Despite His Record, Donald Trump Plans To Run as an Anti-War Republican
A big part of Trump's appeal in 2016 was his forthright opposition to military interventionism. His record in office didn't match the rhetoric.
The 2024 presidential election is still almost two years away, but campaigns are already underway. President Joe Biden is expected to announce his plans for a reelection candidacy soon, and the field of Republicans anxious to unseat him is starting to coalesce.
Former President Donald Trump got a jump on the competition, waiting just a week after his party's unimpressive midterms performance before announcing his intention to run again. Even though he is the only Republican to officially announce, others seem likely to jump in soon: Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who later served as Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, will likely announce her own bid next week.
Politico reports that to distinguish himself from potential candidates like Haley or former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump will run as "an anti-war dove amongst the hawks." But while a forceful nudge in an anti-war direction would be a welcome development for the party, Trump's record casts doubt on his seriousness.
Trump's reflexive opposition to foreign entanglements was part of his appeal during his 2016 candidacy. At a Republican debate ahead of that year's South Carolina primary, Trump called the Iraq War "a big, fat mistake" and said of its boosters, "They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew there were none."
Last week, Sen. J.D. Vance (R–Ohio) got an early endorsement out of the way, throwing his weight behind Trump on the basis that in his first term, "he started no wars despite enormous pressure from his own party and even members of his own administration." In early 2016, when Vance was a private citizen who opposed Trump, he similarly wrote in The New York Times that Trump's message resonated with white working-class voters because "he tells them what no major Republican politician in a decade has said — that the [Iraq War] was a terrible mistake imposed on the country by an incompetent president." A 2017 study would conclude that Trump's anti-interventionist rhetoric was crucial to his victory over Hillary Clinton.
But Trump's record once elected did not reflect the promise of a more constrained foreign policy. Just days into his administration, Trump greenlit a military operation in Yemen that yielded no valuable intelligence but led to the death of Navy Seal Ryan Owens. When pressed on the failure, he blamed his military advisers, shrugging that "they lost Ryan." Weeks later, he launched 59 missiles into Syria after that country's government targeted its civilians with chemical weapons.
Despite promising to bring the troops home, Trump ended no wars in his four years in office. He loosened restrictions on drone strikes, leading to a massive increase in alleged civilian casualties. And in January 2020, he authorized the assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani. While the administration initially claimed the strike was necessary to prevent an imminent strike risking "hundreds" of American lives, it later emerged that Trump had been mulling the order for months.
Iran responded by lobbing missiles at a U.S. air base in Iraq and injuring over 100 American soldiers, and Iran-trained militias launched rockets into a U.S. military base in Iraq, killing multiple soldiers. And yet when Congress passed a resolution constraining the president from further military action against Iran without congressional approval, Trump vetoed it.
In fairness, Trump began the process to end the war in Afghanistan by signing the Doha Agreement in February 2020. But that agreement, which called for a gradual drawdown of troops over more than a year, only came at the end of Trump's first term, as he was running for reelection. And it came only after sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan in 2017.
As the 2024 campaign season heats up, an anti-war contingent in the Republican Party that extends beyond just aid to Ukraine would be a great benefit. Unfortunately, if the party's most recent standard-bearer is any indication, that impulse will be in short supply among the candidates.