Trump’s Syria decision perfectly reflects the Trump doctrine

Regarding Syria, Trump is fulfilling a prediction I made two years ago about the Trump Doctrine, a repudiation of Wilsonian and Obama foreign policies.

Syria Coup Trump Racism Overton WindowMore than 2 years ago, in April 2017, I wrote a post entitled Trump has a pro-American foreign policy that owes nothing to either Wilson or Obama. Although Trump had yet to articulate a policy, I concluded looking at his statements and actions during the campaign and the first three months of his presidency, that he was not only walking away from Obama’s foreign policy, but was also turning his back on 100 years of the Wilson Doctrine (a doctrine that even Obama, in his weird, inverted way, had embraced).

What follows in this post is a shorter version of that 2017 post, along with Obama’s own words about Syria which prove (to my own satisfaction at least), that I nailed the Trump Doctrine. It is, incidentally, a doctrine with which I agree. (If you’d prefer to listen, rather than read, you can find information about the companion podcast here.)

When the Great War (now known as World War I) erupted in 1914, dragging Europe from the pinnacle of civilization into an abyss of mindless killing, President Woodrow Wilson was resolute: America would not enter this foreign war. With the exception of Americans who had arrived recently from Germany or Austria, or who came from intensely German and Austrian enclaves, most Americans agreed.

Although Wilson clung to neutrality for three years, the reality was that, as the years passed that neutrality had a remarkably Anglophile feel to it. Part of this came about because, when war began, the British had cut the transatlantic cable tying America to the continent. This meant that Americans got the British view of the war and not the German – although accurate reports that trickled in about Germans slaughtering French and Belgian civilians would invariably have turned Americans against them. Additionally, American ships could reach Britain, but not the continent.

Because of the shipping, the war created an economic boom for those Americans selling weapons and food to England. Americans therefore increasingly had a vested financial interest in a British victory. There would have been a serious depression in America had Britain lost the war.

For obvious reasons, Germany did not want America to enter the war against it. After 128 Americans died in 1915 when the Germans sank the HMS Lusitania, Germans promised not to attack American ships. However, by 1916, with America funding Britain, Germans reversed that promised, which worried Americans and made them more inclined to war. Then, in 1917, the British revealed the Zimmerman Telegram, an internal German communication that promised a military alliance with Mexico if America formally entered the war. At that point, Americans were so deeply offended they began to demand war.

And that’s where the Wilson Doctrine began. Bowing to public pressure, the formerly anti-war Woodrow Wilson felt obligated to reverse course. In April 1917, he made his famous speech to Congress, one that would set the tone for American foreign policy for almost 100 years. Before reading the key part of the speech, it’s important to realize that Wilson knew, as he wrote his speech, that America did not actually have any good reason to enter the war. Germany was an ocean away and, provided that the U.S. stayed out of the war, which would keep Mexico neutral, Germany did not threaten America’s security or sovereignty. Moreover, if American retreated to true neutrality — that is, if she stopped trading with Britain — Germany would instantly leave her — that is, her shipping — alone.

What Wilson could not admit was the reality driving war: Thanks to his turning a blind eye for three years to America’s ongoing trade with Britain, America had every reason to go into war. As noted above, the U.S. needed a British victory to recoup all the credit it extended to Britain. However, there was no way that Wilson could say that he was sending American boys to a charnel house for crass commercial reasons.

Faced with the need to justify entering the war, when he could not give voice to the true reason, Wilson instead came up with a high-flown moral doctrine justifying America’s entry into the war. And so the Wilson doctrine was born:

We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them. (Emphasis mine.)

By war’s end, Wilson had come to believe his own rhetoric and, indeed, believed that he had an almost messianic duty to carry it out. The 20th century might have looked very different if the successful Allied powers hadn’t viewed him as a naive American hick and proceeded to destroy what little was left of Germany’s economy, setting the stage for the horrors that would come twenty years later. But that’s a story for an alternative history, not for this post.

Wilson’s idea resonated deeply with an idealistic generation of Americans whose allegiance to the Bible and ties to the original Puritans meant that they had long believed themselves to be residents of a blessed City on a Hill. Of course they would fight to free the world, spreading far and wide the blessings of their own freedom. It did not occur to them then, as it did not occur to Iraq supporters almost 90 years later, that America’s freedoms might in fact be uniquely . . . American.

