March 30, 2017

Libertarians, Donald Trump, and War



“Why is Trump abandoning the foreign policy that brought him victory?” That is the headline of a March 10th essay at the National Interest by Cato Institute Senior Fellow Doug Bandow. In the essay, Bandow argues that President Donald Trump had “offered a sharp break from his predecessor”—promising a more pragmatic, even “realist” foreign policy that rejects neoconservatism. Bandow laments that thus far Trump has disappointed those who hoped he would use military force less frequently, rethink America’s military alliances, and pursue a rapprochement with Russia. “The American people,” Bandow concludes, “having voted against the promiscuous military intervention of Trump’s predecessors, may well end up with more of the same foreign policy.”

This argument raises two questions. First, did the American people really vote for a non-interventionist foreign policy? Unlikely. For one, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton—a foreign policy hawk by any measure—by nearly three million votes.

Moreover, voters rarely base decisions on foreign policy. Historically speaking, only three to five percent of voters cite foreign policy as the most important issue in a presidential election. And while a July 2016 Pew poll found that foreign policy was an important issue among 75 percent voters (still ranking below the economy as the most important issue), more recent polls show that only seven percent of the country think foreign policy is the most important issue facing the country.

Moreover, terrorism—the issue on which Trump is most hawkish, with promises to torture terrorism suspects, target their families, and escalate a military campaign—was a “very important” issue for 89 percent of Trump voters in the July poll. In a similar vein, an October 2016 poll found that while 78 percent of Clinton supporters thought diplomacy was superior to force for ensuring peace, only 19 percent of Trump supporters agreed. On whether anti-terrorism policies had “gone far enough” to protect the country, 69 percent of Trump supporters disagreed. And a Politico poll conducted with researchers from Harvard University after the election found that 68 percent of Trump voters supported his plans to increase defense spending, rejecting the traditional libertarian stance on the subject.

None of these figures suggest an electorate in search of non-interventionism.

But second, and more important, what campaign was Bandow watching? As will be discussed below, Donald Trump’s foreign policy statements were almost invariably hawkish. Yes, as Bandow notes, Trump did say (according to Bandow, “promised”), “unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct.” But most presidential candidates present themselves as abhorring war. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt based their reelection campaigns on keeping America out of two world wars, before plunging the country into both. George W. Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy, and Barack Obama staked his entire candidacy on having opposed the invasion of Iraq. Why should anyone have thought Trump’s statement was sincere given his tenuous relationship with the truth? One aberrant statement does not make Donald Trump a dove.

I had an op-ed yesterday at the Foundation of Economic Education arguing that there was never any reason to believe Trump would have anything but a hawkish foreign policy. Yet some libertarians confused Trump’s criticism of neoconservatism with an embrace of non-interventionism. Senator Rand Paul, the Senate’s sole libertarian, for one, apparently thinks by currying favor with Trump, he can prevent neoconservatives from gaining prominent positions in the Trump administration, and thus, the forty-fifth president will pursue a less hawkish course than his predecessors. In my op-ed, I explain why this is wrong:

Few would claim that Trump himself is a dove. But during the campaign, a few libertarians saw him as more palatable than the foreign policy establishment. As a reason for hope, they pointed to his willingness to question the wisdom of a decade and a half of costly wars in the Middle East, his hostility to regime change, and his skepticism about America’s military alliances. And it is true that Trump criticized his predecessors for wasting trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

As a result, Paul has argued, “One of the things I like most about President Trump is his acknowledgment that nation building does not work and actually works against the nation building we need to do here at home.”

 

But whatever his views on nation building, the evidence of Trump’s hawkishness abounds. During his campaign, Trump declared himself the “most militaristic” candidate. He claimed he was “really good at war” and “loved war.”

 

Trump lied repeatedly about his support for the invasion of Iraq and military intervention in Libya. He argued that the problem with the Iraq War was that the United States failed to rob the country of its natural resources. Trump promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State, escalating the military operations begun by his predecessor.

Unfortunately, Bandow and Paul are not isolated cases in thinking Trump ran on a peaceful foreign policy platform. A recent article in Politico discussing where libertarians stand in the age of Trump cites Reason magazine editor Matt Welch describing candidate Trump thusly: “He was stridently antiwar and anti-intervention—and he stomped the competition.”  (Update: following a debate in South Carolina in which Trump criticized the Iraq and the Bush family’s role in starting it, Welch did write an article for Reason arguing that Trump was not the great non-interventionist hope some libertarians were portraying him to be). Justin Raimondo, the supposedly libertarian editor of Antiwar.com, bizarrely argues in an interview that Donald Trump’s electoral victory was the ultimate victory for non-interventionism. According to Raimondo, “That a Republican presidential candidate could get away with opposing the Iraq war but also declaring that we were lied into it and still win the nomination marked the end of the neoconservative domination of the GOP… No matter what happens now, the ideological triumph of the case for non-interventionism is assured.”

But Trump’s recent decisions to ramp up military operations against the Islamic State and in Yemen are not a departure from what he was saying along. Americans did not vote for a non-interventionist candidate, and Donald Trump never was one. Libertarians need to act accordingly.

Read the entire piece here.