As President Trump weighs how to respond to an alleged Iranian attack on a pair of Saudi Arabian oil facilities — an attack Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “an act of war” — his refusal to align with either of the two ideological foreign policy poles of the Republican party has made his response almost impossible to predict.
The neoconservative and noninterventionist wings of the Republican party have long sought to take ownership of — and thence to shape — Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy. But the president doesn’t fit into either mold, political analysts and former GOP officials say.
“He found kind of the middle position and that turned out to be the single most popular position in the Republican primary,” said Colin Dueck, a George Mason University professor who wrote a recent book on Republican foreign policy. “I don’t think there was an established school of thought. He has certainly created a new position that did not exist before.”
Dueck calls that middle lane “nationalism.” Mary Beth Long, a senior Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, described it as reactionary: “dealing with core interests almost on a case-by-case basis.” Christopher C. Hull, a senior fellow for Americans for Intelligence Reform and a former politics professor at George Washington University, also called it a “middle course” that “acknowledges America’s role in the world, that puts America first and that keeps us from engaging in endless wars for questionable purposes.”
Critics believe Trump’s eschewal of traditional national security poles and processes is dangerous. “Iranian violence cannot be rewarded and the U.S. must respond to attacks on our interests, but this Administration’s inconsistent and erratic policies are not making us safer,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a statement Wednesday.
“He’s not a neocon,” Hull said. “He’s not an isolationist and the departure of Bolton makes clear that he’s not a hawk—but the departure of McMaster made clear that he was not an establishmentarian either.”
Trump has repeatedly and publicly made it clear that he is ambivalent about American military engagement in the Middle East. He has called the Iraq war a mistake, vowed to bring troops home from Afghanistan, announced a unilateral (if unfulfilled) withdrawal from Syria, and, in recent months, insisted that he does not want war with Iran. But he has also twice struck Syria over the use of chemical weapons, threatened “fire and fury” on North Korea and Sunday tweeted that the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to the attacks on the Saudi facilities. He has increased the number of troops in Afghanistan since taking office, boosted the defense budget and in June, ordered then canceled strikes on Iran in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. drone.
Trump created the political space for those ostensibly competing foreign policy instincts, Hull said, because he “had the money and the marketing understanding to be able to run a campaign that gored a couple of very important oxes”—publicly eviscerating the Bush administration for the Iraq War, for example.
Both sides of the party have sought to claim Trump’s nontraditional approach for their own. In an acid Twitter exchange, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, both wielded the president’s name as a weapon in their own argument.
“Why do some neocons continue to advocate for endless wars? I stand with @realdonaldtrump on ending wars. Let’s focus on America First, not Afghanistan!” Paul tweeted last week.
Cheney, the daughter of notoriously hawkish former Vice President Dick Cheney fired back: “I stand with @realDonaldTrump and our men and women in uniform who will never surrender to terrorists, unlike @RandPaul, who seems to have forgotten that today is 9/11,” said Cheney.
“It’s not a coincidence,” Dueck said. Trump “goes up and down the ladder of escalation” and so “people sometimes see what they want to see in him.”
Now, the GOP is split on how he should respond to the alleged Iranian attacks on the Saudi oil facilities. Hawkish Republicans like Cheney and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have both urged a military response, while Paul and his cohort have appealed to Trump’s more isolationist side to stay out of it.
But other Republicans struck a more cautious approach that seemed to hew to Trump’s inclination towards arms sales over direct action, urging the administration to send defense weapons to Riyadh without launching an attack. It hints at the degree to which Washington Republicans have begun to mold themselves into Trump’s “third lane” — and suggests that it might endure past his presidency.
Washington speculated in the early days of his presidency that Trump, a political neophyte, might defer to more experienced advisors on national security policy. In particular, critics of a more interventionist foreign policy feared that his most recent national security advisor, John Bolton — known for being both hawkish and an experienced bureaucratic infighter from the George W. Bush administration — might lead Trump into a war with Iran.
But Trump dismissed Bolton as he had dismissed his more establishmentarian predecessor, H.R. McMaster. (His new national security advisor, former hostage negotiator Robert O’Brien, is less well-known in Washington than either McMaster or Bolton, and it remains unclear how he will handle the role.)
Duek, Long, and Hull all independently name one ideological predecessor to Trump’s vision: Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Cruz has been a consistent proponent of big defense budgets and tough-on-terror policies, but he was deeply critical of then-President Barack Obama’s intervention in Libya in 2011. Dueck also pointed out Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, as “somebody who is very sensitive to where the average conservative is these days on foreign policy.”
“Trump has blown the lid off,” Dueck said. “This is not going to go away. There is going to be a nationalist alternative to foreign policy; I don’t think you can just put it back in a box.”
Long suggested that Trump’s instinctive and shoot-from-the-hip foreign policy style may become the “new normal” in what security experts say is an increasingly unsettled global threat environment. The standard approach of national security decision-making since World War II — a laborious consensus-driven process driven by the National Security Council — has not evolved to deal with a threat environment that moves at the pace of AI and 5G, she said.
“I think the hawks versus the non-hawks, as a matter of reality, is going to get closer and closer together—because at the end of the day, it’s going to end up being core interest and ability to be responsive to a myriad of threats that are fast-moving,” Long said. “Political ideology won’t even enter into it.”