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A Conservative Roundtable On Trump's Foreign Policy Reversals

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Vice President Mike Pence landed in South Korea this morning, mere hours before the failed launch of a missile by the North. He responded...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Our commitment to this historic alliance with the courageous people of South Korea has never been stronger. And with your help and with God's help, freedom will ever prevail on this peninsula.

(APPLAUSE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's the latest foreign policy test in President Trump's presidency and one that comes after he's reversed himself on several policy fronts, from Syria to Russia. The reversals have caused relief in some quarters and disappointment in others. We'll explore those reactions from two different corners. Scott McConnell co-founded The American Conservative. He joins us from France this morning. Welcome.

SCOTT MCCONNELL: Nice to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And David Adesnik is the policy director of the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative. He's here with me in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

DAVID ADESNIK: It's a pleasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Scott, let's start with you. You voted for Mr. Trump, partly because you found his views on foreign policy refreshing. How are you feeling these days?

MCCONNELL: Well, I'm a little bit puzzled - I mean, both puzzled and alarmed, and it's not clear, you know, how far the alarm is going to go. But the reversal from the campaign seems pretty pronounced, and it's not clear whether it's going to be formalized in some way. And for people who voted for Trump in part because he seemed to get that the United States had been overextended and promiscuous in its military interventions, it's suddenly very troubling, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, David, how have you processed these reversals?

ADESNIK: I have to confess, I am absolutely stunned. You know, I opposed Mr. Trump. I voted for an independent candidate, and I knew throughout the campaign that even on issues that seemed to be his deepest convictions, there was a question of when he might change. And yet, with the frequency and ferocity with which Trump insisted we should not get entangled with Syria, we should not antagonize Vladimir Putin and we should not play a leadership role based on morality and foreign policy, I confess I thought he meant those things. So I - that's why it's a triple surprise this week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A surprise, but is it a welcome surprise?

ADESNIK: There are elements. It's moving away from positions I strongly disagree with, so - and always, glad to see someone moving in one's direction. And yet, if it isn't part of a more deliberate strategy and something that is coherent and sustainable, if it becomes the beginning of a pattern of flailing about, it's hard to take much confidence from that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious what you think about who has the president's ear. There seems to be shifting alliances, new people coming in, maybe old people going out. Scott, are you happy with who he is getting his advice from right now?

MCCONNELL: Not particularly. I mean, I don't know who it is except for Jared and, Ivanka who are, I'm sure, you know, exemplary people in many ways, but they don't have any foreign policy experience. And their social milieu is kind of New York Democratic money, which is sort of neoconservative in outlook. I mean, if Trump had gone on to say, you know, it's going to be great, I'm going to, you know, let Jared, like, put together White House staff and it'll be great, no one would have voted for him. I don't know whether Steve Bannon is genuinely or permanently on the way out or not, but he seemed to get a lot of Trumpism. I'm a little...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you supportive of Bannon's role in the White House?

MCCONNELL: To the extent I know what it is, I prefer it to Jared Kushner's.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's your view, David?

ADESNIK: Well, I guess what I question is whether Donald Trump is being influenced by people at all. It seems that he's always the one calling the shots. I mean, it's truly remarkable listening to him talk about Syria and how much it's his visceral reaction to seeing children choking on poison gas that really led him to this turnaround. And it doesn't seem that it's about - that Bannon pushed him one way, someone else pushed him the other. It seems he's willing to pull in the people he needs to support the perspective he has at the moment.

MCCONNELL: I just want to say this is genuinely a problem if we're going to have foreign policy based on, you know, the most moving images that Donald Trump happened to see on TV.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a great debate that even if he was moved by this issue, it might have been the right thing to do. I mean, why not send a message to Syria, and by extension Russia, after chemical weapons were used?

MCCONNELL: Well, I mean, it depends on what the message is. If the message is that the United States is going to change its policy and go in for a regime change in Syria, that's going to be a bad result. The Syrian civil war was probably winding down with a victory - a partial victory - for Assad and Russia. And this is the way civil wars end is one side wins. And then there's, like, a long, long process of painful reconstruction. Basically, Assad was - had turned the corner and was going to win.

