When assessing candidates for elected office, foreign policy is perhaps the single most important consideration in an increasingly interconnected world.
That’s especially true in the 2016 race for The White House. While the vast majority of the Americans will remain blissfully ignorant when it comes to the nuances, the electorate generally understands a handful of very basic concepts: 1) Russia is resurgent; 2) ISIS is bad; 3) there are a lot of refugees in Europe and some of them are terrorists; 4) there’s something going on in Syria that is apparently connected to ISIS and refugees; 5) Iran is evil and will probably try to nuke somebody soon; 6) China is getting stronger.
Given voters’ generalized lack of insight into the specifics and overarching desire to be left in the dark about anything that suggests modern geopolitics can’t be summed up as a black and white, West versus everyone, good versus evil, struggle to restore a benevolent American hegemony, candidates must be careful to convey a deep understanding of the issues without confusing a largely ignorant electorate. That will be difficult for Hillary Clinton, a veteran of modern statecraft who knows a thing or two about how complex the world is and how easy it is to screw things up (see Libya).
For Trump, on the other hand, developing a foreign policy platform is much easier. His anti-immigration stance fits perfectly with the events unfolding across Europe and his “knock the hell out of ISIS” line resonates with voters who, no matter how much they distrust the government, would rather focus on whether liberals plan to take their guns or the NSA is monitoring their phone than they would on whether the good folks at Langley might have created the terror groups that now threaten to infiltrate and attack Western targets. Further, having never held elected office, Trump has the luxury of appealing to common sense when assessing things like Syria’s five-year conflict. You needn’t know anything about the Sunni-Shiite divide or about the Alawite government or the Baathists or about Assad’s connections to the IRGC and Hassan Nasrallah’s army to understand that America’s attempts to bring about regime change in the Mid-East have gone horribly awry and that fighting Assad while also fighting the people that are fighting Assad makes absolutely no sense.
In other words, when you have no conception of the nuances, you are free to appeal to common sense and that’s exactly what Trump did when The New York Times sat down with the GOP frontrunner to discuss foreign policy. Here’s the exchange between Trump and David Sanger with regard to Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State’s illicit and highly lucrative oil trafficking business which apparently no one but Russia wants to destroy:
SANGER: One more along the lines of your ISIS strategy. You’ve seen the current strategy, which is, you’ve seen Secretary Kerry trying to seek a political accord between President Assad and the rebel forces, with Assad eventually leaving. And then the hope is to turn all those forces, including Russia and Iran, against ISIS. Is that the right way to do it? Do you have an alternative approach?
TRUMP: Well, I thought the approach of fighting Assad and ISIS simultaneously was madness, and idiocy. They’re fighting each other and yet we’re fighting both of them. You know, we were fighting both of them. I think that our far bigger problem than Assad is ISIS, I’ve always felt that. Assad is, you know I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not, but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.
SANGER: I think President Obama would agree with that.
TRUMP: O.K., well, that’s good. But at the same time – yeah, he would agree with that, I think to an extent. But I think, you can’t be fighting two people that are fighting each other, and fighting them together. You have to pick one or the other. And you have to go at –
SANGER: So how would your strategy differ from what he’s doing right now?
TRUMP: Well I can only tell you – I can’t tell you, because his strategy, it’s open and it would seem to be fighting ISIS but he’s fighting it in such a limited capacity. I’ve been saying, take the oil. I’ve been saying it for years. Take the oil. They still haven’t taken the oil. They still haven’t taken it. And they hardly hit the oil. They hardly make a dent in the oil.
SANGER: The oil that ISIS is pumping.
TRUMP: Yes, the oil that ISIS is pumping, where they’re getting tremendous amounts of revenue. I’ve said, hit the banking channels. You know, they have very sophisticated banking channels, which I understand, but I don’t think a lot of people do understand. You know, they’re taking in tremendous amounts of money from banking channels. That, you know, many people in countries that you think are our allies, are giving ISIS tremendous amounts of money and it’s going through very dark banking channels. And we should have stopped those banking channels long ago and I think we’ve done nothing to stop them, and that money is massive. Massive. It’s a massive amount of money. So it’s not only from oil, David, it’s from also the bank, the bank. It’s through banks. And very sophisticated channels. They call them the dark channels. Very sophisticated channels. And money is coming in from people that we think are our allies.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that's about the most straightforward, sober assessment of the situation imaginable. However, were Trump to win the national election, he'll quickly discover - and this is exceedingly unfortunate - that common sense simply cannot be the basis for US foreign policy in the modern world.
That is, a principled, upfront approach to geopolitics is what's needed, but thanks to the fact that Washington, through decades of underhanded meddling and clandestine dealings, has woven quite the tangled web, common sense will everywhere and always trip over the lunacy that is US foreign policy. Whether or not Trump can change that is debatable and if he can't, it will be through no fault of his own.