Trump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy

Trump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy
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As President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE weighs a military response to the recent attack on a Saudi Aramco oil refinery, hundreds of thousands of lives across the Middle East hang in the balance.

Three years into his presidency, Trump remains a foreign policy mystery. His approach often defies the wishes of the State Department and the American intelligence community. His closeness to strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocratic front-runners defend their age during debate Candidates unleash on Trump over Syria move, say he's weakening US Erdoğan says he will never declare Syria ceasefire: Turkish media MORE and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un is well documented.

For all of Trump’s vaunted boldness in meeting with America’s enemies, the flurry of photo ops and private meetings has failed to prevent Russia from engaging in widespread anti-democracy crackdowns. North Korea, far from winding down its hostile missile program, has launched more rockets under the Trump administration than it ever did under Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaIraq is not yet lost, but if we continue to ignore it, it soon will be Obama praises marathon runners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei for 'remarkable examples of humanity's ability' Each of us has a role in preventing veteran suicide MORE. It remains unclear how Trump’s freeform diplomacy advances American interests abroad.

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Last week the Middle East faced its most destabilizing threat in years following a drone strike on one of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refineries. It took less than a minute for the attackers to take 50 percent of Saudi oil production – 5 percent of the global total – offline. Saudi Arabia was quick to compare the event to Pearl Harbor.

Cautious oil industry watchers have long feared exactly this kind of effective strike against soft targets like critical oil infrastructure. What is less clear is who, exactly, piloted the drone on its suicide mission. Houthi rebels based in Yemen recently claimed responsibility for the attack, signaling a destabilizing escalation in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing attempt to subjugate Yemen. The Saudis – and Trump – would rather blame Iran.

There’s one big problem with that claim: the Trump administration can’t seem to figure out what kind of relationship it wants with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Earlier this month, Trump suggested a diplomatic meeting with Iranian leaders without preconditions—a position he derided as appeasement during the Obama years.

Trump’s Saudi relationship is even more bizarre. Not only has Trump assisted Saudi Arabia in covering up the full responsibility for the savage murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he has gone so far as to defend Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s desire to assassinate opponents in the press.

At every turn, Trump has been a willing supplicant to Saudi whims. Not only has Trump defended the rationale behind murdering journalists like Khashoggi, his administration rewarded Saudi power brokers with a massive $8 billion arms deal last month. Mohammed Bin Salman enjoys unrestricted access to senior administration officials like Trump’s son-in-law, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerButtigieg knocks Trump as a 'walking conflict of interest' Biden's weak response to Trump is a lesson for Democratic candidates Mark Hamill zings Ivanka Trump for 'Star Wars' tweet MORE. And Saudi generals are increasingly dictating American military operations abroad.

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Trump’s remarks that the United States military is waiting for word from the Saudi government “under what terms we would proceed” with a military strike on Iran proved too much for some American elected officials. Representatives Justin AmashJustin AmashAmash says he's happy not feeling 'bound to a particular party' Amash on Syria: Trump's not ending anything Trump says House Democrats 'unfortunately' have the votes to impeach MORE (I-Mich.) and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Warren leads in speaking time during debate Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE (D-Hawaii) openly accused Trump of allowing foreign governments to plan American military commitments abroad. The next day, Trump sowed more confusion by backing off his earlier statement. “I haven’t promised the Saudis” a strike, Trump argued. “We have to sit down…and work something out.”

In remarks from the South Lawn on Monday, Trump unintentionally gave away the game. When asked why he seems so eager to start a regional war with Iran on behalf of distant Saudi princes, Trump was transparent: “They spent $400 billion in our country,” he said. “Saudi Arabia pays cash.”

That is the Trump doctrine in its full glory: Gone are the days when the United States focused on democracy promotion, human rights protections, sustainable labor standards or even superficial commitment to our founding principles. Under Trumpism, anyone who pays cash has access to American military might. Trump’s fixation on transactional alliances risks turning the American armed forces into a band of mercenaries divorced from our sustaining values.

Effective foreign policy requires a clear moral framework and consistent application of rules. The guiding principles of our national efforts abroad should be easily understandable even to our harshest critics. Instead, Trump has maintained a relationship with the world marked largely by its bellicosity and opportunism. That doesn’t create prosperity abroad. Nor does it protect Americans at home.

Trump’s “soldier of fortune” approach to international relations now risks further escalating tensions in the Middle East, potentially to the point of a spiraling and ruinous war enveloping Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and even Yemen and Afghanistan.

America’s military and civilian leaders owe it to the men and women who wear the uniform to uphold our highest principles. Despite what Donald Trump might think, our warriors are not for sale.

Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He regularly makes appearances on Fox News, Fox Business, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns.