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On Foreign Policy, Trump Is No Reagan

The new national security advisor’s sorry attempt to tout the Trump record on foreign affairs.
December 31, 2019
On Foreign Policy, Trump Is No Reagan
Trump National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien addresses the Reagan National Defense Forum on December 7, 2019. (Courtesy the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute.)

On December 7, Robert O’Brien, John Bolton’s replacement as the assistant to the president for national security affairs—better known by the informal title national security advisor—gave the closing speech at a major policy conference hosted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. He was an embarrassment.

Before looking closely at O’Brien’s remarks, a bit of background about the conference is in order. The Reagan National Defense Forum is among the most important annual military-policy conferences, drawing as participants and attendees heads of government and ministers of defense from around the world, as well as top officials from U.S. and international defense contractors. Firms like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin sponsor it every year. An essential feature is that politics is minimized, allowing for frank, bipartisan policy discussions.

And that’s the opposite of what O’Brien did.

In his 13-minute talk, O’Brien directly mentioned President Trump three dozen times—on average every 20 seconds—and went through a bullet-point list of Trump’s achievements. He began by trying to compare Trump to President Reagan. Just like Reagan did, O’Brien said, Trump believes that the foundation of American power is “peace through strength.” This is the truth, but not the whole truth. Reagan believed strength to be one of several pillars of American power. He understood that American power also depends on close partnerships with friendly allies and on support for dissidents in adversarial countries, two concepts that Trump rejects.

So, what were the Trump achievements that O’Brien touted? In reality, Trump has no meaningful foreign policy accomplishments to brag about other than his modest military buildup—and even there the credit isn’t simply his: The Trump administration’s readiness target is the same as the Obama administration’s target, and the Trump buildup is following Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s blueprint. Beyond that, most of what O’Brien listed—such as the maximum-pressure campaign against Iran and quitting the “disastrous Paris climate accords”—have come unilaterally, which means they have antagonized our friends and can be undone by the next administration as easily as this administration did them. In fact, every Democratic presidential candidate has promised to undo pretty much all of them.

Trump’s only foreign policy achievement that took more than a signature is the defeat of the Islamic State, which of course O’Brien mentioned. He didn’t mention that the Islamic State is re-surging now, thanks to our withdrawal—in other words, that Trump has undone his only achievement.

Regarding the Paris agreement, O’Brien said that Trump doesn’t believe that climate change is “a bigger threat to our national security than nuclear-armed great powers like Russia and China.” It would have been more accurate to say that Trump doesn’t believe that climate change is a real thing, that he thinks a powerful Russia is potential friend, and that he doesn’t see the Chinese threat beyond economics and has never talked about the military threat that China poses.

O’Brien talked up Trump’s “unprecedented personal diplomacy” on North Korea, which I suppose is one way of characterizing the president’s bizarre pattern of fruitlessly praising and palling around with Kim Jong-un. O’Brien also referred to Trump’s “deliberate and sophisticated show of force”—two adjectives no reasonable observer would use to describe the administration’s slapdash policy toward North Korea. He claimed credit for the Trump administration for “eas[ing] tensions in the Korean peninsula,” although what easing there has been is owed much more to the new president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, than to Trump—and that some of the tensions that have since eased were a result of Trump’s imprudent rhetoric during his first year as president.

It is true, as O’Brien noted, that the president has encouraged our NATO allies “to burden-share” by increasing their military spending. But O’Brien did not mention that NATO members had already in 2014— before Trump became president—begun increasing their military spending, due in part to the prodding of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Nor did O’Brien see fit to mention the low regard our NATO allies have of Trump.

In discussing the administration’s Iran strategy—or lack thereof, really—O’Brien mentioned the protests against the regime in Iran, as well as in Lebanon and Iraq. And, of course, O’Brien neglected to mention that the Trump administration provided no support for the protesters. (O’Brien also omitted mentioning the Hong Kong protests, let alone that Trump uses “rioters”—the term preferred by the Chinese Communist Party—to refer to the protesters. And he omitted that the administration has been very quiet about the rounding up of Uighur Chinese into concentration camps and did nothing to support anti-government protests in Moscow.)

Speaking of the administration’s Iran non-strategy, O’Brien did not mention that the maximum-pressure campaign, just like pretty much all other foreign policy initiatives of this administration, has been implemented over the objection of all our democratic allies except Israel, because this administration is all but incapable of working with democratic partners.

As for peace through strength, the Reagan administration sank half of Iran’s navy in response to Iranian antagonism. Trump’s response to Iran’s attacks on Saudi Arabia, the downing of an American UAV in international airspace, and attacks on commercial oil tankers in international waters has been silence. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan standing silent if Iran attacked a U.S. aircraft? Ronald Reagan successfully bankrupted the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan; Trump, by contrast, wants to cede Ukraine and Syria to Russia.

Also, Reagan never went out of his way to pick fights with heads of allied governments while speaking admiringly about adversarial heads of governments, as Trump does with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

O’Brien didn’t use his platform at the Reagan forum to talk about the threat of a rising China. He didn’t discuss Putin’s geopolitical ambitions. He couldn’t even talk about the threat of the Iranian military since the administration has not responded to it. Instead, he beclowned himself by acting almost as a campaign surrogate.

It’s worth remembering that O’Brien has come to his office with a thinner résumé than any of his predecessors. It shows. No well-known figure who wants a future in a Republican administration would want to work as Trump’s national security advisor after watching what happened to McMaster and Bolton. Nobody with a good reputation wants to operate as a campaign surrogate in a policy position.

Shortly after being appointed to his position, O’Brien wrote an op-ed about how he wanted to run the National Security Council. His vision for running the NSC was the right one, with one lacking factor: What to do when the commander in chief is a buffoon.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.