ADESNIK: You asked, is it a problem that Trump reacted so strongly if this was the right thing to do, and the question is, well, there's a lot of images, a lot of painful images and a lot of inspirational images, that are going to come across. And the question is, can you keep reacting to them? And if you don't have a strategy, will you make any progress? That, you know, for example, we're going to see other gruesome photos out of Syria, whether from barrel bombs or from other attacks. And is it somehow that only the choking on gas versus children, you know, who are wounded with shrapnel are going to make a difference to this president? And then if he starts looking to other parts of the world where there are ongoing conflicts, will that be his reaction to, you know, things that are happening in Central Africa? So there has to be some element of saying - of prioritization, understanding which conflicts are there, how to mobilize people, because if you're just reacting day to day, it's very hard to achieve progress.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scott, I want to talk about something that you mentioned and you also, David, which is this idea that Donald Trump, he was going to change what was there, and that's what people liked about him. And he seems to be learning on the job. Is that a bad thing, that he is changing his views on certain things as the world, you know, and the real political calculations that have to be made are being brought to bear?

ADESNIK: Well, I'm all for learning. And the question is, how much thinking through these issues did he do beforehand? What's hard to understand is why he suddenly now reacted in a different way. Is it simply the weight of having the presidency on his shoulders? And even then, when someone...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or was it Ivanka?

ADESNIK: (Laughter) I - you know, I wish I could tell you. The whole world is guessing. And just to comment then on predictability, that, you know, sometimes you can flatfoot your enemies, catch them off guard by being unpredictable. But there's a lot of times when especially our allies and also the voters who supported you want a measure of predictability. They don't want to know that things are going to change again on a dime.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scott, you know, the president seems to be embracing mainstream foreign policy ideas now. Is there something about the nationalism he espoused during the campaign that might be impractical in our world today?

MCCONNELL: I don't think it's impractical, but I think he has to have a staff and a core conviction and a strategic vision to carry it through. I mean, he didn't say we were going to withdraw from the world. I think it's perfectly legitimate to question whether Russia should be treated as an enemy or whether we should go all in on overthrowing Assad. These are perfectly legitimate, defensible positions. But you've got to be committed to them. And there's a danger that Trump could get caught up in the kind of automatic patriotic response people have when the American military, which is probably the most popular federal institution or government institution we have, goes into action. You know, he's, like, at - what? - 35 percent of the polls, and he shoots some rockets off and he gets a boost. And that's kind of a worrisome phenomenon to contemplate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. What are you watching for in the next couple of weeks? What are you looking at?

ADESNIK: Well, one is just to see if there's any sort of more coherent, long-term strategy that comes out of this. So far, the line from Mattis and from Tillerson has been nothing's changed. The priority is still ISIS. It's not a one-off event. We're still watching on chemical weapons. But this is not in any way a re-orientation. We haven't talked nearly as much about what this means for the U.S.-Iran relationship. The administration's approach to Iran has been, you know, strong criticism of the nuclear deal but not really defining how we're going to move beyond that. Some move towards sanctions.

It's very important not to underestimate how much Syria almost belongs to Iran, that Assad has a very broken regime. His offensive forces are basically the foreign forces that Iran has brought in. And this matters a lot to them. They have invested a tremendous amount, and this has the potential to ramp up our conflict with Iran. And of course, Iraq is right there between Syria and Iran. We're just about 12 months away from elections that could put a pro-Iranian candidate in charge in Iraq as opposed to the more favorable Abadi, who's the prime minister now. And to see Iraq move in that direction would also be very dangerous. So this may have these consequences that we're not talking a lot about because we're so focused on Trump and on Russia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scott.

MCCONNELL: I mean, the same things as David. Is there institutionalization of this, or was this kind of a one-off? You know, does he start making staff decisions to make this into George W. Bush two? I think that's the issue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scott McConnell is the co-founder of The American Conservative. David Adesnik is the policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. Thanks to you both.

ADESNIK: Thank you.

MCCONNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.