Washington — Donald Trump is shifting to “responsible candidate” mode now, so his remarks on foreign policy Wednesday night sounded relatively restrained — until you begin parsing the details.
Let’s start with Trump’s comment in the NBC forum that after invading Iraq, his policy would have been to “take the oil.” That’s what many Arabs, in their most extreme conspiracy theories, believe U.S. intervention was all about. His argument that seizing the oil would’ve stopped the Islamic State is probably backward. It would have been a recruiting tool.
There was a raw neo-imperialist tone to Trump’s rhetoric. When moderator Matt Lauer pressed him on how he would have done that (or would do it in the future), here’s how Trump responded: “We would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil. ... You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. ... But I always said, take the oil.”
For Islamic State propagandists, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.
In a forum aimed at testing the candidates’ fitness to be commander in chief, Trump showed a disdain for the architecture on which U.S. security is built. That came through in his strident criticism of U.S. military leadership.
Thanks to President Obama and Hillary Clinton, “the generals have been reduced to rubble,” he said. “It’s embarrassing for our country,” and if Trump were elected, “they’ll probably be different generals” who can defeat the Islamic State in the manner of Gen. George Patton, who is “spinning in his grave.”
Presidents can appoint new generals, to be sure. Abraham Lincoln famously relieved Gen. George McClellan, convinced that he had “the slows” in pursuing the Confederates. But the modern military is a supremely professional force that provides nonpartisan military advice. Trump’s assertion that men and women who have been at war for 15 years are “rubble” and “embarrassing” is extraordinary. It would not have been made by anyone who knows the current senior military leadership.
If Trump wants to be taken seriously on national security issues, he needs to understand that there’s near-unanimity among military leaders that it would be a mistake to insert a large U.S. ground force in Iraq or Syria. If he has an alternative, what is it? His talk about not wanting to “broadcast” to the enemy his secret plan for victory won’t hold up over the next two months.
A third head-scratcher came in Trump’s discussion of the intelligence briefing he received last month. The correct answer would have been to say: I’m not going to discuss a secret briefing. What Trump did instead was insidious: He implied that Obama had ignored policy recommendations from the intelligence community and “did not follow ... what our experts said to do.” Trump knew this because he’s “pretty good with body language” and “could tell that [the analysts] were not happy.”
This reflects a chronic misunderstanding of how the intelligence process works. Analysts do not make policy recommendations. It’s a violation of their basic tradecraft. What they do, at best, is offer honest, unsentimental assessments of whether policies are working. Over the decades, they’ve offered withering assessments of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, to name just a few. But that doesn’t mean they offered policy direction.
If Trump gets another intelligence briefing, it should be prefaced with an admonition: “Mr. Candidate: Nothing in this session should be construed as policy advice.”
The final jaw-dropper Wednesday was Trump’s enthusiasm for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “If he says great things about me, I’m gonna say great things about him. I’ve already said he is really very much of a leader. ... I mean, the man has very strong control over a country.”
The Trump-Putin bromance is becoming genuinely frightening. Putin has invaded Crimea. He is fighting a proxy war in Ukraine. He has intervened in Syria, tipping the military balance in the Middle East. His thugs are assaulting U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers overseas. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns that Putin’s Russia poses an existential threat to the U.S.
And Trump’s response is “I think that I’ll be able to get along with him.” His vision of foreign policy seems to be a kind of authoritarian “big guys” club — stealing other countries’ oil, sacking generals, politicizing intelligence, and buddying up to a Russian leader who’s running a covert action against the American political system.
Really, was this the presentation of a man who would be commander in chief?
— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.