Of the many explosive controversies surrounding President Trump in 2019, one that was tucked in between the Mueller Report and the infamous impeachment-inducing phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president may stand as the most significant of all.
You may recall that it was a quintessentially Trumpian decision – the lone ranger defying conventional wisdom in the face of entrenched establishment opposition – but at the time, few seemed to realize that it might come to be seen as the pivot point of a fundamental shift in American foreign policy.
Faced with an impending invasion of Syria by Turkey in mid-October, Trump unilaterally, perhaps impulsively, decided to ignore the advice of his military high command and remove American forces from harm’s way. This left our longtime Kurdish allies to fend for themselves and accelerated the growing chaos in the region.
Condemnation of Trump’s decision was swift and broad. We have abandoned our allies, said the newfound war hawks of the Democratic Party in chorus with high-profile neoconservatives in the GOP. This is a bloodstain on the country, cried longtime neoconservative Mitt Romney from the hallowed halls of the U.S. Senate.
But much like Nancy Pelosi, who could not wait one day to view the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky phone call before demanding impeachment, the Trump-wary Washington war machine immediately poured out its anger, predicting that America would no longer be trusted by its allies.
While Democrats, suddenly awakened to the cause of Ukraine, joined neocon Republicans in attacking the troop withdrawal, nowhere in their outrage did these business-as-usual career politicians voice concern for the lives of those Americans pulled from the line of fire. Larger geopolitical stakes were at play.
This was the pivotal moment.
Trump explained correctly that our original involvement in Syria was sold by the political class as strictly temporary. He stated that “it was supposed to be a short-term hit” and he refused to up the ante and further engage in years-long mission creep. Instead, he went to work and forged a temporary ceasefire in the region. And then days later, he announced it was permanent. Suddenly, crickets from the war machine.
This episode bore striking similarities to Trump’s demand that NATO allies live up to their defense commitments, which was widely assailed by the foreign policy establishment. But when these 29 countries collectively gave in and dedicated more than one billion additional dollars to their own defense, the war machine, far from congratulating Trump, went silent.
Then there was the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which was met with predictions of widespread violence in the region. It did not happen. Trump further infuriated the status quo by disposing of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and withdrawing from the Paris Climate accord. And he brought to life the long-dismissed possibility of direct peace negotiations with North Korea, alternately condemning and praising the dictator Kim Jung-Un in search of a deal. Classic Trump.
But none of those decisions are as significant as Trump fulfilling his campaign pledge to end America’s global entanglements in the face of widespread opposition from both parties. He most boldly signaled his fearlessness about transforming American foreign policy when he attacked George W. Bush for “lying us into” the Iraq War in the run-up to the 2016 South Carolina GOP primary, and still won the state handily. Perhaps we should have known at that moment that America’s tolerance for war had reached the breaking point. In retrospect, it was clear evidence that the country was ready for a commander in chief who would strengthen our military but be willing to employ it only when America’s vital national interests are demonstrably in play.
If this sounds like President Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength,” that’s because it is. Like Trump, Reagan rebuilt a military that had been depleted by his Democratic predecessor (Jimmy Carter) and yet set the stage for victory in the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union without firing a shot. Trump evidently learned the crucial lesson from Reagan: the threat of massive American military force is sufficient to advance our national interests and maintain order. We’ll no longer feel defensive about our strength and greatness, and we’ll no longer need to auto-renew our subscriptions to foreign entanglements.
Because of the Democrats’ reflexive repulsion to any and all decisions made by Trump, the perverse side effect of Trump’s critical pivot on foreign and military policy is to redefine the Democrats as the party of war. When the one true non-interventionist running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Tulsi Gabbard, dared to voice her opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria and foreign wars in general, she was ridiculed and shouted off the debate stage by the self-proclaimed social justice warrior Kamala Harris, and ignored by the suddenly militaristic elite media.
Only the Trump-deranged Democratic Party of 2019 and their handmaidens in the media would willingly take up the mantle of aggressive military action in a region and for a cause unknown to Americans in this obviously war-weary nation.
This president has demonstrated repeatedly that he will use every bit of leverage available to him. This applies more to his foreign policy than even to his bold domestic moves, as he is constitutionally granted enormous power to advance his own vision of America’s role in the world. And he has been more than willing to exploit our robust economy to maximum advantage, particularly in playing the long game with China. He has leveraged the fact that the Chinese economy is certain to be affected far more deeply than ours with a tariff regime which has forced China to the bargaining table. And sure enough, China’s GDP has taken a beating, leading to the first stage of a prospective and comprehensive trade deal that will produce a large increase in American exports.
Elected to the highest office in the land on his own dime, and bereft of support from the government over which he would preside, Trump has proven to be exactly what he promised: very much his own man in world affairs, driven by his long-held instincts that America’s foreign policy establishment has been incompetent at best, corrupt and war-happy at worst. Shocking revelations in The Washington Post’s recent landmark series, The Afghanistan Papers, confirm what the president has long been claiming.
A future of peace through strength.
But there is one more element of Trump’s vision – and leverage – which has flown largely under the radar. The ongoing revolution in natural gas exploration (fracking) and this president’s massive deregulation of the energy industry has brought the U.S. ever closer to total energy independence. In fact, we may be there already. The president understands simple logic: We no longer need to involve ourselves in the perpetual quagmire known as the Middle East if we no longer need their oil. Yes, there are geopolitical concerns such as the expansionism of Iran, Russia, and China. But in the end, would we even be interested in the region if not for oil?
It may well be that when we look back on that fateful October decision by President Trump to defy the establishment in favor of protecting a small number of individual Americans in a region Americans can barely locate on a map, we will understand that, together with a revitalized military, it set a course for this nation in which the threat of American military force renders actual military action ever more unnecessary. A future of peace through strength.
Read more from Tim Donner.