28 Apr '16    home | more politics

America First, Substance and Trump

Yesterday, Donald Trump promised that his foreign policy "will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else."

Problem is, the substance of any simple claim regarding what is in America's interest depends on the specifics in the head of the person uttering it. For example, Charles Lindbergh, member of the America First Committee, spoke against the Lend-Lease bill that would have helped Britain against Germany. And in September 1941 Lindbergh advocated remaining neutral in that conflict. Those were his ways of putting America first.

Another example of claiming America's interest came with US troops to Vietnam. When Lyndon Johnson sent US forces into Vietnam in 1965 it was described as in the best interest of the US because it was holding back Communist aggression and expansion. That was the substance of the American interest claim. And yesterday, Trump said: "I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary, and I mean absolutely necessary. (Trump often speaks in absolutes.) And he added that he would send troops only "if we have a plan for victory with a capital V. But nobody sends troops into an engagement without intending success, or victory if you want to call it that. Some believe that in Vietnam the US should have applied more and more force. That is the substance of the "victory only" and American interest position regarding Vietnam – rejected by the Nixon and Ford administrations, the US Congress and a sizeable portion of the US public and world opinion. In my opinion we can be grateful for at least a degree of flexibility on the issue of US interests in pursuing that war.

What about hit-and-run raids such as Obama has employed against ISIL? Raids involve risks. Risk means the possibility of failure. Is Trump ruling out raids as a part of strategy he says he isn't going to tell us and others about?

Meanwhile, some of us believe that America's interest and the interest of other peoples or humanity in general are supposed to mesh. Belatedly President Roosevelt recognized as a mistake his policy of no aid to Republican Spain against the fascist insurgency led by Francisco Franco – although a the time it was not easy to argue that aid to Spain's leftist government was in the US interest. And later it would be argued that President Clinton was serving American interest by not intervening against the genocide in Rwanda. And there was the ugly war involving Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia that came to an end quickly after Clinton changed his mind and supported NATO's intervention.

As for Trump, does his emphasis on an American First foreign policy suggest a new isolationism? His speech, said to intend clarification, isn't succeeding regarding clarity. Reuters headlines that Trump's "America First" speech alarms US allies. They see it as a threat to retreat from the world. And today the New York Times ridicules Trumps unilateral approach and an apparent contradiction. It quotes Trump as saying, "In negotiation, you must be willing to walk" – despite his claim that he will "work very closely with our allies."

Also yesterday, Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee had a comment on the Trump speech and substance. He told Chris Matthews on MSNBC that Trump's speech was "full of substance" and that he was "very pleased" with what he heard.

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