As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump come into focus as the presidential front-runners, so too do their foreign-policy platforms — or lack thereof.
- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, versus Donald Trump, bombastic New York businessman. After roughly a dozen states across the United States cast their votes on Super Tuesday, Clinton and Trump have solidified, and perhaps cemented, their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations — and set the stage for their ultimate showdown on Election Day in November.
While each candidate’s strong showing Tuesday night may have answered one of the biggest questions of the 2016 presidential election — who will be their party’s respective nominee — Trump in particular will now be under increasing scrutiny to resolve the many unanswered questions about his foreign-policy views, several of which he has raised himself.
Clinton bested her Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, winning seven of 11 states (and American Samoa), while Sanders picked up his home state of Vermont, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Minnesota. Trump crushed his closest competitors, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, notching wins in seven of the 11 states holding Republican primaries and caucuses. Cruz prevailed in his home state of Texas, which has the most delegates in this group, Oklahoma next door, and Alaska. Minnesota gave Rubio his first win.
Most states deciding Tuesday divvy their delegates proportionally; March 15 begins the winner-take-all portion of the U.S. presidential primary. But both Clinton and Trump may have now pulled too far ahead to catch.
The dramatic matchup between the former New York senator, secretary of state, and first lady, who, as evidence of her credibility, cites her front-row seat in the Situation Room when the United States killed Osama bin Laden, and the reality TV star and real estate magnate, who once demonstrated his credibility by staying in a motel room in Iowa, has been long coming, though before Super Tuesday only four states in the country had cast their votes.
“What a super Tuesday!” Clinton said at a victory speech in Miami. She pledged to keep working, in a swipe at Trump, “not to make America great again — America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole.… It’s clear tonight that the stakes of this election have never been higher, but the rhetoric has never been lower.”
Trump’s victory speech about an hour later contrasted sharply.
“We’re going to make America great again folks,” said Trump, who noted he’d watched Clinton’s speech. “She’s been there for so long; if she hasn’t straightened it out by now, she’s not going to straighten it out in the next four years.”
“I’m going after one person, which is Hillary Clinton — if she’s allowed to run,” he added. “And I think that’s going to be an easy race.”
The Clinton campaign is eager at the prospect of taking on Trump on national security, given her far deeper experience. Still, with the Obama administration embattled by a spate of foreign-policy crises, that experience also gives her a record to defend, including support for deeper U.S. military engagement in Syria and Libya that has failed to bring stability. Even so, it’s too soon to tell whether the harsh spotlight of the general election will force Trump to get specific. Beyond building a wall between the United States and Mexico, his mixed messages on issues ranging from Israel and the Islamic State to Russia and Libya, make for a confusing, complicated platform on which to to run.
Trump has broken with long-standing Republican and Democratic rhetoric by saying he’d remain “neutral” on Israel and Palestine, a position widely perceived as political suicide because of both the history of the U.S. relationship with Israel and the strength of the Jewish-American community and its lobbyists.
At a community forum in South Carolina last month, Trump was asked whether Israelis or Palestinians were to blame for the longtime failure of peace talks. Trump answered that choosing a side could hurt his ability to negotiate. “Let me be sort of a neutral guy.… I don’t want to say whose fault is it. I don’t think it helps,” he said.
In a debate last Thursday, Trump was asked how he could stay neutral when it comes to Israel, Washington’s strongest ally in the Middle East. In response, the businessman doubled-down. Kind of.
He first disputed that President Barack Obama holds Israel as America’s top ally in the region. “Well, first of all, I don’t think they do under President Obama because I think he’s treated Israel horribly, all right?” he said to applause. Then the businessman who says he’d negotiate better diplomatic deals than Obama, or anyone else, called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the “toughest negotiation anywhere in the world of any kind.”
Trump pointed to serving as the grand marshall for the “Israeli Day Parade” in New York and various awards given by Israel. But he continued, “I think it serves no purpose to say that you have a good guy and a bad guy.… It doesn’t help if I start saying, ‘I am very pro-Israel, very pro, more than anybody on this stage.’ But it doesn’t do any good to start demeaning the neighbors.” Then he seemed to contradict himself again, adding, “With that being said, I am totally pro-Israel.”
It certainly didn’t help perceptions when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan stopped just short of an endorsement in a Sunday sermon, saying Trump is “the only member who has stood in front of the Jewish community and said, ‘I don’t want your money,’” claiming Jews “control the politics of America.”
“Not that I’m for Mr. Trump,” he said, “but I like what I’m looking at.”
This coming from a man who has blamed Jews for the 9/11 attacks.
Trump has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he’d “get along very well” with him, though the top U.S. military brass has consistently named Russia as America’s top national security threat. In return, on Dec. 17, Putin called Trump “a bright and talented person” and “the absolute leader of the presidential race.” (Putin looks to have called that one, at least for Republicans.) At the time, Trump’s campaign responded in a release: “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.… I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”
Clinton, as well as Trump’s GOP rivals, has strongly criticized his bromance with Putin and his suggestion that the United States let Russia do all the fighting in Syria. He hasn’t backed off, saying Monday at a campaign stop in the Super Tuesday state of Alabama, “You know, I got a lot of heat. Putin was very nice to me … Let me tell you, he’s not getting anything for it.” He cited the pressure he received to disavow Putin’s comments, referring to the Islamic State by its acronym ISIS. “Why would I disavow? Guy calls you a genius.… What’s wrong with having Russia work with us instead of always fighting, fighting — what’s wrong with having Russia drop bombs all over ISIS, what’s wrong with that?”
