The fight to de­fine ‘Amer­ica First’

On the trail, Trump’s for­eign-pol­icy watch­word sig­naled in­ward strength, but in of­fice, the pres­i­dent has echoed the in­ter­na­tion­al­ist Repub­li­cans be­fore him

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY GREG JAFFE greg.jaffe@wash­post.com Missy Ryan con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Be­fore Pres­i­dent Trump de­liv­ered his first ma­jor ad­dress to Congress, he sat down with H.R. Mc­Mas­ter, his new na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, who had sketched out pro­posed changes to the ad­dress on in­dex cards.

Mc­Mas­ter pressed the pres­i­dent to de­scribe the bat­tle against the Is­lamic State and al-Qaeda as a global and gen­er­a­tional war that the United States would fight in part­ner­ship with its Mus­lim al­lies, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions. And he urged Trump to strike the phrase “rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism” from his re­marks.

None of Mc­Mas­ter’s pro­posed changes made the cut.

The brief ex­change be­tween the pres­i­dent and his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser high­lights one of the early co­nun­drums of Trump’s pres­i­dency and his for­eign pol­icy. In his first bud­get blue­print, re­leased Thurs­day, and in speeches, Trump has preached “Amer­ica First,” an ap­proach that in­volves bol­ster­ing U.S. mil­i­tary might, strength­en­ing the coun­try’s borders and slash­ing for­eign aid. In prac­tice, though, Trump has pur­sued a for­eign pol­icy that looks a lot like that of his Repub­li­can in­ter­na­tion­al­ist pre­de­ces­sors.

To some in the White House, the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion not to in­clude Mc­Mas­ter’s sug­ges­tions was proof that the Army gen­eral did not un­der­stand the true mean­ing of Amer­ica First. Mc­Mas­ter’s views are gen­er­ally in step with those of De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis.

“Mat­tis and Mc­Mas­ter view ISIS as a global prob­lem,” said a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial, us­ing a com­mon acro­nym for the Is­lamic State. “They see it as a 20-year war. The pres­i­dent doesn’t see it that way. He’s fo­cused on the near-term threat in Iraq and Syria.”

Other of­fi­cials chalked up the omis­sion to the pres­i­dent’s de­sire to de­liver a speech that fo­cused on do­mes­tic is­sues, or to the rel­a­tively brief win­dow for mak­ing changes be­fore Trump de­liv­ered the ad­dress. “A lot of the speech was already fully cooked,” said a sec­ond se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who, like oth­ers, spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss de­lib­er­a­tions in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The con­tra­dic­tions have raised big ques­tions about the cen­tral thrust of Trump’s for­eign pol­icy. On the cam­paign trail, Trump ex­pressed dis­dain for na­tion­build­ing, call­ing the Amer­i­can ef­forts in Iraq and Afghanistan a “proven fail­ure.” But he also has faulted the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for with­draw­ing forces from Iraq in 2011 and has shown no sign of par­ing back the 8,000 troops serv­ing in Afghanistan.

Trump’s bud­get, a blue­print for his Amer­ica First phi­los­o­phy, makes big cuts to hu­man­i­tar­ian, for­eign aid and refugee as­sis­tance pro­grams. Large in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the World Bank and the United Na­tions prob­a­bly will have to make do with far less sup­port from the United States.

Sup­port for projects aimed at bol­ster­ing de­vel­op­ing coun­tries — even pro­grams de­signed to help al­lies con­tain Is­lamic ex­trem­ism — get a hair­cut.

But Trump has pressed for­ward with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s buildup in Eastern Europe, in con­junc­tion with NATO, and in the Mid­dle East has courted many of the Gulf Arab al­lies who felt in­sulted and ig­nored by the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“To­day’s meet­ing has put things on the right track,” Deputy Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man of Saudi Ara­bia said af­ter talking with Trump last week. “All of this due to Pres­i­dent Trump’s great un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of re­la­tions be­tween the two re­gions.”

Gone are the days of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ha­rangu­ing Arab al­lies about their records on hu­man rights or sug­gest­ing that they might have to learn to share the re­gion with Iran. One Gulf Arab for­eign min­is­ter re­cently summed up his good feel­ings about Trump by telling se­nior State Depart­ment of­fi­cials: “He doesn’t like Iran. He wants to do busi­ness, and he’s not go­ing to tell us how to do busi­ness in­side of our coun­try,” ac­cord­ing to a U.S. of­fi­cial who met with the min­is­ter.

