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Opinion | Andrew J. Bacevich

Trump promised big foreign policy changes — it isn’t going to happen

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shook hands duringTrump’s visit to Israel. Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S first overseas trip has greatly clarified his approach to foreign policy. Critics fearing that Trump’s election heralded the onset of full-throated isolationism can rest easy. Those who saw in Trump’s revival of the phrase “America First” an implicit promise of policies based on modesty and restraint may well feel a sense of buyer’s remorse. They are fully entitled to do so.

As for the national security establishment, well, in those quarters, it’s time to break out the bubbly.

Since 9/11, pursuant to eliminating violent anti-Western jihadism, that establishment has expended resources on a colossal scale. Yet the resulting global war on terrorism hasn’t gone well. Indeed, Trump’s success as a candidate stemmed at least in part from his willingness to make that very point.


Trump dared to say out loud what everyone knew but few in Washington had the gumption to acknowledge: that protracted military campaigns undertaken in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere had produced little of value. Rather than reducing terrorism, US military efforts were causing it to metastasize. The time had come, Trump suggested, for the United States to tend to its own needs.

Trump might have used his first foray abroad as an occasion for spelling out the implications of “America First” for the various friends, allies, and dependencies on his itinerary. Instead, he did just the opposite, effectively revoking positions he had staked out on the campaign trail. In that regard, Trump’s confab with several dozen Sunni Muslim despots convened at the invitation of Saudi Arabia was an occasion of notable importance.

In Riyadh, Trump simultaneously affirmed and recast the war on terrorism. In doing so, he almost guarantees its continuation into perpetuity.

In the wake of 9/11, by toppling regimes said to be in cahoots with violent jihadists, the United States inadvertently created a regional power vacuum that terrorist groups were quick to fill. Over the next decade, US forces sought with limited success to destroy entities such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban. Now, rather than addressing the implications of that failure, Trump has simply redefined the problem. Iran, he now charges, fuels “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” across the Persian Gulf. In the war on terrorism, it turns out, Iran has all along been the real enemy.


Of course, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel enthusiastically endorse this position, which accords with their own oft-expressed views. Fingering Iran as the bad guy allows Saudis to deflect attention from their own richly documented role in promoting intolerant radical Islamism, not to mention their abysmal human rights record. Doing so also meshes neatly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s need for a dire external threat to maintain his governing coalition and to deflect attention from Israeli actions that undercut prospects of creating a viable Palestinian state, the pieties of the so-called peace process notwithstanding.

Yet note the implications. Trump, the supposed “America Firster,” thereby makes the United States party to an Arab vs. Persian, Sunni vs. Shia conflict that is at best tangential to the well-being and security of the American people. And he affirms the complicity of the United States in Israeli policies that condemn Palestinians to perpetual subordination.

Where this pro-Saudi, pro-Sunni, pro-Israeli posture will ultimately lead is difficult to say. One thing alone is certain: Ganging up on Tehran won’t eliminate terrorism. Blaming Iran for terrorism is akin to blaming Trump for the political, economic, and cultural upheavals within the United States that led to his election. Doing so ignores root causes.


So what’s actually going on here? Apart from the Saudi royal family and the Netanyahu government, who stands to benefit from boosting Iran’s ranking on Washington’s official enemies list? To answer that question, follow the money.

During his visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump inked an arms deal worth $110 billion, with more likely to come — up to $350 billion over 10 years. Couple that with the $3.8 billion worth of military hardware that the United States provides annually to Israel and you start to get a sense of what is really afoot.

To sustain itself, the national security apparatus and its beneficiaries need threats and emergencies. As memories of 9/11 fade, the rationale for exertions undertaken to “keep America safe” needs refreshing. Who better than Iran to fill the bill, especially given that Iran’s existing adversaries have an insatiable appetite for acquiring American arms? For US weapons manufacturers, a windfall of monumental proportions beckons.

In the months ahead, Americans on food stamps or enrolled in Medicaid may have to tighten their belts. The military-industrial complex, along with its network of clients and auxiliaries, will do just fine. For that they will have Trump to thank.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.