There are cases for re-electing President Trump that make sense in their own terms. If your top priorities are tax cuts, immigration restriction, or conservative judges, for example, Trump has proven a remarkably reliable vehicle for achieving those ends. Other cases reflect a willful blindness to reality. Far from draining the swamp, for example, Trump has turned himself into the capital’s premier swamp-dweller.
But most voters in the middle care about practical results, and from health care to infrastructure to trade, Trump’s efforts have been largely feckless and incompetent. Even discounting the glaring failure of his response to COVID-19, an area where plenty of peer countries have not exactly covered themselves with glory, the administration has a very thin record of accomplishment to run on.
There’s one area, though, where Trump can argue he has genuinely distinguished himself from prior administrations, Democratic and Republican, in a way that should matter deeply to the American people. Trump ran in both the primaries and the general election as the man who would keep America out of unnecessary wars and who would end the ones we were in. He hasn’t ended any of our wars yet, but Trump is in fact the first president since Jimmy Carter not to have sent American troops into a new conflict.
So it’s at least worth hearing out the idea: Is Trump the peace candidate?
The claim, made most prominently by Modern Age editor and The Week contributor Daniel McCarthy, rests on three arguments. First, as noted, Trump did not involve America in any new conflicts. For a normal nation, this would not be an extraordinary accomplishment — but for America, it might be. Military intervention has long-since become a way of life in American foreign policy. Even Barack Obama, who was elected on a promise not to get involved in “stupid wars,” was convinced to intervene in Libya, with catastrophic results, and it was only at the last moment that he pulled back from a comparable effort in Syria. By contrast, Trump, while he appointed super-hawks like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to be his advisors, declined to be talked into war with Iran. Shouldn’t he get credit for that?
Second, while Trump is the last person anyone would call diplomatic, he has been a promiscuous globe-trotter in search of peace deals. He long advocated a rapprochement with Russia, initiated personal diplomacy with North Korea for the first time at the presidential level, and, most notably, facilitated peace agreements between Israel and three Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan — with the potential for more to come. If this is not the record of a peace-maker, what is it?
The third argument is the most important, because it speaks to overall philosophy, not generally considered this president’s strong point. But if Trump has a theory of the world, it is that you should make deals that benefit yourself. Applied to foreign policy, this suggests the goal of American foreign policy should not be to improve other countries or to advance some values we hold dear, but to get the best possible deals for America. So if, for example, we can woo North Korea away from confrontation (and out of a pro-Chinese alignment) by soft-pedaling concerns about human rights or missile development, why not do it?
Is that peace? If so, Trump has a case. But I don’t think it’s peace.
For one thing, while it’s true that Trump did not start a war with Iran, he did take a high-risk gamble in assassinating terrorist mastermind General Qassem Soleimani, and the fact that the gamble has so far paid off doesn’t invalidate how risky it was at the time, nor the fact that, in that instance, he did listen to his extremely hawkish advisors. Moreover, Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal that was one of Obama’s notable accomplishments, which has, predictably, led Iran to move further toward nuclear potential while shredding any American diplomatic leverage. While Trump has not started any new wars, one of his first acts was to dramatically escalate America’s involvement in Saudi Arabia’s near-genocidal war in Yemen, a war so unpopular that he had to veto a bi-partisan war-powers resolution to keep fighting. Meanwhile, from North Korea to China to Venezuela, Trump has been as promiscuous with his threats as he has been with his praise of foreign dictators. If he has rarely backed those threats up with military action, that is not a sign of a dove but of a paper tiger.
As for diplomacy, while Trump has claimed to want better relations with Russia, it’s hard to discern any actual improvement there. Instead, America has torn up arms agreements with Russia in the hopes of adding China to them, a gambit which failed, leaving the future of New Start in serious question. The same can be said about North Korea, where Trump’s bold diplomatic opening has led nowhere. Chalk these failures up to conflict between Trump and his subordinates, or to Russian and North Korean determination to pursue their own interests, or what have you — regardless, a stated eagerness for better relations is not the same thing as achieving them, and the achievement is what’s lacking.
The only area where Trump can legitimately point to peacemaking is between Israel and some of its erstwhile adversaries. But it’s important to understand what underwrites this peace. In the case of the Gulf States, it was mutual fear of Iran — stoked by Obama’s nuclear deal — that led to a behind-the-scenes working relationship with Israel. And what made it possible to bring that relationship into the open is the weakness of the Palestinian position, and their consequent inability to shape events in the Arab world. Trump surely revealed that weakness by moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, so the world could see that nothing much happened in consequence. If he contributed beyond this, it was by being prepared to ask less than most American presidents would of either party, and to offer more. How is that “America First?”
Which leads me to my largest objection to the characterization of Trump as the peace candidate. It’s not just that Trump hasn’t actually reduced America’s military commitments, or ended any of our ongoing conflicts, or improved American relations with any other powers. It’s not just that his idea of a good deal is one that benefits America’s defense contractors while leaving us more beholden to allies who can offer us little in exchange for our support. It’s that the conception of peace implied by this characterization is too thin to deserve the term. Peace is not merely the absence of current conflict. It is the establishment of relations with other powers on a basis that makes conflict less likely over the long term.
That is an idea that strikes me as entirely beyond President Trump’s comprehension, convinced as he is that life is a constant zero-sum struggle for dominance. Of course, that’s one way to characterize international relations as well — perhaps the most realistic one in our fallen world. But it’s one that declares “peace” an impossibility, the only hope being either global hegemony, or a dynamic balancing between different powers punctuated by conflict. If the former is no longer realistic (and I agree it’s not), then America needs more than ever a shrewd, knowledgeable statesman at the helm, capable of discerning where our true interests lie and maneuvering to advance them as peacefully and cooperatively as possible. A statesman who will only threaten when necessary, but whose threats are always taken seriously.
If that sounds like Trump to you, then I’ve got a heck of a deal on a swamp to sell you.