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Trump, Khan and the muddle of US foreign policy

Republican U.S. Presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign event at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania on August 1, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Eric Thayer *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUSHEE-OPED, originally transmitted on August 2, 2016.

(RNS) Donald Trump really stepped in it this weekend in his comments directed toward Khizr Khan and his wife, Ghazala, parents of slain U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in action in Iraq in 2004.

But this particular exchange was not just another example of singularly bad judgment from Mr. Trump. It also signals the disturbing muddle that is U.S. foreign policy.

The Khan family symbolizes a certain kind of America — a multicultural land open to immigrants of every nation and creed, confident that these immigrants will become deeply patriotic Americans drinking deeply of freedom and democracy, and reverent toward soldiers and their families, especially when those soldiers die in American wars.

But this is not Donald Trump’s apparent vision of America. In this way as in so many others, Trump has shattered deeply established paradigms in American politics. His rise makes it important to consider broader questions of how the U.S. relates to the wider world, 25 years after the end of the Cold War.

Since World War II, the major voices in both parties have agreed that U.S. national security is best advanced by promoting freedom, democracy and global free enterprise; fielding the most powerful military in the world; situating the U.S. at the center of a robust set of diplomatic, military and trading alliances; opening the U.S. to a broad population flow both to and from our country; and using force when necessary to advance security and humanitarian goals.

The Cold War determined the overall context, and tended to create both a broadly shared consensus and a range of permissible variations. Republicans tended to be somewhat more hawkish than Democrats, more unilateralist, more gung-ho in celebrating American virtue, more unequivocally pro-military.

Democrats tended to emphasize the use of U.S. money and power to advance global humanitarian goals. And, after Vietnam and Watergate, Democrats tended to be more suspicious of the U.S. government’s military adventures. That voice was heard in the “No More War” chants at the Democratic National Convention.

But still, since World War II, the U.S. foreign policy elites have carried forward a recognizable shared vision even as power has passed between the parties at the presidential level.

Hillary Clinton, here as in other areas, is the candidate of continuity. She sounds like a traditional centrist Democrat on foreign and military policy. If elected, she will likely continue forward with the elite consensus. The speech by retired Gen. John Allen at the Democratic Convention represented an especially fierce version of it.

If the Republicans had nominated someone like the hawkish South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, it might have been a traditional election in the foreign policy area. He would have sounded more bellicose than Clinton in some areas, and she would have had to defend her toughness and willingness to use force.

But instead the GOP nominated Trump.

His impulses are isolationist, authoritarian and nativist. He does not trust the foreign policy establishment any more than the rest of the political establishment. He sometimes sounds like the “No More War” chanters at the Democratic Convention, and other times quite aggressive.

He is less about democratic values than about authoritarian strength; less about global engagement than about hunkering down behind American borders; less about America as a participant in international flow of people and ideas and more about going it alone; less about honoring trade agreements and alliances and more about starting over with a transactional approach.

Today, after two decades of unsuccessfully attempting to impose our will in the Middle East and in the battle against radical Islamist terrorism, it is a good time for someone to challenge the once-reigning foreign policy consensus.

No one has figured out how to lance the boil of Islamist terrorism, or how to stabilize the Middle East, or how to encourage a version of global capitalism that does not despoil the weak, the poor and the environment, not to mention the American manufacturing base. And then, of course, there is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, raising questions as to whether the Cold War really ended at all.

Perhaps the remainder of this election can offer insights into a better path forward, something not quite like the consensus elite approach and certainly not like the Trumpian alternative. Having a debate about those issues would be very good for us. I wonder if we are up to it.

(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, and a columnist who writes the Christians, Conflict and Change column for RNS)

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David Gushee

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  • “Perhaps the remainder of this election can offer insights into a better path forward, something not quite like the consensus elite approach and certainly not like the Trumpian alternative.”

    To do that one must seriously consider the third party options of Stein, Johnson, and Castle.

    Otherwise you have chosen to support more foreign adventurism and warfare or a policy of hostile language and isolationism.

    “Having a debate about those issues would be very good for us. I wonder if we are up to it.”

    Probably not. I doubt one of the aforementioned third parties will get into the debates.

  • Maybe. On the other hand, Clinton does not have wide support from her party for foreign adventurism –making her wide open to a primary challenger should she head in that direction. . This is not 2003.

  • This follows the simple plot most Americans think of when they think about defense. Republicans militaristic, Democrats peace-loving. And the common presumption that the Middle East is the only story, now that the Cold War has been decided. But what about the role of the military in Honduras or the Philippines under President Obama? U.S. military aid to the Philippines increased from $12 million in 2011 to $50 million in 2014. Here is a recent report about US involvement there, related to concerns about China. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-philippines-carter-idUSKCN0XB0QY. Why is the US military in Honduras, if it isn’t about islamic terrorism or the Cold War? What are our interests there, and what would be the difference between a Republican or a Democratic policy about these two places?

  • We have been destabilizing the middle East for far more than two decades. We are directly responsible for the Islamic “terrorism” affecting us and our allies. Isolation is not the solution. Middle East experts around the world have been telling us that the way to Declaw Daesh is to reach out to the people being affected. To embrace the Muslim citizens and help bring them and their culture into American culture. Drone strikes that kill civilians only drive up recruitment. Alienating families who sacrifices children drive up recruitment. But religion needs a fundamental boogeyman to thrive. And the best way to maintain their boogeyman history has to altered to forget our complicity.
    TLDR: We are directly responsible for the the damage being done to us from the Middle East.

  • “No one has figured out how to lance the boil of Islamist terrorism, or how to stabilize the Middle East, or how to encourage a version of global capitalism that does not despoil the weak, the poor, and the environment, not to mention the American manufacturing base.” I hate to sound fatalist, but I would add, “Nor will we.”

  • If a Neo-Nazi died in Iraq, defending the US, I would still support a ban on Neo-Nazis coming to the country; even if many of them were “moderate” Jew haters.

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