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The Obama-Trump Doctrine

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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From a distance, Donald Trump and Barack Obama have very different outlooks on the world. The president is a hyper-rational "Spockian," to borrow Jeffrey Goldberg's phrase from his new Atlantic article on the president's foreign policy. He calmly lectures on the limits of U.S. power and the importance of the American moral example.

Trump is bombastic. He threatens the families of terrorists and only belatedly revoked his promise to bring back waterboarding and "much worse."

Obama regards his nuclear agreement with Iran as a great achievement. Trump calls it the dumbest deal in the history of deal-making. Obama has pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal. Trump threatens to bring back tariffs.

These differences are real. But Goldberg's deeply reported essay shows that for all their differences, Trump and Obama share similar foreign policy instincts. Both men, for example don't think much of America's traditional alliances. Nor do they think much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Both also profess to have a soft spot for the bloodless foreign policy realism of George H.W. Bush. Obama is a fan of Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Trump says he admires Richard Haass, a protégé of Scowcroft and currently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Let's start with freeloading allies. Speaking of the U.K.'s cuts to its military budget, the president told Goldberg, "free riders bother me." It's a theme for Obama: Longtime U.S. allies, particularly in the Middle East, take advantage of their superpower friend and try to enlist the U.S. to support their narrow sectarian agendas. He says, for example, that Saudi Arabia needs to learn how to share the Middle East with Iran. He was angry that King Abdullah of Jordan allegedly told members of Congress that he had more faith in U.S. power than Obama does.

On Libya, the president has reflected on the U.S. intervention and concluded his mistake was in trusting European and Gulf allies to do more to rebuild the country after Muammar Qaddafi's regime was toppled. "When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” the president told Goldberg. "There’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up."

Trump would also like America's allies to pay their fair financial share. He has proposed making Japan pay the U.S. more for the privilege of hosting its military in Okinawa. He promises at nearly every campaign appearance that Mexico will pay for a wall along America's southern border. In the first debate after Super Tuesday, Trump said he would get U.S. Gulf allies to pay for a combat force to stop the Islamic State.

Trump and Obama also share a similar disdain for the expert class. Goldberg recounts that one White House official refers to Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, where most of the major think tanks are, as "Arab-occupied territory," because of the money Gulf states have invested in these institutions.

Critics of his foreign policy bewilder Obama. When pressed about the view that his decision to back away from his red line on Syria's use of chemical weapons may have persuaded Putin that he would pay no real price for invading Ukraine, Obama sounded petulant. "Look, this theory is so easily disposed of that I’m always puzzled by how people make the argument," he said, recounting how Russia invaded Georgia in George W. Bush's last year in office, while the U.S. was surging troops in Iraq.

Trump's disdain for foreign policy eminences is less literate than Obama's. While Obama could talk for hours, it seems, about the subtle distinctions between liberal internationalism and realpolitik, Trump can't be bothered with such nuance. His campaign does not put out policy papers. When asked over the summer who he turns to for foreign policy advice, Trump said he watches the 24-hour news channels.

And yet Trump, like Obama, is still opposing the last war. Obama sold his Iran deal by attacking its critics for supporting the Iraq invasion. Trump dismisses criticism from Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain by ridiculing their advocacy for the Iraq war.  

Trump and Obama also have similar approaches to Russia. Obama did nothing this summer as the Kremlin moved military personnel and equipment to Syria to begin its air war on the Islamic State. Trump has asked why the U.S. should object to this campaign that Obama's inaction helped enable.

Goldberg reports how Obama rejected Secretary of State John Kerry's recommendations for air strikes against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Trump, too, has questioned why the U.S. should stand in the way of Assad's war against what he sees as a dangerous opposition. (At the same time, he has mused that Obama's reluctance to intervene earlier has been a cause of the current refugee crisis for Europe).

Like Obama in 2008, Trump has proposed a reset with Russia. In a debate in September, he promised that when he was president, "We won't have the kind of problems our country has right now with Russia and many other nations."

Trump's promise to start over with Putin must sting Obama. After all, the president has little to show in 2016 for the reset he enacted in 2009. Then again, Obama has little to show for most of his foreign policy: Despite his best intentions, the world has become more dangerous during Obama's presidency. The state system in the Middle East is collapsing. Many of America's traditional alliances have frayed. Jihadists have established more safe havens in ungoverned spaces.

This will be Trump's problem if his campaign for the presidency succeeds. And it's hard to know exactly what Trump would do about it. In the last month, he has reversed himself on torture, on visas for highly skilled workers and on ground troops for Syria. Like demagogues before him, Trump is happy to be inconsistent.  

Obama, too, has been inconsistent. Goldberg concludes that the president today does not think the Middle East is worth much American blood and treasure. Despite the protests of allies and experts, Obama still doesn't think the crisis in Syria is a more serious national security challenge than climate change. Obama made a point of saying how his decision to walk away from his own red line on Syria's use of chemical weapons was one of the proudest moments of his presidency.

And yet, Obama's successor will inherit U.S. military campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and possibly even Libya if Obama's generals get their way. For all the talk of ending dumb wars, Obama is still fighting them. Trump promises that he would win them, but he never says how. Perhaps he should talk to some of the foreign policy experts and allies that he and Obama so disdain. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net