Mean­while, an ear­lier draft or­der that would have di­rected the State Depart­ment to des­ig­nate the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion — a move that would put the United States in di­rect con­flict with the Mid­dle East’s largest Is­lamist move­ment and its mil­lions of fol­low­ers — has been shelved.

“There is much more re­al­ism than iso­la­tion­ism or rad­i­cal­ism as [Trump’s] crit­ics often al­lege,” said An­drew J. Bowen, a vis­it­ing scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute who fo­cuses on Saudi Ara­bia and the Gulf States. “This isn’t in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, but it’s not an aban­don­ment of Amer­ica’s al­lies, ei­ther.”

That al­most-in­ter­na­tion­al­ist mind-set ex­tends to the Pen­tagon, where Mat­tis has been a key Amer­i­can in­ter­locu­tor with al­lied na­tions early in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

On a trip to Asia, he fo­cused on the im­por­tance of work­ing along­side tra­di­tional al­lies, such as South Korea and Ja­pan, to counter the nu­clear threat of North Korea. In the Mid­dle East, he has ad­vo­cated work­ing closely with Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emirates in an ex­pand­ing coun­tert­er­ror­ism cam­paign aimed at de­stroy­ing al-Qaeda and rolling back Ira­nian in­flu­ence.

His one big con­ces­sion to Trump­ism: Even as Mat­tis has pledged to main­tain Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary pres­ence over­seas, he has pressed al­lies to pick up more of the tab for joint train­ing ex­er­cises and mar­itime pa­trols. To that end, he also has or­dered his se­nior re­gional com­man­ders to put price tags on up­com­ing ex­er­cises.

The big ques­tion go­ing for­ward is how much in­ter­ven­tion an Amer­ica First for­eign pol­icy can ac­com­mo­date. Already some of the bat­tle lines are be­ing drawn on Iran, where Mat­tis has cham­pi­oned a rel­a­tively mod­est ap­proach that fo­cuses on work­ing with Saudi and UAE forces to roll back Ira­nian in­flu­ence in Ye­men.

But some Iran hawks in the White House have warned that such a strat­egy is in­suf­fi­cient to counter grow­ing Ira­nian in­flu­ence in Syria and Iraq. The of­fi­cials have pressed for a ma­jor cam­paign to con­front Iran in the two coun­tries even as the United States and its al­lies bat­tle the Is­lamic State.

At is­sue is the ex­tent of Ira­nian in­flu­ence in­side Iraq. The hawks have main­tained that with­out a sizable U.S. push in the com­ing year, Iran will come to dom­i­nate Iraq. In the Pen­tagon and the State Depart­ment, se­nior of­fi­cials do not such see the sit­u­a­tion in such dire terms.

“There’s def­i­nitely a perception in the White House among cer­tain peo­ple — and I mean the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil — that the counter-[Is­lamic State] cam­paign was es­sen­tially mak­ing Iraq safe for Iran,” said one se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial, who added that the view was not one shared by Mat­tis or Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son.

“I don’t think Mc­Mas­ter sees it that way . . . . What the pres­i­dent thinks, I can’t char­ac­ter­ize,” the of­fi­cial said.

The same de­bate ex­tends to the fight against the Is­lamic State in its far-flung out­posts in places such as Afghanistan, Libya and So­ma­lia. For Mat­tis and Mc­Mas­ter, the bat­tle against the Is­lamic State re­mains a global one. To oth­ers, such a for­mu­la­tion is too broad.

“Amer­i­cans are tired of be­ing glob­al­ist in na­ture,” said the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who has ad­vo­cated a nar­rower fo­cus on the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria. “We’re fight­ing ev­ery­one’s bat­tles for them. I think Mat­tis and Mc­Mas­ter will push the pres­i­dent to be more glob­al­ist in his think­ing. But that’s not the vi­sion he was elected on.”

“There is much more re­al­ism than iso­la­tion­ism . . . . This isn’t in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, but it’s not an aban­don­ment of Amer­ica’s al­lies, ei­ther.” An­drew J. Bowen, Gulf States scholar

LI­BRARY OF CONGRESS

Charles Lind­bergh ad­dresses a jam-packed Amer­ica First rally in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1941. The slo­gan, a fa­vorite of Trump’s, was then as­so­ci­ated with the move­ment to pre­vent U.S. en­try into World War II.

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