In an op-ed this week for the Wall Street Journal, Ohio senator J. D. Vance praises Donald Trump’s record as president and endorses Trump’s bid for the 2024 Republican nomination.
No surprises there. Vance wouldn’t be in the Senate today if Trump hadn’t endorsed him — or if pro-Trump billionaire Peter Thiel hadn’t bankrolled his campaign. And there’s very little daylight between Vance and Trump on issues ranging from the right-wing panic over “Critical Race Theory” to their shared opposition to a $15 minimum wage.
But Vance’s pitch for Trump is all about foreign policy. According to Vance, Trump broke from the “hawkish” policies of his predecessors and “kept the peace.”
Cherry-Picking Trump’s Record
Vance says that Trump “started no wars despite enormous pressure from his own party and even members of his administration.” An attentive reader might wonder how such people made it into his administration in the first place if Trump was such a dove.
Did someone force Trump to appoint hardcore neoconservatives like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo as national security adviser and secretary of state? Were their selections some sort of accident? Or might these ultra-hawks have indicated something about Trump’s foreign policy preferences?
Let’s take a look at his record.
It’s true that no full-fledged wars started during Trump’s term, just as none started during Barack Obama’s second term. But what about what Trump did do?
Vance brings up the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as if this brought peace to the Middle East. But neither Bahrain nor the UAE has ever been at war with Israel. As far as I can tell, Israel has never even approached military conflict with either one.
Meanwhile, on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Trump fulfilled a major item on the neocon wish list. After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel unilaterally annexed Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem and proclaimed the newly “reunited” city its indivisible capital. Several decades of US presidents, none of them friends of the Palestinian cause, drew the line at recognizing this illegal annexation — and implicitly taking East Jerusalem off the table in any future US-brokered peace talks — by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Trump leapt over that line his first year in office, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In what world is torpedoing peace prospects in Palestine made up for by ending the non-existent conflict between Israel and Bahrain?
Vance says that Trump “opened diplomatic talks with North Korea after a half century of stagnation.” And it’s true that the talks happened. It’s also true that they didn’t go anywhere. There’s been no peace treaty or even informal normalization. In fact, neither the United States nor North Korea has even been willing to make a No First Use commitment on nuclear weapons.
Vance also seems to have forgotten what spurred those talks in the first place. They occurred because the US and North Korea came closer to the brink of war than they’d been in a very long time, largely due to Trump’s attitude toward the North Korean leader he called “Little Rocket Man.” Not only were Trump and Kim Jong-un regularly exchanging terrifying threats on Twitter, but Trump reportedly asked the chairman of his Joint Chiefs of Staff for a “plan for a preemptive military strike on North Korea” early in his presidency.
I’m glad Trump calmed down. But it’s more than a little odd to award him points for the change of heart without docking any points for the initial belligerence.
And these three data points — the change of heart on North Korea, the Abraham Accords, and the absence of any full-fledged new wars — are the sum total of Vance’s case for Trump as a peacenik.
They definitely weren’t the sum total of his foreign policy.
The Rest of the Record
Joe Biden has been in office for a little over two years. Has he started any new wars?
On first glance, he hasn’t. In fact, Biden finally tore off the Band-Aid of America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan — something Trump was never quite willing to do, though he often talked about it.
Perhaps Vance’s answer would be that, even if the United States hasn’t officially entered Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, Biden has in effect stepped in by funding and arming the Ukrainian military. Indeed, Vance opens his op-ed by talking about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s “hero’s welcome” in Washington, DC.
But if we’re going to include proxy wars in the tally, the claim that Trump didn’t launch any new wars goes out the window. As hard as it is to remember now, a major GOP talking point about President Obama being “weak” was that Obama refused to send heavy weaponry to Ukraine for its war against Russian-backed separatists starting in 2014. Trump reversed that policy during his first year in office.
Speaking of proxy wars, Trump vetoed a Bernie Sanders–led resolution to end US military assistance to Saudi Arabia in the Saudis’ murderous war in Yemen. So far that war has killed well over four hundred thousand people and triggered an “immense humanitarian crisis.” But maybe that doesn’t count.
How about the drone war? Trump lifted even the weak rules restricting the use of drones imposed during the Obama years. It’s hard to be sure how many innocent people lost their lives as a result, because Trump also revoked an Obama-era rule requiring intelligence officials to report civilian deaths from drone strikes conducted “outside of active war zones.” We do know that the number of such strikes dramatically increased after Trump took office.
The Iran-Sized Hole in Vance’s Narrative
All this would be bad enough, but the most striking absence in Vance’s op-ed is Iran.
The Obama administration — despite an otherwise underwhelming record — hammered out a landmark nuclear deal with Iran. Trump backed out of that deal and imposed crushing new sanctions on Iran. And he massively ramped up tensions by assassinating Iran general Qassem Soleimani.
Crediting Trump with not starting any full-fledged wars is a bit like praising a little boy who goes around a dry forest setting off firecrackers because none of them ultimately sparked a run-away forest fire. It’s true that some of Trump’s most war-crazed lieutenants wanted him to set off more firecrackers than he did. But to give Trump as much credit as Vance does for not taking this advice ignores that Trump knew exactly how firecracker-happy they were when he appointed them.
If your case for Trump the Dove goes something like this:
Sure, he pulled out of the nuclear deal, assassinated Soleimani, brought the US to the brink with North Korea, escalated US involvement in the proxy war in Ukraine, made Israeli/Palestinian peace more distant than ever, ensured continued US military support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and dramatically ramped up the drone war, but just think of all the belligerent actions he didn’t take!
…you’re doing it wrong.
Let’s get real.
Trump was a hawk.