For the Love of God, Stop Saying Trump Was an Antiwar President

The only way you can argue that President Donald Trump bucked the hawkish Washington consensus is if you ignore Trump’s entire foreign policy record.

Former president Donald Trump speaks during an event at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on June 13, 2023. (Jabin Botsford / Washington Post via Getty Images)

In only the third episode of his new, Twitter-only show since being bumped off Fox News, Tucker Carlson recently blew the lid off of why the Washington establishment is trying to “put [Donald] Trump behind bars for the rest of his life.” It’s all about foreign policy, Carlson, tells us — specifically “the invasions and occupations and proxy wars” and all other policies “that come with trillion-dollar price tags.”

He points to Trump’s performance in the February 2016 GOP presidential debate, when Trump railed against the Iraq War and the lies that dragged the United States into it, as “the precise moment that [the Washington establishment] decided to send Donald Trump to prison.” The sad fact is that “nobody with Trump’s views is allowed to have power in this country,” where you’re disqualified from high office and, eventually, jailed if you criticize US wars.

“Whatever else you say about him, Donald Trump is the one guy with an actual shot at becoming president who dissents from Washington’s long-standing pointless war agenda,” Carlson concluded. “And for that, that one fact, they’re trying to take Trump out before you can vote for him.”

Carlson’s video is the latest in a genre of recent commentary that argues Trump was, in reality, an antiwar president. At the very least, we’re told, through his supposedly “America First” instincts, Trump unwittingly dealt the harshest blow yet to unrestrained global dominion under Washington.

There’s a case to be made for this — all you have to do is ignore almost everything Trump did as president.

The World’s Strangest Anti-Imperialism

Carlson and others making this argument largely rest their case on the fact that Trump ended up the first and only president since at least Jimmy Carter (and even that’s debatable) not to start a new war, an indictment of the US political class as a whole and American liberalism specifically. What they ignore is the obvious and well-documented fact that Trump tried very hard to start one with Iran and was, ironically, saved from that dumb war by Iran itself.

From his first year to his last, Trump engaged in constant, reckless provocations in the hopes of baiting Iran into doing something that would justify a US attack. He famously violated, then pulled out of, the Iran nuclear deal for no good reason and resumed unjustifiably piling devastating sanctions on the country that crushed its economy.

Trump threatened Iran with “obliteration,” appointed as a top advisor a man who’d once advocated bombing the country, advanced dangerous efforts to isolate it in the region, and massively ramped up US troop presence and naval and aircraft deployments in the Persian Gulf. He assassinated one of its top military and political figures on flimsy intelligence — reportedly the most extreme of the options his military advisors gave him, so much so they were surprised he took it — and only avoided triggering a full-scale war because of Tehran’s restrained retaliation.

How can anyone call Trump “antiwar” with a straight face, when one of his major face-offs with Congress saw him veto a resolution that would have ended US support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen — and thus would have likely ended the war altogether? Begun under Barack Obama, US support for the war made Washington complicit in what has for years been one of, if not the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, as the US-backed coalition’s indiscriminate bombing and blockade sent hunger, disease, and civilian casualties soaring to gruesome levels, killing nearly four hundred thousand by 2022. Trump, by the way, escalated US air strikes in the country, with his first year in office seeing the most counterterrorism activity in Yemen up to that point.

Trump was constantly bombing random countries with no regard for borders, national sovereignty, or congressional input, just like every other US president this century. Remember when he, in the words of Fareed Zakaria, “became president” in 2017 by bombing Syria (not the last time he would do so)? Remember when he dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan (while sending thousands more troops there)? Far from being pushed into it, Trump reveled in how these were the results of his deliberately unshackling the military, and boasted of how much more aggressively he would let them act than under Obama.

Another policy that Trump inherited then escalated from his predecessor was the drone war. Whether Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan, Trump dramatically ramped up air strikes in the Middle East and Africa, often to record levels, sometimes notching more drone strikes in a country over one year than a previous administration had managed over multiple years — or even more than multiple previous administrations combined. Predictably, this sent civilian deaths in these countries soaring, numbers that, while still far too high, have dramatically fallen under Joe Biden. Trump did this all while rolling back the mild checks and transparency measures Obama had put on the program.

