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Axis of Confusion: Trump and the State of the Union

Words: William D. Hartung
Pictures: Kyle Glenn

One can accuse Donald Trump of many things, but one thing he has never been is consistent. Positions shift day-to-day and week-to-week, with kernels of possibility coexisting alongside horrific policies like family separation, the border wall, the Muslim ban, and his continuing embrace of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite their violations of the laws of war in Yemen and their systematic repression of their own people.

But for the moment at least, Trump appears to have returned to the non-interventionist posture that helped get him elected, back when he called the Iraq War a fiasco and lamented the loss of trillions in military costs that could have been used to rebuild America. This strain of his thought was exemplified in this week’s State of the Union speech when he asserted that “great nations don’t fight endless wars,” in part as a defense of his decisions to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan.

One can argue with how Trump has chosen to pull out of the above-mentioned wars, but he is right to do so. Neither is serving US security interests at this point and Afghanistan, in particular, has been one long drain of blood and treasure that has at best fought the Taliban to a stalemate, even as corruption and incompetence continue to undermine the performance of the Afghan government. In Syria, any withdrawal plan should take steps to protect the Syrian Kurds, who have been among the most effective fighters against ISIS. But withdraw we must.

For the moment at least, Trump appears to have returned to the non-interventionist posture that helped get him elected…

But the Trump administration is not against all forms of overseas conflict. Led by John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and other hawks in his administration, President Trump has demonized Iran and appears to be spoiling for a fight, whether by squeezing its economy and supporting internal opponents or by taking the next step and launching an actual war. Trump’s harsh anti-Iran rhetoric in the State of the Union reinforces this pattern. It is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s targeting of Iraq as part of an “axis of evil” (along with Iran and North Korea) before commencing a disastrous invasion that destabilized the region and caused immense human suffering. Military action against Iran, whether it starts with naval skirmishes and air strikes or moves to a full-fledged war, could make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan look tame by comparison.

Then there’s North Korea, where the administration is engaging in on-again, off-again talks to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Here again, while his administration has drawn criticism for how they have conducted the negotiations, talking is the right way forward, given that there is no viable military solution to the problem. North Korea is not going to give away its nuclear weapons tomorrow, but a deal that swaps denuclearization for a pledge to end hostilities between the US and North Korea could bear fruit over time. And it would align with the position of our allies in South Korea, who are after all at greatest risk from North Korean nuclear weapons, yet have chosen reconciliation over confrontation.

Trump’s erratic behavior and conflicting statements place opponents in a difficult position. Should they oppose all things Trump, or should they try to hold him to his pledges on issues like ending endless wars while mustering strong opposition to ill-advised policies like pursuing regime change in Iran? The answer to that question may determine what kind of world we confront once he has left the political stage and a new president is left to forge a more coherent foreign policy. Ideally, one that makes us safer without falling prey to the counterproductive, military-first policies that have too often characterized our security strategies during this century.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

William D. Hartung

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