Judd Gregg: Has Trump wandered into a foreign policy for this century?

Judd Gregg: Has Trump wandered into a foreign policy for this century?
© Getty Images

In the late nineteenth century, there was a famous adage that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” 

Today the claim could be adjusted to say: “The sun never sets on American troops.”

This is a legacy of the place the United States found itself in at the end of the Second World War. 

ADVERTISEMENT

We were then the only democracy capable of standing up to the threat of the Soviet Union. We carried the flame of freedom for the world. We had the ability, strength and wealth to do this.

The Soviet Union, of course, no longer exists. It was run into the ground by the determination of President Reagan, the resilience of our market economy, and the cause of liberty.

We still assume the burdens that arose out of our role as the only world power dedicated to promoting peace, democracy and freedom, however. 

It is an appropriate cause. But the process and means of its execution need to be reconsidered.

Ironically, as with some of his other basic impulses, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about plans to build Trump Tower in Moscow during 2016 campaign: report DC train system losing 0k per day during government shutdown Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees MORE has wandered into this arena and suggested potentially appropriate approaches.

Having America soldiers in every corner of the globe may no longer be the best manner of pursuing our purpose.

Trump has suggested, for example, that we withdraw totally from Afghanistan. His national security team seems to have tempered this policy.

The president’s impulses here are right.

There is no question but that in the wake of September 11, 2001, we needed to go into Afghanistan and deliver, with significant force, an important message: that we would not tolerate the Taliban allowing the country to be a sanctuary for terrorists.

But the time has come to leave. The effort at nation-building in Afghanistan, just as earlier in Iraq, has not worked well. 

There are many reasons for this. But it is a fact. We should admit it and not compound the failure by staying there.

In departing, we should leave behind a very clear message.

This message should state bluntly to whoever takes over Afghanistan that if they allow it to become a terrorist haven again, we will be back with devastating force — not to build up the country, but to destroy those who allow terrorism to fester there.

In fact, this should be the message that we send to all parts of the Middle East. Our focus should not be nation-building, but rather lethal retaliation against those leaders whose nations assist terrorist intent on harming us.

We do not need troops stationed all over the world to execute this policy. We have the technical and tactical ability to do it without such a commitment.

We should also appreciate the fact that China is not inherently an expansive military power. It wishes to have its sphere of influence, particularly in the South China Sea. It intends to have a massive military capability to make the point that it is a rising superpower. 

China should be a nation we work with at a variety of levels, recognizing that it is also our most capable competitor in many arenas, especially trade. 

This should not lead to confrontation.

China is the only power that can resolve the North Korean issue in a manner that does not involve force. Our policies should be directed at encouraging Beijing to do so for its own sake. 

We should not allow our concerns about China gaming our trade relations to dominate our relationship in a manner that diminishes the chances of solving the North Korean issue.

If China fails to act on North Korea, then we need to make it clear we will turn to Japan for help.   

This would involve encouraging Japan to change its constitution — written largely by General Douglas McArthur when he led the occupation — to allow Japan to rearm. 

It seems probable that if China needs to choose between having a rearmed Japan or a disarmed North Korea, they will choose the latter — and take action to make it happen.

There is also the major issue of how to manage the disastrous deterioration in the Middle East caused by the collapse of Syria and underwritten by Iran.

If there is a lesson from our engagement in Iraq, it is that massive use of American troops on the ground does not necessarily improve things in the region.

Our strategic interest there has been dramatically altered now that we are producing enough oil and gas domestically to take care of our needs.

The endless religious conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, the Israelis and Palestinians, and numerous other subgroups have been only marginally affected by U.S. engagement.

We should rethink our purposes there.

The need to stifle the growth of terrorists who threaten us should again be our main objective.

The score-settling by nations such as Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran is not something that requires our direct involvement.

The fear that Russia will replace us as power in the region should hardly be the motivator that sets our course. We should send Moscow our condolences and move on.

The fact remains that we are not in a position to cure the causes of these conflicts or significantly impact them.

Times have changed.

We need to change our role in the world.

We need to recognize the new reality of a competitive China and an intractable Middle East that is no longer critical to our energy supply. 

We need to understand that there are limits on our ability to draw people of very different cultures and experience into forms of government they do not accept.

Trump may be on to something when he suggests that, essentially, we should carry a big stick to enforce our rights to protect ourselves.

He may also be on to something when he essentially suggests we should stop there. 

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.