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Foreign Policy Perspective From AEI And Cato


Candidate Donald Trump's campaign slogan was Make America Great Again. But the realities of the job have meant tackling some of the thorniest international situations. Trump ran as an isolationist. But some now see President Trump as a hawk. To sort through Trump's foreign policy so far, we've got two points of view, Christopher Preble at the libertarian Cato Institute and Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. I began by asking Pletka about the president's advisers when it comes to foreign affairs.

We've seen a complete change in the president's foreign policy team over the past year and a half. Mike Pompeo is now secretary of state. John Bolton is national security adviser. These are people who could be described as neo-cons who supported the Iraq War, something that Trump was very critical of back in the day. So how do we understand the shift, Danielle, do you think?

DANIELLE PLETKA: First of all, I have to correct you, Lulu. The notion that John Bolton is a neo-con is so laughable. John Bolton is a classic conservative hawk. Now, that being said, I think it's very hard for anybody to disagree with the notion that if the president campaigned as someone who was going to walk away from what some like to call foreign adventures, then putting John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis in the top national security positions doesn't seem consistent with that notion.

CHRISTOPHER PREBLE: Right. I was going to say that the lesson that President Trump appears to have taken away from the Iraq War - and I think that people like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, in particular, would encourage him - is that it was not a mistake to fight the war. It was a mistake to stop fighting the war. I think that he has a view of American power in particular that's just disconnected from reality. It's simply not true that the United States can sing the tune and expect other people to dance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What can we understand as President Trump's foreign policy? I mean, is it belligerent isolationism? Is it some other combination therein? Let's start with you, Danielle.

PLETKA: This is sort of a perennial Washington question. Everybody wants a doctrine attached to their name. What's the Trump doctrine? And, honestly...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's important to know, isn't it?

PLETKA: Well, no, because the idea that a president should be boxed in by some sort of slogan whether it's leading from behind or it's really...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: America first.

PLETKA: Yeah - or America first - absolutely. All that invites is criticism that you're not sticking to your doctrine. I think that the reality is that Donald Trump has been fairly inconsistent.

PREBLE: I actually agree with Danielle about that. I think there's - the one word to describe President Trump is inconsistent. He does not seem to have a clear direction. But I disagree a little bit with Danielle that that doesn't matter. I think that his inconsistency has raised a lot of questions about America's reliability in the future. I think that's what I'm most concerned about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to look at the things that happened this past week specifically. Let's start with the Iran deal. Danielle, you hated the Iran deal. How do you think what President Trump did went? And what was the alternative?

PLETKA: (Laughter) I try not to use hate for things like that because...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm sorry for overstating the case.

PLETKA: No, no, no. Look. You know, I think there are people who hate it. I think John Bolton hated it. Actually, Chris and I agree weirdly that the - walking away from the Iran deal was a mistake. From my standpoint, whenever you walk away from something, you have to have something to replace it. And for me looking at this, I question what the administration's strategy is following on. You know, they talk a lot about the reimposition of sanctions. But there are just too many people in Washington who don't understand that sanctions are not a policy. Sanctions are a tool.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christopher, let's look at North Korea. Do you think this North Korea summit is a good idea when it's so unclear what the end game is? You know, critics point that this is also a win for Kim Jong Un, who put Americans in prison essentially as a bargaining chip.

PREBLE: I think when we consider where we, the United States, and North and South Korea were eight or 10 months ago, I think that we're in a much better place today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But is this rapprochement actually due to President Trump and his tactics, or were there other things going on here, as others have suggested?

PREBLE: You mean between the North and the South?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah - between the North and the South. And some have suggested that President Trump is simply taking advantage of the situation that is already - was already handed to him.

PREBLE: Yes. That's what I believe. I believe that the South Koreans were unnerved, frankly, by the loose talk here in Washington about, well, if war happens on the Korean peninsula, it will mostly be South Koreans that are killed in the process - South and North Koreans. And I think that sort of talk makes our ally understandably quite nervous. And I think that, in addition to a genuine desire to try to cool down tensions between the two countries, is what explains President Moon's outreach to the North.

PLETKA: You know, it's lamentable and a reflection on American politics that we can't give credit to Donald Trump for something. Now, again, I'm not a big fan of the president's Twitter feed or of his - well, that's probably too long a list. But at the end of the day, he's taken a tough line. He's forced the North Koreans to say for the first time that they're willing to denuclearize. Now, what they mean by that and what - you know, what's going to be the outcome is another question. It's not just South Korea's safety and security we're interested in. We've got a lot of allies in the region. We've got a lot of interests, as Chris knows better than I, because he's a real Asia expert. And that does worry me a little.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess just briefly from you both I'd like to know, as people who study foreign policy, have been engaged in it for so long, what kind of period are we in?

PREBLE: Let me just say two things. I think that through most of the Cold War and the post-Cold War period, the United States was strong enough, and there was sufficient public support for continuing to defend other countries. That support is softening. And therefore, we should be looking for different ways to mobilize the power of others, not merely our own power. And the other quick point I'd make is that just because you have a really big hammer does not mean every single problem is a nail. And I think the President Trump's inclination is to focus so much attention on military power really at the detriment of the other tools in his toolkit. And that does cause me some great concern.

PLETKA: I think this is a moment of enormous peril. What we see in the world is the Russians. We see the Chinese. We see the Iranians. We see the Turks. There's a return to empire for too many. And I sure hope that, as we have always historically done, we are able to muddle through with good intentions, if not the best policies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute, thank you.

PREBLE: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, thank you very much.

PLETKA: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.