To show just how deeply the notion of altruistic war reached into American culture, Irving Berlin did his basic training at Camp Yaphank where he wrote a show for the soldiers to perform. Two of his songs are still known today: the plaintive Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning and the rousing God Bless America. But he also wrote a little, forgotten ditty called Kitchen Police, which directly echoed Wilson in the chorus:

Poor little me,
I’m on K.P.
I scrub the mess hall
Upon bended knee.
Against my wishes
I wash the dishes
To make this wide world safe for Democracy.

Even a peeled potato and a clean stack of dishes spoke to America’s beneficence.

So it was that, beginning in 1917, American foreign policy hewed tightly to the Wilson Doctrine. America would not fight for water rights, or to control people, or to gather slaves about her, or for empire, or for power, or for wealth: She would fight altruistically to free people. That’s what America did in WWI, in WWII, in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq (twice), and in Afghanistan. She fought on the principle that her blood and wealth, spilled on foreign shores, would free the world from tyrants, to the benefit of all, America included. In 2003, George Bush and the neocons were most certainly acolytes of the Wilson doctrine.

Barack Obama, peculiarly enough, also believed in the Wilson doctrine — or, rather, he believed in a bizarre inversion of the Wilson doctrine. Because Obama viewed America as a Typhoid Mary nation, one that destroyed everything it touched, his idea of making the world safe wasn’t necessarily to make it safe for democracy. It was, instead, to make the world safe from America.

To that end, Obama pulled America out of Iraq and Afghanistan, creating power vacuums that ISIS, the Taliban, and Iran happily filled. Made up to the Mullahs in Iran, the Erdogan Islamists in Turkey, (ironically) Putin and his Russian oligarchs, and a host of bad other actors around the world. The only time Obama would engage in warfare was when he had determined that doing so would not confer any benefit on Americans. At least prior exponents of the Wilson Doctrine believed that bringing democracy to other lands would protect America too. Not Obama….

One could say that, with Obama’s ascendancy came the birth of a subset of the Wilson doctrine: America would make this world safe by leading from behind. Her absence would allow native cultures to flourish in all their morally relativistic beauty.

What I said two years ago, and believe today’s announcements proves correct, is Trump’s foreign policy abandons both those doctrines, each of which is based upon America self-abnegation. Trump does not think America has a duty to make the world safe for democracy. Trump also does not think that America is a toxic nation that needs to make the world safe from itself. Trump simply wants America and Americans to be both safe and prosperous. He’ll do whatever it takes, at home and abroad, to make those twin goals happen.

Two years ago, I also said that, to this end, Trump has no interest in spilling American blood and spending American dollars to make Syria, North Korea, or Afghanistan safe for democracy. He simply wants the bad actors in those nations to know that, if they engage in acts that threaten America or her reliable allies, he will stomp them like bugs, quickly and efficiently.

Lastly, two years ago, I added that, while Trump had not articulated this doctrine, his actions to date had been consistent with it: Leave America alone and she will leave you alone. Be a good friend to America and she will be a good friend to you . . . up to a point. She will not fight your wars for you unless it’s in her interest to do so.

Writing today, Don Surber suggested the Trump has been influenced by the Powell Doctrine. This is a doctrine that Colin Powell came up with after being burned in Vietnam. Interestingly, Powell’s antipathy to Trump is so great that he’s abandoned his own doctrine to attack the president he hates.

The Orange Man — whom everyone who is anyone in Washington and on Martha’s Vineyard laughs at — is carrying out the Powell Doctrine better than Powell did.

Remember that? It was Powell’s correction of the awful political expediency that led us into Vietnam — a war he had to fight long after Washington and Martha’s Vineyard had become bored with the whole thing.

The Powell Doctrine was idealistic and based on 8 questions:

(1) Is a vital national security interest threatened?
(2) Do we have a clear attainable objective?
(3) Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
(4) Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
(5) Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
(6) Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
(7) Is the action supported by the American people?
(8) Do we have genuine broad international support?

With the above in mind, a theory I advanced two-plus years ago, please consider Trump’s tweets from today.

I think I nailed it and, as I said at the start of this post, I agree with it. After America twice saved Europe from complete self-destruction, rebuilt it after its second devastating war, and then paid for its so-called socialism for seventy-five years, Europe is so hostile to America it’s indistinguishable from America’s traditional enemies. Europe choked on the gratitude it ought to have felt and opted for moral condescension and preening. Who needs that?

Trump is right too about the Middle East. We can’t fix it with American blood nor should we have to. We will help our allies in ways that do not involve sending our young men and women oversees to get maimed or die. Moreover, Trump is clear that, if those nutcases in the Middle East threaten American interests, at that point he will have no qualms about sending in our military. Our military exists to protect us, not them. That threat alone ought to help keep everyone in line.