Following the U.S. military’s killing of Iranian terror master Qassem Soleimani, a lot of people have been trying to make sense of President Trump’s Iran policy and the support for it among the otherwise isolationist nationalists. The New York Times sums up the sense of confusion: “Mr. Trump has yet to resolve the two conflicting instincts on national security that emerge from his speeches and his Twitter feed: bellicosity and disengagement.”
It’s not actually that big of a mystery. The explanation lies in a basic tendency of the American people—which has found expression in the dominant foreign policy theory, such as it is, of the Trump-era “nationalist” conservatives.
Let’s start with the underlying tendency. Consider a story that has been making the rounds over the past few days: a graph of survey respondents who were asked to place Iran on a map. If you’ve seen this sort of thing before, the result will not surprise you: only 28 percent of registered voters could locate Iran correctly.
The point of this story is not that the average American is a total idiot. The point is that Americans tend not to be very interested in foreign policy or the rest of the world. They have more immediate concerns—their jobs, their houses, their kids—which are far more motivating. The exact location of a foreign country is the sort of thing they had to learn in high school—maybe—and since then most of their memories about global geography have atrophied from disuse.
Without a grounding in facts and serious thinking about foreign policy, the average voter tends to take positions ad hoc. They are influenced by their emotional reactions to an outrageous provocation or a notable failure, or more often, by their personal feelings toward a particular leader or political party. If you like Donald Trump, and Trump ordered a hit on an Iranian general, then you’re likely to applaud it. If you hate Trump, then you’re likely to regard it as dangerously reckless.
This has historically been mitigated by the ideological debates within and between the two parties. Those who do know and care about foreign policy—the people who keep paying attention to the rest of the world in between crises—develop theories that gain a following among academics, military thinkers, diplomats, and politicians, and these theories are in turn adopted by one (or, on rare occasions, both) of the major political parties.
This was a stronger pattern decades ago, during the Cold War. Because the global conflict with the Soviet Union was always at the back of people’s minds, the debate between different foreign policy theories was a constant background in American politics, and the major parties tended to take fairly stable positions that evolved slowly. At first, the debate was mostly between the hawks and the super-hawks: Democrats who advocated for “containment” of Communism and Republicans who agitated for “rollback.” Then it was between the advocates of containment and the advocates of rapprochement, or “detente.” Then it was the “blame America first” post-Vietnam left, versus the hawkish Democrats, versus the Reagan military buildup—which finally did achieve “rollback.”
If you knew where your sympathies lay within this partisan matrix—liberal Democrat, conservative Democrat, Republican—you had a ready-made view of the world and a roster of favorite experts who influenced where you might stand on any particular foreign crisis as it came up.
After the end of the Cold War, Americans on both sides lapsed back into their favorite foreign policy position of all: complacency. The Cold War was won, and we could take a “holiday from history” and go back to blissfully not caring what happened in the rest of the world.
Then 9/11 dragged us back, and for a time, ordinary people paid a lot of attention to what was going on in the Middle East. They read books and got to know famous experts on Mideast policy and the history of Islam. Academics previously known only in their own fields, like Bernard Lewis, were interviewed on Fox News Channel.
In response to a crisis, Americans are willing to think about foreign policy and the rest of the world—for a little while. If it’s a major crisis like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, they will think about it for perhaps four years. Then they don’t want to think about it any more. A lot of us watched this happen around 2005 and 2006. As the war in Iraq ran into difficulties, more and more of the public tuned out and gave up on Iraq and the Middle East as a lost cause. (The success of the “surge” in 2007 came too late, after most people had tuned out.) In response, more and more conservatives became what Rich Lowry called “To Hell with Them” Hawks. Here is how Lowry described this group:
These are conservatives who are comfortable using force abroad, but have little patience for a deep entanglement with the Muslim world, which they consider unredeemable, or at least not worth the strenuous effort of trying to redeem. To put their departure from [George W.] Bush in terms associated with foreign-policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, they want to detach Bush’s Jacksonianism (the hardheaded, somewhat bloody-minded nationalism) from his Wilsonianism (the crusading democratic idealism).
Does any of that sound familiar?
Donald Trump’s administration—particularly after the departure of Bush-era strategists H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, and John Bolton—is looking like a victory for the “To Hell with Them” Hawks.
We can see this in Trump’s skepticism of engagement and his willingness to weaken or break up alliances—new ones with the Kurds in Syria, or old ones like NATO—combined with his willingness to lash out with occasional airstrikes or sanctions.
The appeal of this approach is that it is neither pacifism, nor exactly isolationism. It doesn’t present itself as American guilt or indecision. It looks strong and hawkish and tough. At the same time, it avoids all of the messy, difficult, long-term engagement with unfamiliar and chaotic parts of the world that the average person would rather not think about.
You might notice that it also dovetails nicely with a certain degree of xenophobia, viewing other people and cultures as irredeemable, which appeals to many of the same people who describe immigrants as “invaders.”
It’s a policy for those who are more comfortable bombing foreigners than trying to cooperate with them.
So under this approach, we get to watch assassination porn of the moment some nasty SOB meets the business end of a missile—and I’ll admit I’m as receptive to this as the next guy.
The problem is that at some point you have to ask the difficult question: And then what?
That’s the central weakness of the “To Hell with Them” Hawks. Their approach is mostly focused on the appearance of strength and toughness. It manifests itself in sporadic and somewhat capricious exercises of American power, but with no consistency or broader strategy. Is there any reason, for example, why we are blowing up an Iranian general one moment—while at another moment, Trump ignores North Korean threats and gushes about his relationship with Kim Jong-un? This is an approach designed to make us feel tough without actually accomplishing any strategic advances over the long term for our national interests.
The “To Hell with Them” Hawks don’t have a foreign policy so much as an evasion of foreign policy. Instead of seeking to channel the voters’ sporadic interest in foreign events into some coherent long-term strategy, they pander to the public’s shallowness and impatience, telling them that America is so great (again) that we don’t need any policy in between the air strikes.
Consider Trump’s speech essentially declaring the crisis over after an ineffective Iranian missile attack on a U.S. base in Iraq. The only concrete next step he named was this: “Today, I am going to ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process.” In other words, he hopes somebody else will solve the problem, but if they don’t, he’s ready to bomb people again.
Yet our NATO allies don’t seem eager to take on the role for which Trump just volunteered them. As Shay Khatiri points out: “Who would have thought that three years spent constantly antagonizing America’s allies would result in those allies’ being not as helpful as America wishes?”
There’s a reason you don’t try to combine bellicosity with disengagement: When you get to the bellicosity, you don’t want to find that you have disengaged from everybody who can back you up.
This approach to foreign policy may be the result of Trump’s own temperament, and it may be driven by pandering to a large section of his conservative base. (Trump’s de-escalation against Iran was reportedly sparked by his watching Tucker Carlson.) But this is also the logical end-result of a strictly “nationalist” foreign policy. If you set out to make America tough and assertive but have no interest in developing alliances or appealing to common interests with the rest of the world, then sporadic air strikes are all you’ve got left.
The result is exactly what we’re seeing with Trump: a foreign policy that is a random and idiosyncratic combination of conciliation and lashing out, with no long-term strategy.
The “nationalist” foreign policy turns out to be no policy at all.