The loved ones of the many, many innocent people Trump randomly blasted out of existence — including small children and whole families — likely have less faith in the “often-stated commitments to peace and non-intervention” that Carlson is pretending the former president is being prosecuted over.

Besides this, Trump continued long-standing US policy of regime change in Latin America and elsewhere, ramping up “maximum pressure” through economic warfare to try (and fail) to topple the governments of Venezuela, Syria, Nicaragua, and Cuba — in the latter case, reversing his predecessor’s attempts at rapprochement. His efforts were unsuccessful, but they caused untold amounts of unnecessary death and misery to the ordinary people who bore no responsibility for the governments Trump wanted to remove. In fact, Trump at one point reportedly floated military action against Venezuela and recently bragged about how “we would have gotten all that oil” if the country had collapsed during his presidency.

More successful was the Trump administration’s involvement in and support for right-wing coup efforts in Bolivia, the first of which Trump was arguably also involved in through Washington’s influence over the Organization of American States, which played a pivotal role in overturning the 2019 election. In the process, his administration explicitly revived the Monroe Doctrine, which declared the United States’ carte blanche ability to interfere in Latin America whenever it so chose — about as literally imperialistic, and far from “nonintervention,” as you can get.

Nor did his supposed challenge to the Washington status quo extend to the most immovable, ironclad piece of foreign policy consensus that exists in that town: unquestionable US support for Israel, which Trump took to new levels of groveling fealty.

The supposedly “America First” leader declared himself “history’s most pro-Israel US president” and accused critics of being “very disloyal to Israel.” He made good on this mantle by finishing Joe Biden’s job and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, cutting aid to Palestinians, officially recognizing Israel’s land grab of the Golan Heights, and giving the nod to Israeli settlers to pick up the pace in settling on (read: stealing) Palestinian land. In fact, one of the major “Russiagate” scandals had little to do with Russia and was actually about Trump’s administration protecting Israel from an embarrassing United Nations vote before it had even entered office.

All of this was underwritten by the very “trillion-dollar price tags” Carlson now says only Trump would pose a threat to. The already gargantuan US military budget ballooned to record-high monstrous levels under Trump, siphoning investment away from struggling US communities that continued to see their life expectancy decline and financial precarity grow.

Hawk in Dove’s Clothing

Fine, the argument goes; but at least Trump didn’t embroil the United States in a conflict with a nuclear power like Russia. “Dick Cheney is a neocon. Donald Trump is not,” Carlson said in his most recent video. Cheney “supports war with Russia. Trump does not.”

In fact, Trump was arguably the most hawkish president toward Russia since at least Ronald Reagan — maybe even more so than the Gipper, given the fact that Trump pulled out of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that the Republican icon had negotiated with the former Soviet Union, as well as the Open Skies Treaty the elder George Bush had put together. And at the same time that he weakened guardrails against nuclear war, Trump massively upped funding to advance the modernization and expansion of the US nuclear arsenal, another hawkish policy he has in common with the two Democratic presidents on either side of him.

As plenty of analysts who have focused on Trump’s actual deeds, not words, have pointed out  — including the centrist Brookings Institution, Trump ratcheted up confrontation with the country from the start. His first year alone saw Trump shutter Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States (expelling more Russian diplomats a year later), impose a flurry of sanctions on the country over the year, put out a National Security Strategy that identified it as one of the United States’ leading security challenges, and squarely take aim at one of the pillars of Russian security interests by hawking US natural gas to Europe as an alternative fuel source.

This continued for the rest of his presidency, with Trump inking a deal to start elbowing Russia out of the European market with new gas infrastructure and slamming Germany as “a captive to Russia” over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Trump finally blocked in 2019 with a new set of sanctions (those sanctions, incidentally, were later eased by Biden).

Trump further ratcheted up tensions with Moscow with his actions in Syria, a client state of Russia’s, where his CIA director boasted US air strikes at one point killed “a couple hundred Russians” (Wagner Group mercenaries, specifically). And notwithstanding his 2020 withdrawal of twelve thousand US troops from Germany, he did the same in Europe, backing NATO expansion into Montenegro and North Macedonia, pumping more money into the alliance, conducting several massive NATO military exercises, and sending more troops into Poland.

