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
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
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.