If you listened long enough to Donald Trump during his first presidential campaign, you could find grounds to hope that he would make some badly needed changes in American foreign policy. After the catastrophe of the Iraq War and the dismal slog of Afghanistan, Trump promised a different approach.
“We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world,” he said. “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about,” he vowed, promising “a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy.”
He condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq, opposed intervention in Syria and called for leaving Afghanistan. He said our endless wars would end. He pledged to make our allies bear their full share of defense costs. He raised the possibility of a firm restraint in dealing with the rest of the world.
Like most of Trump’s promises, these proved empty. Instead of bringing troops home from Afghanistan, he increased their numbers. He sent ground forces to Syria — and to Iraq. He expanded President Barack Obama’s “drone war” in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen.
The advantage of this record is that he can recycle the promises he made four years ago.
He says he will “stop endless wars and bring our troops home.” He assures us that in his second term, he will “get allies to pay their fair share,” an admission that he hasn’t done so.
His foreign policy has also been anything but “disciplined, deliberate and consistent.” He has picked fights with allies, blown hot and cold with China and North Korea, and rashly pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, giving Tehran the opportunity to expand its stockpile of enriched uranium.
North Korea has kept adding to its nuclear arsenal, despite Trump’s bromance with Kim Jong Un and his claim to have “solved that problem.” The most consistent element has been his tireless appeasement of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Advocates of a more restrained foreign policy can no longer hope to get it from Trump. But there is good reason to think it might come about under Joe Biden, who has a vast store of knowledge and experience on these matters, having been chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee and vice president.
He made the case against Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, which expanded and prolonged the war without yielding any meaningful improvements. Susan Rice, Obama’s U.N. ambassador and national security adviser, wrote later that Biden and the intelligence community “proved more correct” than the Pentagon on Afghanistan.
As a senator, Biden did vote for the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq.
But in 2005, he said: “It was a mistake. It was a mistake to assume the president would use that authority we gave him properly.” In his 2012 vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan, he warned against intervention in Syria, declaring, “The last thing America needs is to get into another ground war in the Middle East.”
Biden didn’t usually get his way on policy under Obama. Robert Gates, who was defense secretary under both Obama and Bush, later wrote, “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Gates, however, says of Trump, “I think that we are in a weaker position in the world today than we were three years ago.”
One reason for that assessment is Trump’s abandonment of the deal with Iran. Biden’s party platform says the accord “remains the best means to verifiably cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb” and calls for “returning to mutual compliance.” If he were reelected, Trump would find himself with only two options: letting Iran proceed with its nuclear program or going to war.
Unnecessary military intervention abroad is a self-destructive addiction that has afflicted one president after another. There is no guarantee that Biden would break it, but Trump has already failed.