National Security & Defense

Neither Neocon nor Isolationist

President Trump waves prior to boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., October 1, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump’s Jacksonian impulses combine a willingness to whack our enemies with a distaste for ambitious foreign interventions.

Donald Trump isn’t George W. Bush.

That should be obvious to everyone by now, but his critics and even some of his supporters immediately acted as if it were 2003 on the cusp of the Iraq War when Trump took out Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.

Suddenly, the neocons had cachet again (Vox warned that “the Iraq War hawks are back”), and we were about to launch yet another endless war. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, repeating a common refrain, “has brought the United States to the brink of a devastating new conflict in the Middle East.”

There’s no doubt that the operation against Soleimani carried risks, but it didn’t transform Trump into a conventional interventionist. In fact, taking out Soleimani was wholly consistent with the president’s approach to the world that can’t be plotted on a simple hawk/dove or neocon/isolationist axis. As a Jacksonian, Trump is none of the above, combining a willingness to whack our enemies with a distaste for ambitious foreign interventions.

The Jacksonian label is the famous construction of foreign-policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, who traces the tradition back to Andrew Jackson and the cultural influence of the American backwoods. Jacksonians are content to let the world sort itself out, except if they perceive a threat, in which case they react with great ferocity.

Trump’s victory overturned the reigning Republican foreign-policy consensus, but it didn’t herald a lurch to isolationism pure and simple.

Even when Trump sounded most hostile to U.S. commitments and alliances abroad in 2016, he promised, in one of his most Jacksonian sentiments, to “bomb the s—” out of ISIS. No matter how much Trump disdained being in the Middle East, it wouldn’t be possible to follow through on this threat without military assets, an intelligence network, and allies on the ground. Once elected, Trump did, sure enough, bomb the s— out of ISIS.

Killing Soleimani is in keeping with this general orientation rather than a departure from it. In fact, the whole thing is shot through with Jacksonian attitudes.

Trump’s red line to Iran didn’t have to do with our values or shipping lanes. It reflected the most basic imperative of a nation protecting its own: Don’t harm Americans.

When a rocket attack by an Iranian-supported militia killed an American contractor and injured other Americans at a base in Iraq, Trump’s response was also characteristically Jacksonian: a stunning, bolt-out-of-the-blue droning of an enemy commander who was thought to be safely out of bounds, designed to create the maximum deterrent bang for the buck.

All of this is why the complaint from Trump’s populist backers that the president has been co-opted by deep-state warmongers, putting at risk his political base, is misplaced. Trump never promised anyone he’d refuse to respond to threats to Americans, or honor the unspoken rules protecting a bloodstained high official of a hostile foreign regime. In fact, if Trump had said any of these things, it would have been out of character.

Bellicosity of a certain kind — taunting and over the top, boasting of our awesome military capabilities and motivated by considerations of personal and national honor — is key to the Trump brand.

The killing of Soleimani is likelier to add to the legend of Donald Trump for his most loyal backers instead of give them pause. In their view, here is President Trump once again doing what no other president would do, taking an inordinate amount of criticism for it, often from a perpetually hysterical press corps, and having it work out (so far).

The Jacksonian impulse alone is not enough to solve the complex foreign-policy problem presented by Iran. But it can be useful in a contest of intimidation and escalation. The killing of Soleimani isn’t a deep-state or neocon project, rather an unmistakable expression of Trump’s distinctive worldview.

© 2020 by King Features Syndicate

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