But arguably, the biggest shift Trump made was his December 2017 decision to start sending offensive weapons into Ukraine for the first time, a major escalation resisted by Obama for fear of provoking a dangerous reaction from Moscow. This came alongside Trump’s expansion of a secret paramilitary training program in the country started under Obama (“There was a school of thought that the Russians spoke the good old language of proxy war,” one Trump official reasoned), as well as his decision to go beyond Obama in giving the CIA free rein to carry out cyber attacks, a major gift to the “Deep State” he was always railing against, and which the agency swiftly used to carry out more aggressive operations against Russia.

None of this was surprising given that Trump appointed Russia hawks to key posts. His “personnel choices reflect a distinct worldview that sees Russia as a strategic competitor in Europe that must be deterred,” Zachary Selden wrote for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, noting that Trump “could have filled these positions with individuals representing a worldview of realist restraint, or of greater accommodation of Russian interests in Europe,” but instead chose figures “known for their hawkish views on Russia and their commitment to the US-led alliance system in Europe.”

In other words, on the one issue that Trump was meant to be more restrained and dovish — US policy toward Russia — he was, in reality, ultra-hawkish on, much more so than his Democratic predecessor, reportedly disappointing Russian officials who had taken his conciliatory rhetoric seriously, and contributing majorly to the deteriorating relations that culminated in the Ukraine war. Trump’s hawkishness, by the way, is not limited to when he was president: before his recent, more restrained rhetoric, Trump’s first response to the Ukraine invasion was to suggest that Washington make nuclear threats against Putin.

This would be bad enough. But Trump’s other legacy was to simultaneously ratchet up tensions with another nuclear power, China, whom he deliberately, needlessly antagonized before he was even president by poking at the One China policy with a preplanned phone call to Taiwan’s president. (Back then, because it was Trump doing it, this kind of thing was widely criticized as highly provocative, irregular, and dangerous).

Put aside his tearing up of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he did for domestic political reasons, and the sum total of Trump’s actions were to bring US-China relations to a new low. This started with the self-destructive trade war he started in 2017 and ramped up markedly after the COVID-19 outbreak, when, under the influence of the China hawks he’d surrounded himself with, he embarked on a series of more hostile measures, including military provocations off China’s coast, while regularly disparaging the country in public.

Worse, Trump succeeded in bending all of Washington culture toward his aggressive stance, reshaping not just the GOP in his own image, but even his political opposition and its media arm, with the end result that the United States and China are now inching alarmingly close to war. None of this bothers Carlson one bit, of course, because he, like Trump, is also a China hawk.

Trump stoking conflict with two separate nuclear powers, in two different parts of the world far from US shores, is the exact opposite of dissenting from Washington’s “pointless war agenda.” And given the catastrophic economic costs and potential human casualties that wars with either country carry, let alone their potential to kill millions of innocent Americans through nuclear escalation, it’s as far from “America First” as you can get.

Don’t Get Fooled Again

To paraphrase Tucker Carlson, the truth is that people with Trump’s views are the only ones allowed to have power in the United States — namely, those who want to pour American wealth into wasteful military budgets, topple foreign governments they don’t like, threaten and attack other countries with reckless abandon, and stoke disastrous, potentially suicidal wars for the sake of clinging to US global supremacy.

There were, of course, bright spots in Trump’s foreign policy, like his attempts at diplomacy with North Korea (even if it followed a year of truly scary nuclear saber-rattling) and his belated negotiation of Afghanistan withdrawal (even though we’ll never know if he would have actually followed through on it). Most presidents have them. But Obama’s shepherding of the Iran deal and rapprochement with Cuba didn’t undo his many disastrous foreign policy decisions, any more than Trump’s few moments of accidental wisdom outweigh everything else he did.

It’s an encouraging shift in US political culture that the pro-Trump right at least feels the need to now lie that Trump was some kind of restraint-oriented peacenik. But make no mistake: it is a lie. And the stakes for the American people of being fooled again are high.