Donald Trump stumbles on his grasp of foreign policy

Donald Trump at the Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York on Wednesday.
Donald Trump at the Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York on Wednesday.MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

As anyone who has followed the presidential campaign in any detail knows, Donald Trump has little idea what he’s talking about when it comes to the complex realm of international affairs.

That’s why so many of the serious thinkers in the GOP’s foreign policy establishment have taken a pass on his candidacy, some even signing aboard with Hillary Clinton.

Still, the threshold question going into NBC’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum” was far simpler: Could he play a plausible potential commander-in-chief for half an hour on TV?

The Republican nominee had a golden opportunity, certainly, the more so because of moderator Matt Lauer’s decision to spend fully a third of Clinton’s segment on her email controversy that went nowhere prosecutorially, but has proved Miracle-Gro for right-wing conspiracy theories.


And for a moment or two, it seemed as though Trump might actually pull it off.

Then came two stumbling blocks. Iraq’s oil and Russia’s Putin. Almost since the day he launched candidacy, Trump has been 1) falsely claiming he opposed a war he actually supported, albeit in lukewarm fashion, until it started to go badly and 2) insisting we should have taken Iraq’s oil.

He was true to form on Wednesday.

“I’ve always said, shouldn’t be there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil,” he said.

The first part of that remark is just another Trumpian rewriting of his personal history. But to assert, over and over, that the United States should have seized Iraq’s oil in to-the-victor-go-the-spoils fashion is to display an utter disregard for the way civilized nations conduct themselves. A reputable international-law-abiding country can’t simply invade another country and forcibly commandeer its natural resources. Not even in cases when the country is question is run by a ruthless tyrant like Saddam Hussein.

Speaking of Hussein, that’s exactly what he did to Kuwait in 1990 — and why President George H.W. Bush assembled a military coalition that, under United Nations auspices, drove Iraqi forces from that nation.


But things got even stranger when the subject of Vladimir Putin reared its head, as another foreign-policy thinker of Trump’s caliber might say. But whereas Sarah Palin gazed with gimlet eye from her Alaskan perch off toward Russia, Trump casts a thoroughly admiring glance Mr. Putin’s way. After Trump spoke positively about the Russian leader, Lauer pointed out that Putin has annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine, that he supports Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad and is allied with Iran, and that Russia is the main suspect in the hacking of the DNC’s computers.

Whereupon Trump responded: “Do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?”

Now, over the last eight years, we’ve become so accustomed to unhinged Obama hatred that little truly surprises anymore. But it is nonetheless remarkable to hear a major party presidential nominee actually suggest that the president of the United States is no less objectionable than the scheming, duplicitous strongman who leads the increasingly rogue Russian state.

It would be excessively dramatic to say that with his ridiculous Wednesday performance, Trump demonstrated that he was unfit for the presidency. So let’s drain the melodrama and render that sentence low key and matter-of-fact by appending an adverb: Again.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.