The muddled world vision of Donald Trump
Donald Trump has shared his world view or at least his views on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) and terrorism that are the crux of his foreign policy agenda.
In a prepared speech given August 15th in the battleground state of Ohio, the Republican candidate for president interpreted recent Middle Eastern history and presented a plan for ridding the United States of the threat posed by “radical Islamic terrorism”.
Because Trump spoke from a prepared text, his speech lacked the usual gaffes and outrageous comments that so often become the day’s main news stories when he speaks extemporaneously. Nevertheless, his speech was filled with factual mistakes (it was George W. Bush, not Barack Obama who set the date for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq), improbable accusations (Hillary Clinton never said she wants to increase by more than 500% the number of Syrian refugees entering the United States) and a certain rewriting of his own history (he continues to claim that he opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion from the beginning when there is a radio interview from 2003 in which he supports the it).
As with most issues, Trump’s rhetoric was long on aspirations (“We will decimate al-Qaeda” and “We will shut down [ISIS’s] access to the internet”) but woefully short on specifics.
We are used to Trump’s factual mistakes; truth and history are to him malleable things, to be shaped and revised as necessary to provoke the audience reaction he so craves. What is more interesting is the logic of his proposals and the likely consequences of his actions if he were to be elected president.
Fundamentally, Trump revealed himself to be the true nativist that he is: Every problem, in his mind, can be cured by stringent immigration restrictions and close watch over those whom he perceives are not real Americans. Trump called for “extreme vetting” of all who wish to enter the United States — and he was not referring to strict background checks that might reveal a violent or dangerous past.
Rather, he was calling for a litmus test: “We should only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people,” Trump said. Those who “support bigotry and hatred” will not be allowed in, said the man who has done more to legitimise bigotry and hatred than any major candidate in recent US history. And, he said, we should only allow in those who will “flourish” in America.
I can imagine it now: An immigrant entry exam with a series of Yes-No questions: “Do you support bigotry and hatred?” “Do you plan to impose sharia law on Americans?” “Do you plan to flourish in our country?” As long as you tick the right boxes, you are in.
More ominously (in terms of the US constitution), Trump proposed establishing a “Commission on Radical Islam” that would be mandated with “exposing the networks in our society that support radicalisation”. Never before has an American religious community — one that includes millions of American citizens — been so singled out for government surveillance.
In terms of US policy in the Middle East, Trump’s speech contained a number of oddities and contradictions. For example, he claimed (untruthfully) that he opposed the 2003 Iraq war but later said that the United States should have seized Iraq’s oil fields and pocketed the profits. In other words, according to Trump, the United States should have established a colonial-style, resource-extraction occupation of Iraq. “In the old days when we won a war, to the victor go the spoils,” Trump explained.
Trump also absurdly compared the threat posed by ISIS to that of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, even though as he spoke ISIS was in retreat in Syria, Iraq and Libya. He also said that anyone who is opposed to ISIS should be seen as an ally of the United States. So under a Trump presidency, Hezbollah, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran would be US allies — along with Trump’s buddy Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Just a few lines later Trump said that Obama and Clinton had turned Iran into “a dominant position of regional power” and a soon-to-be “dominant world power”. As is usual at Trump events, the contradictory statements each received warm applause.
In the midst of this, one fairly reasonable idea slipped in: Trump called for a conference with Israel, Jordan and Egypt (the region’s largest Sunni nation and the home of al-Azhar, one of the leading seats of Sunni religious learning) to address the threat of extremism in the Middle East. But he never uttered the word “Palestinian” and the conference he proposed would make no sense unless it addressed the region’s longest-running conflict.
Trump also vowed not to pursue democratisation in the Middle East. If he was referring to “democratisation at the point of a gun”, this is wise but he did not mention a US role in providing economic assistance or improving education or any of the other building blocks of democracy. He does not really seem to care about the fate of the region’s people.
Instead, when Trump views the Middle East he sees it as a source of potential immigrants who would only further “darken” America’s national complexion and infect American society with dangerous ideas.