gary Johnson) that rather than expending our own force or treasure on bringing North Korea to heel, we should somehow get China to do it.

Like the most dedicated neocon, Trump is sure that Iran will get a nuclear bomb within a decade because of the Iran deal he hates, and is very concerned that Israel is very worried about it.

The most encouraging thing said last night was his continued recognition of the crushing expense of trying to defend the world. "We are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world…"

Still, his overall goal, previously stated, when it comes to military spending is to increase it anyway.

Trump's overall foreign policy vision, as presented in last night's debate and over his political career, provides little hope for restraint, sanity, and frugality. It's great that he seems reluctant to believe that hostility to Russia needs to be a core part of American foreign policy, and that he is capable of at least saying that nation-building is out. But his vision of the world sees many nations and threats that either explicitly or implicitly are going to require Americans to wage war in Trump's vision. His essential vision of the world is one that is very dangerous to America, and must be brought to heel by force, one in which any perceived blow to our dignity must be met by violence, even if to his mind that doesn't necessarily mean "war" or "nation building." It's still a dangerous vision.