Is President Trump really rolling back the American empire?
His isolationist cheerleaders insist the answer is "yes." If you look past his bellicosity to his "America First" foreign policy, they say, you'll find the seeds of ending decades of neoconservative interventionism and limiting the country's military engagements to areas where some vital national interest is at stake. But they're fooling themselves. Trump is not diminishing America's military footprint; if anything, he's expanding it.
As evidence for their position, the president's boosters cite his pullouts from Afghanistan and Syria, as well as his willingness to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to negotiate his country's nuclear disarmament. But the latter diplomatic overture is shaping up to be a complete bust, and the former pullouts are just as partial as former President Obama's was from Iraq. Just as Obama ended up succumbing and leaving a rump American force in Iraq, Trump too, for all his tough talk, has flipped on his original promise to fully withdraw from Syria. He is saying now that he's "100 percent" on board with a residual troop presence. Likewise in Afghanistan, he's talking only about withdrawing half the American troops—not all.This is a shame. Given America's growing empire, it would certainly be nice if a president would pull back—and try and change the world by example instead of picking fights or aiding wars. Trump, unfortunately, is not the man for the job.
Trump's supporters are also ecstatic that he is questioning the NATO alliance—except that he's not. All he wants is that NATO countries reimburse America for its costs, not take responsibility for their own defense. In fact, The New York Times' Ross Douthat believes that Trump wants these countries to bear their military burden so that America's resources are freed up to deal with China, a country that for some reason has always rubbed Trump the wrong way.
In fairness, a NATO pullout would provoke considerable political resistance. So it may be understandable why Trump wouldn't prioritize it. But Trump doesn't want to pull out even from disputes such as Saudi Arabia's offensive against Houthi insurgents in Yemen where there is widespread consensus that America has no business getting involved. The Senate even passed a resolution 54-47 last week demanding that Trump stop using American forces to assist Saudis with midair refueling and target assistance, especially since he has no Congressional authorization to do so. Trump's response? A pledge to veto the bill.
But why exactly is Trump so gung-ho about helping Saudi Arabia, a monstrous regime that killed and dismembered an American resident because he had the temerity to criticize it? Apparently because Houthis are Shia Muslims like most Iranians — and Trump's hawkish advisers are telling him that if the Houthis take over Yemen they would ally with Iran against Israel, America's ally. But these are exactly the kind of geo-political considerations that "America First" was supposed to reject.
At least in Saudi Arabia's case Trump is providing "only" indirect military assistance. Not so in Somalia. The administration has escalated America's three-decade long military campaign against al-Shabab, an inconsequential Somali terrorist group whose less than 500 hard-core members pose virtually no threat to America.
The saving grace, if there is one, is that the administration at least designated Somalia as an "active area of hostilities," which will force Pentagon to disclose how many casualties its drone attacks cause. However, CIA drones bomb countries covertly all over the world without such a designation. President Obama at the tail end of his presidency issued an executive order requiring the agency to report these strikes along with assessments of the combatants and non-combatants it killed. But Trump last week scrapped this requirement so that the CIA can once again kill with impunity without worrying about bad publicity.
One reason why the American empire is on an unbroken growth trajectory is that a giant behemoth like the Pentagon has to justify its existence by inventing or exaggerating threats. Only a president determined to starve the beast would ultimately be able to shrink America's military presence around the world. And during his campaign, Trump lamented that if America had spent $6 trillion at home instead of the Middle East, "we could have rebuilt our country twice." However, now that Trump is in office he is doing the opposite.
His most recent budget proposed to cut domestic spending by 5 percent and boost defense spending by the same amount, never mind that America already spends more than the next seven powers combined on defense. To add insult to injury, Trump is boosting America's defensive capabilities less and offensive ones more, given that his budget seeks to cut spending on defensive missile systems by $500 million while increasing it on offensive systems such as hypersonic weapons by $2.6 billion.
Worst of all, Trump doesn't just want to use the American military to accomplish his foreign policy objectives; he is also enlisting the American economy, wielding sanctions and tariffs like weapons.
He tore up Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, re-imposing sanctions on the country and anyone that does business with it. And it's not just Iran. In 2017, Trump imposed a record 944 sanctions on foreign entities and individuals. And then he topped his own record and imposed over 1,000 sanctions last year. The Guardian's Simon Tisdall notes that soon any country not under economic attack by Trump will be the exception rather than the rule.
Using America's economy as a handmaiden of its foreign policy was always a neoconservative goal. Back in the 1990s, neocons vehemently opposed permanently normalizing trade ties with China because they wanted to make access to America's markets subject to China doing their bidding.
Trump's "America First," thus, isn't so much a departure from neo-conservatism as a different—and worse—version of it. In its zeal to impose America's will on the rest of the world, it is just as meddlesome and aggressive—but with less consensus-building abroad and accountability at home. Expecting Trump to rollback the American empire is a fool's dream.
This column originally ran in The Week