The United States has condemned Russia’s military involvement and indiscriminate bombing of both civilians and government opposition fighters in Syria as exacerbating and prolonging the war there. But to be fair, officials have also worked with Moscow on removing chemical weapons from Syria and acknowledged that they need Putin’s cooperation to end the conflict — or at least make the “cessation of hostilities” stick long enough for fragile peace talks to progress.
On Tuesday in his victory speech, Trump said he’s going to carve out a “safe zone” in Syria — which could bring the United States into direct confrontation with Russia — and make the Gulf states pay for it. “We’re gonna build a safe zone, and it’s gonna be in Syria. We’re gonna get the Gulf states — and they’ve got more money than anybody.… We’re gonna loosen up their wallets a little.”
On Mexico, China, and trade
Trump has built his candidacy on the assertion that he would be the best president because he’s a successful businessman, alleging that countries from Mexico to China and even Japan are taking advantage of the United States economically with his catchphrase: “We don’t win anymore.”
On Tuesday, he repeated his vows to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, rebalance trade deficits with China (though he said, “I don’t have anything against China”), “re-do” trade agreements, and, as he implied, undo the “incompetence of the Iran deal.”
“It’s going to be a thing of beauty,” he said.
He hasn’t exactly explained how he would get Mexico to pay for the border wall, a project likely to cost tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars. The closest he has come is to point to America’s billion-dollar trade deficit with its southern neighbor, implying he’d start a trade war to force them to finance the massive project.
“Mexico will pay for it because they are not doing us any favors.… It’s a small portion of the kind of money that we lose and the deficits that we have with Mexico,” he said in Thursday’s debate. Asked whether he’d be willing to start a trade war over it, he suggested he was.
“I don’t mind trade wars when we’re losing $58 billion a year, you want to know the truth,” he continued. “We’re losing so much with Mexico and China.… And then people say, ‘Don’t we want to trade?’ I don’t mind trading, but I don’t want to lose $500 billion. I don’t want to lose $58 billion.”
Trump has called for raising tariffs on Chinese goods by 45 percent, as well as scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal that covers nearly 40 percent of the global economy. As rival Rubio pointed out, these threats of trade wars against Mexico and China could hurt the businessman’s own bottom line.
“About the trade war — I don’t understand, because your ties and the clothes you make [are] made in Mexico and in China,” Rubio told Trump in the debate. “So you’re going to be starting a trade war against your own ties and your own suits.”
Trump’s response: “You wouldn’t know anything about it, because you’re a lousy businessman.”
On the Islamic State, Libya, and Iraq
Trump has faced criticism for not having a plan to defeat the Islamic State — or at least outlining what it is. He says he won’t because he doesn’t want to forecast his strategy to the terrorist group.
“I’m getting killed by these people [in the media]. They say, ‘Trump doesn’t have a plan for ISIS!’” he said in November in Iowa. “I said, ‘No, I have a plan, but I don’t want to tell ISIS what it is, because I’m going to win.’”
Still, he described it as taking away the Islamic State’s capability to turn control of oil resources in Iraq and Syria into profit. “I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers, and that’s right, I’d blow up the pipes; I’d blow up the refineries; I’d blow up every single inch.… You’ll get Exxon to come in there, and in two months, you ever see these guys? How good they are, the great oil companies? They’ll rebuild that sucker brand new.… And I’ll take the oil.”
When pressed, he continues to repeat a variant of “bomb the shit out of them” and vows to take the region’s oil. This is somewhat unsurprising, given Trump appears to be much of his own national security advisor — he once said that he gets his military expertise “from the shows” — but with recent endorsements from the likes of former candidate and current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, he at least seems to be pulling together something of a policy team.
On Tuesday, standing in front of Christie, he vowed, as many Republican candidates have, to rebuild the military after “it’s been rapidly depleted,” though that claim has been disputed, including by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We’re going to make our military better and stronger than before,” Trump said, “and nobody, nobody, is going to mess with us.”
His hawkish stance — violating other countries’ sovereignty, stealing their resources, and saying of terrorists, “You have to take out their families” — goes farther than what any other GOP candidate has even called for. It seems to contradict his assertion that the United States never should’ve intervened in the Iraq War or in Libya.
“If these politicians went to the beach and didn’t do a thing, and we had Saddam Hussein and if we had [Libyan dictator Muammar al-] Qaddafi in charge, instead of having terrorism all over the place, we’d be — at least they killed terrorists, all right?” Trump said at Thursday’s debate. “And I’m not saying they were good because they were bad, they were really bad, but we don’t know what we’re getting. You look at Libya right now: ISIS, as we speak, is taking over their oil. As we speak, it’s a total mess.”
He continued, “We would have been better off if the politicians took a day off instead of going into war.”
Photo credit: John Moore/Staff