Trump Abandons Restraint In Foreign Policy In Favor Of Interventionism

While he campaigned on a message of restraint, Donald Trump has largely adopted the interventionist foreign policies of his predecessors.

Donald Trump ran for President seemingly promoting a much less interventionist foreign policy than his predecessors should he be elected President. During the campaign, for example, he expressed disdain for the Iraq War, the continuation of the war in Afghanistan, as well as a good part of the Obama Administration’s policies with regard to the civil war in Syria. Despite that rhetoric though, Katrina Vanden Heuvel notes that what Trump has actually delivered is more of the same interventionism we’ve seen in the past:

The lie of “promises made, promises kept,” a favorite phrase in President Trump’s stump speech for reelection, is perhaps most apparent in his foreign misadventures. The candidate who scorned “regime change,” and promised to end the policy of “intervention and chaos,” is sowing chaos and intervening from Yemen to Iran to Venezuela and beyond. Instead of wasting money on endless wars, Trump would rebuild America’s roads and bridges. The candidate who promised restraint has only delivered more calamitous intervention.

Last week, Trump vetoed the bipartisan joint resolution of Congress directing the president to withdraw U.S. support for the war in Yemen. This veto is a particularly execrable folly. The administration is continuing to support Saudi Arabia in its unconscionable savaging of that impoverished country, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Fourteen million Yemenis are facing war-induced starvation. A cholera epidemic has broken out.

After the Saudi regime assassinated Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside their consulate in Istanbul, Congress — led by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) in the House, and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Senate — backed a joint resolution, under the authority of the War Powers Resolution, directing the president to end our complicity in this horror. Bipartisan majorities in both houses voted to end this shameful policy started under Barack Obama. Instead, Trump reasserted the claim of untrammeled executive prerogative in matters of war and peace and vetoed the resolution. Sadly, Congress failed to overturn the veto.

Meanwhile, the latest U.S.-backed coup attempt in Venezuela has sputtered, tramples international law and gives lie to Trump’s promise that “we will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.” The administration decided that the misrule by authoritarian Nicolás Maduro, whose election as president was marred by voting irregularities, must end. It rushed to support the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó,when the opposition leader announced that he was the legitimate leader of Venezuela. In an economy that has already shrunk by half over the past five years, sanctions have been tightened and tightened again, to the point that former U.N. special rapporteur Alfred de Zayas has called them “crimes against humanity.”


And the “endless wars” that Trump promised to end continue — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and so on. Libya is a failed state, mired in violence since our “humanitarian” intervention. Drone attacks have escalated in eight nations, almost certainly generating more terrorists than they kill. U.S. Special Operations forces were in 149 countries in Trump’s first year in office. The administration is ramping up economic sanctions against Iran, remaining bellicose with Russia and (especially) China, and going all in with Saudi Arabia and Israel, with Bolton and others pushing for military action. Bolton has designated Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua as the “triangle of terror,” expanding the list of targets.

Here, the so-called adults in the room, the keepers of the “guardrails” to protect an ignorant and impulsive president from himself, are part of the problem. When Trump called for removing troops from Afghanistan and Syria, his national security advisers got in the way. As Trump expresses caution about actual military action in Venezuela, the truculent trio barrels forward.

Trump has trampled his promise to war-weary Americans. Opposition to this endless folly is building, however. Progressives in the Congress — led by Khanna and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) in the House, and Sanders in the Senate — are intent on reasserting congressional power over war and peace. Republicans such as Lee and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) add bipartisan support.

As Vanden Heuvel notes, the situation in Venezuela is perhaps the most blatant example of the abandonment of his previous position regarding breaking away from nearly twenty years of what clearly seems like failed policies of intervention and nation-building. In 2015, for example, Trump criticized the entire idea of nation-building, which had clearly failed in Iraq and Libya to pick just two examples, saying “We’re nation-building. We can’t do it. We have to build our own nation.” It was a message that clearly seemed to resonate with Trump’s supporters and even many of his critics who recognized that our previous policies pursued by both the Bush 43 and Obama Administrations were not working they way they were supposed to and that interventionism and nation-building were not working and were costing American taxpayers billions of dollars with no discernable benefit.

Instead of following through on that rhetoric, though, Trump has instead doubled down on the interventionism of the past. He has, for example, twice attacked Syrian military positions in response to alleged Syrian use of chemical weapons and has done so without receiving prior authorization from Congress, which the Administration later claimed it didn’t need. He increased the number of troops in Syria and later backed away from a promise to bring those troops home. In Afghanistan, he has done much the same thing and, as a result, America’s longest war appears set to continue into and beyond its nineteenth anniversary. He has, of course, continued American support for the Saudi War on Yemen and has placed American “advisers” closer to the front line of that war than they had been in the past. Most recently he has taken an increasingly militaristic approach toward Iran. Finally, he has essentially continued the policy of his immediate predecessor of expanding the so-called “War On Terror” into newer battlefields around the world again without seeking Congressional authorization. This is perhaps not surprising given who Trump has surrounded himself in terms of foreign policy advisers, but it is nonetheless a complete reversal from the Trump we saw on the campaign trail.

