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“America first” is the brand, but it doesn’t describe what President Donald Trump’s foreign policy actually is. “There isn’t any consistency to it,” says Slate’s Fred Kaplan, “except that it’s something that supports Trump in the world of domestic politics.” Over the past four years, that approach has destabilized international relations and left the U.S. alone on important issues. Today, fewer and fewer countries follow the U.S. lead on foreign policy.
The most recent example of this came last week, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the U.N. Security Council to extend an arms embargo on Iran. He said the embargo was necessary because Iran had violated terms of its nuclear deal—the deal the U.S. withdrew from in 2018. Pompeo’s motion lost by an embarrassing margin: Of the council’s 15 members, just two, the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, voted in favor. Russia and China opposed, and the rest, including America’s closest allies, abstained. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Kaplan about how we got here and what the Trump administration is really trying to achieve on the world stage. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ray Suarez: You’ve written that the Trump administration’s whole approach to Iran is so extreme as to be ineffective, that you can’t imagine these kinds of hard-line tactics working with any regional power.
Fred Kaplan: It would be as if in the early days of arms control with the Soviet Union, the United States had said: “No, it’s not good enough that you really have put a limit on the number of long-range missiles and warheads. We need you to abandon Marxism-Leninism.” Or “We need you to dissolve the Warsaw Pact where you controlled the politics of Eastern Europe.” That’s just not the way it works. You get a deal with what is plausible. And to tell you the truth, the Iran nuclear deal exceeded most people’s expectations of what was possible with Iran, even in its own terms.
They essentially want Iran to become a different kind of government from what it is. And that would be nice, but that’s not in the offing.
Sometimes anti-Trump commentators observe that the Trump team seemed to want nothing more than armed confrontation with Iran. Is there any truth to that? Whether it’s whacking Gen. Qassem Soleimani or challenging Iran in the Persian Gulf at every opportunity, making small incidents into big ones, the possibility of something going really wrong doesn’t seem to frighten Trump’s foreign policy team.
Well, I think it depends whom you’re talking about. John Bolton made it clear coming into office as national security adviser that he wanted regime change in Iran and North Korea, forcibly if necessary. Pompeo has also made it clear, especially when talking with groups of Iranian émigrés, that that is what he wants. I think one thing that we have learned about Donald Trump is that he personally is not itching for war. Now, could he be roped into one? I think yes. [After] the killing of Soleimani … if the Iranian retaliation had been a bit stronger than it was, I think he might have been pushed to retaliate. And his aides are doing everything they can to exploit his dislike for these kinds of countries and especially his dislike of anything that was negotiated by Barack Obama. I think that they’ve pushed him into a dangerously hawkish position.
What’s the endgame? Where does this lead? This looks like a perpetually boiling pot with no particular resolution. Is the U.S. ready to do, or trying to do, what it would take to overthrow the Islamic Republic after more than 40 years?
I think the dominant politics in the Middle East, certainly since the end of the Cold War and especially since the end of the Iraq war, is the divide between Sunni Arab and Shiite. Obama tried to conciliate this match. It didn’t work out, partly because that divide really is dominant—it’s almost unbreakable. Trump has made a decision to join in on this regional civil sectarian war on the side of the Sunnis. You know, John Kerry would send all these delegations to Vienna to try to work out some post-Assad politics in Syria. Trump has shown no interest in any kind of diplomatic forum that can settle these conflicts or even that can make them less violent. He is a combatant in the war—if not with troops, then with arms and with aid and with other things. And so, no, they don’t see, nor do they particularly desire, a peaceful solution or even some kind of long-term Cold War entente. They see this as a war that’s going to go on, and they’re on what they see as the right side of it.
What do you make of Americans’ general ceding of foreign policy input to the executive branch? Unlike other times in even our recent past, there is just not a lot of back-and-forth over what this country should be doing in the rest of the world.
Yeah. But I think this has been true for a long time. I think it’s been true largely since the end of the draft. If we’re not sending over boys and girls who didn’t volunteer to fight to go fight and die, it’s no longer such a pressing issue. Until the end of the Cold War, there was kind of a consensus that the West is the good guys and the East are the bad guys, but let’s try to make peace with the East so there’s not World War III. But there isn’t a lot of passion to be eked from the American public on any of these issues. Now, I think one thing where there could be and where there is interest is Congress. But except for a few years after the passage of the War Powers Act, in the mid-’70s, which was the height of the Vietnam War and the Watergate crisis and when Congress saw an out-of-control executive branch and wanted to assert its Article 1 constitutional powers again—except for really a few years after, Congress has been pretty pliant as well. Congress does not want to take responsibility. If things go south in a war, they don’t want to share the blame for it. They’ll pass budgets for it, but they don’t want to have any say. So a lot of this has been an abrogation by Congress.
It’s about 70 days till the election. One of the most reliable applause lines at Trump’s rallies is the assertion that the United States must be strong. But what does it mean to be strong in 2020? Are we just gonna have another national election where we continue to have the biggest military budgets in the world, a lot of obligations in the rest of the world, and just don’t really talk about it?
I think it’s very hard to talk about this in the context of an election. The defense budget is now about $750 billion, which is an all-time record, except for when we’ve been in a big war, in real terms, accounting for inflation. The Reagan Cold War budget wasn’t this high. I haven’t heard any talk among any Democrats for cutting the defense budget. Sen. [Bernie] Sanders introduced an amendment to cut the defense budget by 10 percent. It got very, very few votes. There might be, at some point, in another administration, a serious debate on the inside of what strength means and of what the defense budget ought to look like. But I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that can easily be discussed in popular politics.