Trump is Trying to do The Unthinkable: Sell Foreign Policy “Success” as a Vote Winner

US leaders define foreign policy success in quite different ways from leaders of less powerful countries. For example, the disastrous 1990-1991 war on Iraq was hailed by the US at the time as a success in spite of the 10,000 retreating Iraqis slaughtered on the so-called Highway of Death. Nevertheless, while the then President George H.W. Bush went so far as to hold a large victory parade after the war, this foreign “victory” was not enough to secure him a domestic electoral victory during his 1992 campaign for a second Presidential term. Instead, issues over a lingering economic recession, Bush’s broken promise on taxation and his personally aloof style saw him defeated at the hands of the charismatic newcomer Bill Clinton. Thus, while Bush was credited by the US establishment with winning a war in Iraq as well as “bringing down the USSR”, these two “achievements” were not enough to help him when he had to face the US voters in 1992.

It has long been a dictum in American politics that foreign policy proposals and even that which is perceived as foreign policy success is not a major vote winner. Issues ranging from the economy to domestic social policy, to one’s personality typically factor higher in the consideration of the average American voter according to the received wisdom of most US political analysts. Even at the height of the American anti-war movement during the war on Vietnam, pro-war Richard Nixon won two comfortable elections with his 1972 re-election constituting a landslide over his peace minded opponent George McGovern. Thus, even when members of the US public were uniquely agitated against a deeply unpopular war, a “war president” won two successive elections.

While the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 is arguably the worst war crime in history, a majority of Americans have always felt that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified and hence a victorious move. And yet when the man who ordered the dropping of the bombs, Harry Truman was up for reelection in 1952, he too lost – just as Bush did in 1992 after his blood-soaked Iraqi “victory”.

When asked what wins elections in the United States, Bill Clinton’s former adviser James Carville said, “it’s the economy, stupid!” And yet as Donald Trump’s economic success looks to be largely undone by the trade war (unless he withdraws from that proverbial battlefield even more rapidly than he is doing from Syria), Trump has at least temporarily turned to foreign policy in an attempt to galvanise American voters before the highly anticipated 2020 election.

While the US decision to withdraw from Syria has largely been motivated by a fear of splitting the NATO alliance due to Turkey’s strong stance against the US-allied YPG/PKK terror organisation in Syria, as well as Trump’s desire to conduct more cost effective military manoeuvres in the Middle East, this has not stopped Trump for hailing the withdrawal as a great military victory against the Daesh terror group.

Making matters more curious is that while Trump has predictably called the withdrawal a victory, he has also reiterated some of his quasi anti-war/anti-interventionist rhetoric that had largely evaporated since his 2016 campaign. Earlier, Trump Tweeted the following:

“Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work. Time to come home & rebuild. #MAGA [Make America Great Again].

Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight…….Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us. I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!”

These statements are downright intriguing on multiple levels, not least because Trump appears to be accurately acknowledging that Iran, the Syrian government and Russia have indeed been fighting Daesh (aka ISIS) – something that few US officials have ever openly acknowledged due to the heated US rivalry with Russia and the downright hatred of Iran and Syria by virtually all factions of the American government. Of course, Trump did offer such rhetoric during the 2016 campaign trail, but received wisdom was that he was forced to amend his rhetoric after entering the White House.

Thus, it seems that Trump has revived his anti-interventionist (when it comes to the Middle East) rhetoric from 2016 in the run up to the 2020 election, only this time he’s doing it from the position of a sitting US President rather than that of a businessman and celebrity who had never previously held any public office.

This is striking as it implies that Trump thinks that foreign policy rhetoric is in fact a vote winner as the closer the next election draws near, the more forcefully Trump seems to be turning back to the anti-interventionist rhetoric of his last campaign. This indicates that far from a side-note to his 2016 campaign, Trump must feel that his anti-interventionist rhetoric is in fact a significant vote winner.

Such a phenomenon is doubly unique as American history shows that any foreign policy rhetoric does little to sway an election one way or another while Trump has gone even a step further by claiming that future American interventions in the Middle East for any purpose other than fighting Daesh style terror would be a waste of American resources.

Trump may be wrong in thinking that the US public care any more about foreign affairs in 2018 than they have in the past, but it must be stated that among the most vocal elements of Trump’s hardline base are those who are major American exceptionalists but who nevertheless tend to favour a non-interventionist approach to foreign conflicts. Alternative media platforms including Infowars, the popular conservative US talk show host Michael Savage and the right wing political commentator Ann Coulter have in fact been staunchly anti-war when it comes to Syria.

Ultimately, it is never easy to fully quantify which aspects of a politician are the most compelling when it comes to helping voters to decide who to support during an election. But at a time when the US economy is heading downwards owing to Trump’s trade war, it seems that Trump is attempting to hide this loss by calling a retreat from Syrian not only a victory, but the dawning of a new era which will be characterised by a less hands-on American approach to the Middle East.

While Trump still has many weapons in his electoral arsenal, the fact that he has brought foreign policy back to the front and centre of his campaign style engagement with the wider public, is a strong indication that Trump does in fact think that unlike almost all of his predecessors, he can turn events happening overseas into a domestic electoral success.

Comments are closed.