For the most part this has been greeted with a shrug on Capitol Hill. Most Republicans were leery of Trump’s apparent non-interventionist stances from the start, so the fact that he’s turned his back on them doesn’t really seem to bother them. The only exceptions to this rule appear to be a handful of legislators such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Michigan Congressman Justin Amash. Even most Democrats don’t seem to fault the President for walking away from his non-interventionist past, with again only a handful being critical of the Administration or even raising questions about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. As for the voters, it’s hard to know where they stand. Absent a crisis, foreign policy is seldom a big factor in Presidential elections compared to issues like the economy, and Trump’s hard-core supporters aren’t going to abandon him because of this, or seemingly anything else.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Iran, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Gustopher says:

    it is nonetheless a complete reversal from the Trump we saw on the campaign trail.

    Remember when Trump said that people like him should be paying more taxes? I don’t think Trump does.

    During the campaign, he was mostly without advisors, and was just winging it. I’m not going to guess whether he was just telling voters what they wanted to hear, or whether he is a weak man who has been dominated by his advisors — each is plausible, both are plausible, and it makes no difference.

    Being cruel to illegal immigrants is the only thing that he campaigned on and actually has delivered, or even tried to deliver. And even there, he ignored his wall for two years.

    On foreign policy, I think he really wants to pull our troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, since he has announced he would and then backpedalled when everyone said what a terrible idea it would be. He hasn’t committed our troops to a new adventure abroad, but if reports are accurate, he’s certainly suggested it and had cooler heads prevail.

    This inconsistent flailing is what happens when someone makes decisions emotionally rather than strategically — a trait that is stereotypically associated with a woman, and which is one of the reasons a lot of people don’t want to vote for a woman president. I’m sure there are people who didn’t vote for Clinton because they thought she would be too emotional and womanly, but instead voted for Trump, who now is running the country like a little girl.

  2. Kathy says:

    The problem, as I’ve stated before, is that Dennison does things for reasons other than policy, often exclusive of policy. So when he wants to withdraw troops from Syria, we, and El Cheeto’s cabinet and advisers, must know what are the policy implications of doing so.

    Getting involved in Syria may have been a bad idea, up there with getting involved in Iraq type of bad idea even, but that doesn’t mean the right remedy is to just withdraw. there are local and other allies involved as well. You can’t leave without consulting them first, or at least giving them fair warning. How does withdrawal affect the area in question, too. I doubt Trump cares or even thinks about such questions.

  3. just nutha says:

    “We’re nation-building. We can’t do it. We have to build our own nation.” This seems consistent with what I have experienced in the past. Factions, particularly conservatives on this particular point, have tended to be opposed to what the opposition does. Read it “Obama’s nation-building. We can’t…”

  4. Mister Bluster says:

    …who now is running the country like a little girl.

    I suspect that there might be some little girls who would take exception to your characterization of them.

  5. Gustopher says:


    Getting involved in Syria may have been a bad idea, up there with getting involved in Iraq type of bad idea even, but that doesn’t mean the right remedy is to just withdraw.

    Getting involved in Syria was a bad idea, but not getting involved was even worse. There are no good options there, just minimizing the awful.

    Getting involved in Iraq was a bad idea that we didn’t have to do. It led to the creation of ISIS, and our involvement in Syria. Even there, it was less the invasion, and more the reconstruction — keeping all Baathists out of the government and administration ensured the government would be weak and ineffective, for instance.

  6. Gustopher says:

    @Mister Bluster: Yes, that’s exactly what I mean — he is bouncing about erratically like women in a Mountain Dew commercial.

    It’s a fine temperament for selling soft drinks, but a poor temperament for running a country.

    Perhaps it’s all the caffeine in his diet cokes.


    You didn’t expect me to double down on that, did you?

    Seriously though, he seems to embody the worst stereotypes of every group he demonizes. The too emotional that women are accused of, the sexual assault that he accuses Mexicans of, the money laundering of a Colombian drug lord, the laziness that blacks are accused of, and his tax deductible losses are subsidizing him far more than any welfare queen.

    I expect him to sit down with some white nationalists and eat fried chicken and watermelon any day now.

  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    Regardless of party, there is seldom a political price paid for jingoism, so senators and reps from both parties fall into line “supporting the troops.” So it is not surprising to see congress falling into line. The exception is when and influential group of congress critters gets together around an issue like Yemen or the Khashoggi muder that any push back occurs.

    Tiny has had a hard-on for Iran all along, now with the Munchin, Bolton and Pompeo manipulating him and other moderating professionals long gone, we’re in dangerous territory.

  8. Hal_10000 says:

    The only person in that Admin who has a clear idea of what he wants on foreign policy is John Bolton. And that’s terrifying because Bolton’s foreign policy would be a catastrophe.